Atwood is an incredible writer and story teller and there’s really not much more that needs to be said, so when I saw her newest collection of short stories I knew I had to request it! I received a copy from the publisher, in return for my honest opinion:
That would be a little cruel, to leave it just at that even though it would still describe it perfectly. Below, you’ll find a one-to-two sentence review of each of the nine tales and a single quote from each.
On a different note, if you haven’t heard Margaret Atwood is the first author of the future library! This is a project where authors are asked to write a work and it won’t be read for 100 years. This makes me both incredibly happy, as she writes such fantastic speculative/near future fiction, but also sad that I won’t be able to read it! It’s a fascinating project and I could go into it in detail, but really you should just read about it at The Guardian.
If there was an over aching theme, to me, it was love and aging. Atwood covered so many types of love, including super creepy, and so many situations of people growing older, sometimes gracefully and sometimes not. She’s clearly kept her speculative edge and her stark fiction along with her acerbic wit and these stories are dripping with it!
By far my favorite, this is the tale of Constance and how she deals with death and change. She’s created an entire universe, Alphinland, and a large portion of her life is spent in Alphinland. I wasn’t sure if this is a warning of the perils of writing fiction, but it’s one of the greatest fears I have if I ever discovered a story in me.
“It’s a lifelong failing: she’s never been prepared. But how can you have a sense of wonder if you’re prepared for everything? Prepared for the sunset. Prepared for the moonrise. Prepared for the ice storm. What a flat existence that would be.”
Connected to Alphinland, in that this story is about Gavin, Constance’s first love. I felt this story was more about loss, aging and self importance. Gavin became a successful poet, but his success and fame (infamy?) does not near Constance’s in any way. It felt like a very “just” story, in that Gavin seemed to receive his comeuppance.
“Constance did not have a bun. She didn’t need one. She more or less was a bun: neat and contained, and then so tumultuous when unleashed. His first live-in, Eve to his Adam. Nothing could ever replace that.”
The Dark Lady
The final story of the trilogy of shot-stories involving Constance. Gavin wrote poems about two women, Constance and Marjorie. This is Marjorie’s tale. It’s a look at young and unrequited love through brilliantly written characters. I also loved how Atwood gave these twin characters specific personalities by having them go by the last half of their names, Tin and Jorrie, instead of the first half or full portion of their names, Marvin and Marjorie.
“When the subject of his previous night’s adventures would come up in the chilly, no frilly, naked willie boys’ locker room, he would smile enigmatically, and the others would grin and nudge one another and wallop him on the arm in a brotherly fashion.”
After reading the first three and realizing their connection, I spent a bit too long trying to figure out how this one tied in to those. It didn’t, but it was the first of Atwood’s darker fantastical stories involving a “curse” and a “creature.” The quote above really, sums up the story quite succinctly.
“What can I say to them, how can I explain myself? When demons are required someone will always be found to supply he part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end.”
The Freeze Dried Groom
By far, the creepiest of the stories that didn’t go anywhere near where I thought it would go (guess I didn’t read the title), and wasn’t from the perspective I would’ve guessed from the title. The main character ends up with someone who answers(?) all of his wildest/sickest fantasies.
“‘Right, right,’ says Ned. He has so many tattoos up his forearm he looks upholstered. He never says much, having done time and concluded, rightly, that a zipped lip attracts no stilettos. he likes this job and is grateful for it, which is good for Sam because he won’t jeopardize it by asking questions. On the other hand, he stores incoming information like a data miner and disgorges it accurately when required.”
I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth
Not as dark as the last or as excellent as the first three, this one is similar to Lusus Naturae, in its supernatural nature. But where LN was more of a “horror” (not really, but that’s the easiest word), this contained a string of dark humor. Seriously, one of the character refers to dog poop as “Gifts to the Earth,” and also believes that her dog is a reincarnated friend who protects her from a horrible ex (that the friend stole).
“Why are the three of them indulging in these adolescent pursuits? Is it some kind of grisly substitute for diminishing sex? They seem to have thrown away all the maturity and experience and wisdom they’ve collected like Air Miles over the middle years; just tossed them out, in favor of irresponsible buttery and salty muting and cheesy, adrenaline-soaked time wasting.”
The Dead Hand Loves You
Atwood seemed to combine all of the above elements into this one story and it worked great! If she turned this into a novella or novel, I would hope she followed The Blind Assassin and write an entire novel within a novel, while maintaining a current and past storyline! If anything, this story touches on young and true love, with a hint of caution at young impetuousness.
“She wasn’t his first love – that had been Linda, a pigtailed brunette in second grade – but she was his first sex. Like it or not, Irena had been a milestone. So whatever else, she exists in a mental grotto consecrated to her alone: Saint Irene of the Holy Orgasm.”
Another story that I had no idea where it would go and WOW! I love how Atwood takes something she’s discovered in the world and writes a story about it. Similar to how she wrote about bees in The Year of the Flood, Atwood took stone mattress from a scientific term for a really old fossilized creature and wove an intriguing story about high school acquaintances and their meeting again. You can read Stone Mattress, the short story from when it appeared in the New York in 2011.
“At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple.”
Torching the Dusties
The only work that reminded me of another author’s, José Saramago’s Blindness, work, but with her own twisted spin. Similar to the entire Oryx and Crake trilogy and The Handmaid’s Tale, this is one of those speculative fiction stories that sends chills down your spine because it is not far fetched and readers can easily follow Atwood’s thought process and see how this is one of many options in the near future. This was definitely a powerful closer to this collection.
“Appearances should be preserved when it comes to wives, several of whom have been undergone by Tobias. They were cheaters every one, though he doesn’t hold it against them any more because it would be hard to respect a woman who wasn’t desired by other men. He never let the wives know he knew, and he always enticed them back and made sure they were worshipping him again before icing them a sudden boot out the door, with no explanation, because why lower himself by accusing them? A firmly closed door was more dignified. That was the way to deal with wives.”
Recommendation: As if I needed to include a recommendation for this one. Obviously EVERYONE should read Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. It’s an excellent introduction to Atwood and shows off many of her best qualities! I also thoroughly enjoyed Atwood’s switching from male to female protagonists in the various stories, she’s written novels in both, but seeing this in one collection with such a diverse cast of characters truly was a treat.