Margaret Atwood: “Stone Mattress”

12/15/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 19 & 26, 2011.

I always find Atwood to be at her best when she’s writing speculative fiction (the literary term for science-fiction), for without that extra twist of something obviously invented, it can be hard to see how excellent and clever Atwood is, thorough and clear as she is. That’s what ails this final piece of the year, which only seems obvious because Atwood is so straightforward and deliberate in her immaculate prose. This is what a professional reads like; there’s not a single off-note, but at the same time, there’s nothing overly exciting or surprising. “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone,” begins the piece, and we spend the next few columns understanding her past crimes — she’s a black widow, driving her older husbands to an earlier, albeit natural death, for their inheritances (which she fairly divides with any other heirs) — before meeting her latest target, Bob Goreham, aboard a Magnetic Northward cruise/tour of the Arctic. Verna’s mind is made up, however, once she realizes that this is the same Bob who got her drunk back all those many years ago at the Snow Queen’s Palace winter formal and then raped her: “Pretty Verna, three years younger; studious, grade-skipping, innocent Verna, tolerated but not included, clawing her way toward a scholarship as her ticket out of town. Gullible Verna, who’d believed she was in love. Or who was in love. When it came to love, wasn’t believing the same as the real thing?”

Atwood’s always been interested in the cause-and-effect, and because it’s a short story, she hastily — but smoothly — maps it all out for us: her religious mother’s exiling of her to the church-run Home for Unwed Mothers, the difficult labor, the setting off on her own, and finally “It was only by great good luck that she stumbled upon an older married man who took an interest in her. She traded three years of noontime sex with him for her education.” This is an exceedingly smart girl who, despite massive setbacks, managed on her own to become a successful physiotherapist and much desired wife, and now she can finally take revenge on the panty-girdle-stealing man who basically turned her into the cold murderer she is today.

As I stated before, this isn’t a particularly deep story, and the plot’s fairly standard; I wouldn’t be surprised to find that, say, Joyce Carol Oates had written much the same story. The flashbacks are handled in what you might call textbook fashion, and the details are slotted in with studious panache. Verna must find a way to kill and dispose of Bob without anyone noticing, and so she listens extra closely to the lecture given by the tour guides regarding safety policies, which Atwood provides to us more or less in full. It’s, in her words, a “discouragingly capable” talk, which could be used to describe this story, too, which seems too well written to merely be about the planning and execution of one’s revenge. (Then again, the television show Revenge makes for some campy entertainment, as there’s nothing wrong with light fiction like this: at least the writing is stronger, and Verna’s better mapped out, than your average beach read.) In any case, whether it’s cleverly been done or not, Atwood succeeds in setting the Arctic scene, doubling down on some foreshadowing while she’s at it: “There’s a classic iceberg on the port side, with a center so blue it looks dyed, and ahead of them is a mirage–a fata morgana, towering like an ice castle on the horizon, completely real except for the faint shimmering at its edges.” It’s too perfect, perhaps: the glacier’s color echoing those of Verna’s first pair of high heels (the ones she was raped in), the setting not so different from that winter palace, the title’s “stromatolite” translation leading to an event that is both hard and soft, good and bad.

It’s not fair to Atwood to call her less subtle than Alice Munro, and “Stone Mattress” does a fine job of capturing the fluttering second thoughts in Verna’s mind. (“Shouldn’t she let bygones be bygones? Boys will be boys. Aren’t they all just hormone puppets at that age?”) But it does seem as if the writing’s so pleased with itself that it dares not risk being subtle; it presents interesting factoids about the Arctic landscape and then literally asks the reader “Isn’t that astonishing?” Atwood’s smart enough not to hurt her own momentum; she still finds ways to intermix (instead of interrupt) the action with beautiful descriptions: “Still others have been ground, so that all that’s left of them is a series of raised concentric oblongs, like a cinnamon bun or the growth rings on a tree. And here’s one shattered into four, like a Dutch cheese sliced into wedges.” She’s even got a built-in qualifier for her choices:

A raven flies overhead, circles around. Can it tell? is it waiting? she looks down through its eyes, sees an old woman–because, face it, she is an old woman now–on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.

For me, that’s what ultimately sells the story — which again, doesn’t have a bad moment in it. Life is paltry, and it is vicious, but most of all, it is normal, and given all of our expectations, especially to the hardened reader, it literally cannot always surprise us. Giving in at last, then, I admit to enjoying everything here, but here’s to a more ambitious 2012.

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