"Stone Mattress" by Margaret Atwood Originally published in the December 19 & 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
I used to like Margaret Atwood, but I’ve done an about-face over the past decade. Possibly the most negative review on this blog is my review of The Year of the Flood (click here for my review). And I don’t fully believe this is due to her focus on “speculative fiction” — I just don’t think she’s as good a writer as she once was. Adding to that is the self-orchestrated fanfare that comes with her releases, and I’ve been really turned off.
I found it hard to approach this story, consequently — and unfortunately. I was interested in what was coming as the story progressed, but I haven’t revised my opinion of Atwood. From her “The Bookbench” interview (see it here), the story comes from a bit of indulgence: Atwood was on an Arctic cruise with some friends, and they began wondering if you could get away with murder on such a trip. Atwood supplied the tale. Here’s how it begins:
At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.
Verna convinces herself that she was only looking for a peaceful vacation in the Arctic. She’s getting older now (she’s had at least four husbands), but she knows she still has some sex appeal — particularly if she’s in a sweater rather than a bathing suit. At the beginning of the trip, the passengers hold a mix-‘n-mingle. Of course, there are several Bobs in the group, but one in particular stuns Verna:
Now she says, “And you’re . . . Bob.” It’s taken her years to perfect the small breathy intake, a certified knee-melter.
“Yes,” Bob says. “Bob Goreham,” he adds, with a diffidence he surely intends to be charming. Verna smiles widely to disguise her shock. She finds herself flushing with a combination of rage and an almost reckless mirth. She looks him full in the face: yes, underneath the thinning hair and the wrinkles and the obviously whitened and possibly implanted teeth, it’s the same Bob — the Bob of fifty-odd years before. Mr. Heartthrob, Mr. Senior Football Star, Mr. Astounding Catch, from the rich, Cadillac-driving end of town where the mining-company big shots lived. Mr. Shit, with his looming bully’s posture and his lopsided joker’s smile.
We quickly learn that Verna experienced a tragedy at the hands of Bob Goreham when they were both in their teens. The narrative moves forward in a bit of a haze as Verna’s past comes back to haunt her while she considers the providence of her current situation. She’s not sure if she will kill Bob or not, but, we find out soon, her hand in death would not be something new.
I liked a things in the story. For one, Atwood does a good job having the narrative influenced by Verna’s troubled mind. Her prose moves in a haze when Verna’s past comes back in a nauseating wave; the prose is direct when Verna is determined. But I continued to feel that Atwood can write fluid prose — that doesn’t make one a great writer. I’m not sure there is much more happening here. Did my feelings toward Atwood blind me to some of the real substantive qualities of this short pieces?