Disclaimer: Digital ARC read via Netgalley. (And I shouted in glee when I read the email).
The technique of a short story is at times over looked by readers at large. Not all novelists can be short story writers, for the short work requires something that goes for the jugular. Tanith Lee, for instance, writes better short stories than novels. Willkie Collins’ longer works are better than his shorter ones. Doyle is rightly remembered more for Sherlock Holmes stories than his novels, which are at best not quite forgettable.
Atwood is a writer who can write both novels and short stories very well. Perhaps her short fiction draws more blood, has a slight more biting tone to it than the introspective and far ranging novels. Stone Mattress is a collection of nine of these stories. Of the nine, only three have appeared in print prior to publication (one, “Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth”, is available by itself as an eBook).
If the collection has a theme, it is the power of the story (something that Atwood alludes to her afterword). The first three stories are interconnected and make up, loosely, a trilogy. They are very much like Isak Dinesen’s Sculptor short stories, the sequence that starts with “The Cloak”. Atwood’s stories – “Alphinland,” “Revenant,” and “Dark Lady” – deal with the lives of aging Beats in the form of a fantasy fiction writer, a poet, and a muse. The trilogy, which can be read out of sequence, deals with creation and death as well as with bohemian life styles and aging. The changing perspective allows for the idea of personal view versus reality. Something that one character tries to undercover, but which can never truly be discovered or revealed. There is poetry, in particular, with the opening story, “Alphinland,” and its description of a Toronto overcome by snow. The description of Constance’s walk to the store makes something magical out of the mundane as well as bringing winter back into the middle of summer.
The trilogy is followed by “Lusus Naturae” – one of the stories that have been previously published. “Lusus” is an inverted and disturbing, if perhaps more realistic, Beauty and the Beast themed story. The first four stories are worth the price of the book itself.
This isn’t to say that the rest of the stories are bad. They aren’t, though two – “The Dead Hand Loves You” and “Torching the Dusties” – are not as good as the rest. “The Freeze Dried Groom” will ensure that you never look at reality television the same way again, and “Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth” is a wonderful and fitting follow up to The Robber Bridegroom.
The best on in the collection is “Stone Mattress” which was originally published in the New Yorker and seems to have been quasi collaboration with Graeme Gibson – and quite frankly is wonderfully and beautifully nasty. They need to work together this way more often.
This collection is well worth the cost and worth the read. If you are enjoying Atwood’s Maddaddam work and are considering her other, non-science fiction or speculative fiction work, this is a good place to start.