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Margaret Atwood: “Stone Mattress”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” was originally published in the December 19 & 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

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?

9 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood: “Stone Mattress””

  1. Aaron says:

    You and I had similar responses to this one (http://bit.ly/rx8mau), but no, while I think there are *real* qualities to being able to write as clearly and effectively as Atwood (and I enjoy her speculative fiction far more than you, since it forces her to be inventive outside of her prose), I don’t think there are any substantially *deep* qualities to this piece, which is what you seem to be looking for.

    It’s better than a writing exercise that imagines how you’d get away with murder (was Joyce Carol Oates teaching the class?), because Verna genuinely develops and there’s a wealth of details about the cruise that never seem invasive or momentum-breaking. But it doesn’t leave you wondering about the effect this will have on Verna, let alone anyone else, and my one complaint about the story is that the final paragraph allows you to read it as a mere fantasy of a still-broken Verna’s: i.e., her memory is not what it was, so maybe she’s fantasizing a little. (“If, that is, she pulls it off.”)

    But as I noted on my blog, I’m won over by Atwood’s qualifier on life: “It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal.” Maybe a story that describes just those things, then, without going any deeper or making things more convoluted, is enough for today, then. I couldn’t stop reading, at the least; I had to know what came next. And I couldn’t find a single line that I didn’t like. Then again, your point that fluid prose doesn’t make one a great writer is well-taken: where’s the big idea?

  2. Roger says:

    This story reads like a gag: talented writer dashes off a cliche of a revenge tale that pivots on an implausible coincidence (the same evil Bob we’ve read about in flashbacks is here on Verna’s cruise!), sends it off to the New Yorker, and waits to see if they’ll publish it. And they do. If any of us read this in a workshop, we’d nod at how much the potential the beginning writer displays. Such smooth, flawless sentences — if she cultivates her talent and otherwise matures, she might go somewhere….

  3. Trevor says:

    I agree completely, Roger. I normally wouldn’t respond so negatively, but she does her part to set herself up as a visionary. Possibly not with this piece, but there’s more than a sense of indulgence here as well.

  4. jerry says:

    Well it isn’t *literary fiction* and I am tempted to shout Thank God! on that LOL but it was an enjoyable story. I certainly think Atwood has done better work but it was fun to read just the same.

    My purely subjective choice for best story in TNY this year…Axis by Alice Munro..runners up; Paranoia, Said Sayrafiezaden; The Trusty, Ron Rash; What Have You Done, Ben Marcus; House on Sand Creek, Thomas McGuane

  5. Trevor says:

    An excellent list, jerry. I haven’t reviewed the year in fiction yet, but I’ll have a post on my favorites in the next couple of weeks.

  6. Shelley says:

    As a writer, my first response to your objection to “self-orchestrated fanfare” (nice phrase) was to agree.

    But on second thought, everything I read today says that the publication situation, for survival, demands of a writer that same self-orchestrated fanfare.

  7. Trevor says:

    But on second thought, everything I read today says that the publication situation, for survival, demands of a writer that same self-orchestrated fanfare.

    That’s true for some, of course. But I’m talking about something very different here. For one thing, Atwood surely doesn’t need to self-promote to survive. She doesn’t even need to publish any more books since her back catalog is still going strong. But even if she did, getting out there and spreading the word, publicizing your work, is one thing; setting yourself up as a sage, pretending your work is something that it is not, self-glorification, is another.

  8. Jerri says:

    Trevor – I loved this story. Had only read The Blind Assassin by Atwood, but it stunned me because I realized after I’d read it how much I’d missed. Based on that, I suspected that there was a lot more going on in “Stone Mattress” than my first read suggested. I did a close read today, & was startled at some of the things I found. Both the Blind Assassin and “Stone Mattress” are like ogres: to quote Shrek, they have layers. Wrote up 5 things I liked about “Stone Mattress” on my own blog – pop on over if you care to have a look.

    Hope you’re out from under the weather by now!

    Best regards,
    Jerri

  9. Ken says:

    I think the way to approach and judge this is as genre fiction. It is an entertaining mystery story and the reading of it is almost solely motivated by wanting to know what will happen. Her character is only as deep as is necessary. As genre fiction, I found this entertaining and suspenseful. I don’t think the sort of nuance you’ll find in the last story I read-Nathan Englander’s-is even remotely attempted here. The writing is brisk, efficient and as a feminist revenge tale this is fun. I was reminded of Patricia Highsmith at points-we root for someone we shouldn’t be rooting for. Since I’ve never read Atwood before nor read her, as claimed above, self-promoting grandiose interviews I can solely judge this as a fun read and not much more.

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