Decay makes us vulnerable, and it has a noxious perfume.
That’s one takeaway from Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress,” her first collection of short fiction in eight years.
Its nine tales focus largely on narrators in the throes of old age or illness.
That Atwood refers to them as “tales,” not stories, gives them the air of modern myths, and the events, while plausible, often seem slightly oversized or skewed.
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That tension between the chimerical and real is perhaps most conspicuous in “Lusus Naturae,” in which a young woman succumbs to a genetic disorder that makes her appear monstrous to the town. Though her parents fake her death and secret her away for safety, the narrator senses that they’ll lend their pitchforks to the mob before long.
“There’s only so long you can feel sorry for a person,” Atwood writes, “before you come to feel that their affliction is an act of malice committed by them against you.”
“Torch the Dusties” extends that thesis to aging, chronicling a worldwide movement of young protesters who burn down assisted living facilities, pruning withered vines to make room for healthy growth. “Our Turn,” their signs declare. Or: “Move Over.”
The elderly residents of Ambrosia Manor watch helpless as protesters gather at their gates, knowing it’s only a matter of time before the flames come for them.
Crucially, the narrator of “Dusties,” Wilma, is nearly blind. What little vision remains is burdened by visual hallucinations, the result of Charles Bonnet syndrome. She relies on her companion, Tobias, to serve as her eyes and convey the growing danger.
Wilma, however, sees the stakes most clearly, her voice blooming through prose as refined and mature as the facility’s residents:
“You believed you could transcend the body as you aged,” writes Atwood, who will soon be 75 herself. “You believed you could rise above it, to a serene, non-physical realm. But it’s only through ecstasy you can do that, and ecstasy is achieved through the body itself. Without the bone and sinew of wings, no flight.”
In true Atwood fashion, however, the tales also are frequently funny. The third-person voice in “The Dark Lady” conveys the closeness of first-person in impish jokes and asides. For the story’s subjects, twins Jorrie and Tin, aging has yielded a caustic freedom in which little remains serious or sacred.
Even Jorrie’s sexual assault earns little more than a shrug: “She was downright sullen on the subject of rape in the early ’70s when so many women were going on the rampage,” her brother reflects, “but she seems to have got over that by now. Molesting isn’t everything, in Tin’s view.”
Atwood’s tales aren’t always easy on their readers, and her openings, in particular, demand patience. “Dark Lady” drifts through several verb tenses on the first page as the author winds her way toward a present moment. Another tale, “I Dream of Zenia With the Bright Red Teeth,” clusters multiple names in the opening lines without introduction, a tall order for those who don’t recognize the characters from her novel “The Robber Bride.”
Her openings are strongest at their most perfunctory, when they seem to pick up as if in the middle of a conversation. “The next thing is that his car won’t start,” begins “The Freeze-Dried Groom,” careening us without fanfare into one of the collection’s most memorable tales. It follows Sam, an antiques dealer and small-time drug trafficker, as he stumbles upon a corpse in a storage unit he bought at auction.
“Stone Mattress” starts with a similar promise of violence: “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” She does kill, of course.
Verna is a genteel Gray Widow, seducing well-to-do older men in poor health and gently nudging them toward a timelier death. On this Arctic singles excursion, however, she takes a more agentive role: A man she encounters on the cruise is the same man who, in her high school days, sexually abused and humiliated her.
That the murder weapon is an Arctic stromatolite — from the Greek stroma, mattress, and the root word for stone — lends a classical feel to the tale, a poetic justice that underpins why Atwood’s distinction between “tales” and “stories” matters.
Her monstrous embellishments capture a folklorish spirit, but as larger-than-life as these characters and events may seem, we can still imagine them playing out in our own world. We might not yet be burning retirement villages to the ground, but we’re certainly debating longer lifespans in economic terms.
Atwood’s tales seem to serve, then, as a sort of mythic forecast, a world-weary Oracle charting a logical, albeit brutal, course ahead. In the process, well-worn narratives of aging (Wisdom! Grace! Raisin cookies!) begin to unravel around us.
Decay can be wicked, old age unrefined. It’s like anything else, Verna suggests. “It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.”
Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood (288 pages; Doubleday; $25.95)