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In the last century, a good many people were taught that serious poets wrote only poetry, never fiction. No Goethes for the purists. At the same time, modernist critics of fiction decreed that writing imaginative literature disqualified you as a serious novelist. No Mary Shelleys for the realists. Professors and prize-givers preferred purity. So maverick writers whose talent led them to wander cross-country kept running into barbed-wire fences.
Young Margaret Atwood leapt them handily, winning the Canadian Governor General’s Award early on for both her poetry and fiction. But she took on a high fence with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), a brilliant example, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) or George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), of the near-future-social-satirical-cautionary mode of science fiction. Huxley and Orwell had no problem, but by the mid-1980s the day after tomorrow had been exiled from the precincts of literature. Any publisher with their eyes on the prizes was terrified of the label SF. A mistress of deft evasion, Atwood evaded it but at some cost then and since, while her flexible, adaptable, fiercely intelligent and highly wilful talent kept roaming farther from conventional realism. These days, with the full range of literature reopened to fiction, she can play freely with genre, and it’s as interesting as ever to see where she goes.
In Stone Mattress, her ninth volume of short stories, she’s having a high old time dancing over the dark swamps of Horror on the wings of satirical wit. She’s out for the shocked laugh, and gets it, but with elegance. Her scenes and caricatures, as accurate and vivid as those of Hogarth, are almost entirely of old age. The tales run to a general pattern: people who knew one another intimately in their twenties are brought back together in their seventies to live out the variously absurd, fantastic or dreadful aftermaths of youthful sex, illusion and crime.
The first three tales are connected by the narrative device that allows participants in an event to recount it from widely differing, sometimes irreconcilable viewpoints. Henry James did it with characteristic subtlety in The Turn of the Screw (1898); Kurosawa did it so well in film that it’s often called the Rashomon effect. Fascinating in itself, it is well suited to a modern take on the fantastic or supernatural, since all the evidence is word-of-mouth and the author never has to commit to a belief in any of it. That’s important to this author; but I think she enjoyed writing her triple ghost story, with its scathing caricatures, its well-deserved punishments and its fairytale happy ending, as much as we enjoy reading it.
Atwood has never indulged in gross cruelty to the extent many of her contemporaries do. She shuns predictability, and writes with a light hand and a dry wit. Still, these tales dwell at length not only on the feeble artifices old people may use to disguise physical decay and their fear of death, but also on their murderous fantasies. These dotards are dangerous. The common source of their bloody imaginings and actions is sexual anger, hardly a laughing matter, but Atwood maintains her light tone, and the violence won’t trouble readers inured to such self-indulgence in sexual rage as found in the Stieg Larsson mysteries.
In the very entertaining title story, the protagonist has a sudden vulture’s eye view of herself: “an old woman – because, face it, she is an old woman now – on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.”
Satire often walks a knife edge between controlled and uncontrolled anger, between selective and total attack, and the fiercer the indignation behind the satire, the higher the risk of its serving only to destroy. Like Swift, Atwood runs the risk of leaving nothing standing in the wake of her cleansing fire. To my mind the last tale, “Torching the Dusties”, fails as comedy or as cautionary satire, offering no alternative to mindless terror, violence and despair. “Fun is not knowing how it will end,” a character in an earlier story thinks in a moment of insight, and I thought perhaps he was speaking for Atwood. But in this final story, the fun consists of telling us this is how it will end – don’t kid yourself, cruel Nature’s out to off you, and she will. Courage and the friendship, generosity and tenderness briefly praised in earlier passages are worthless. Mortality makes life meaningless.
Atwood calls these fictions tales, a word that, as she says, removes a story “from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale”. Fiction that reduces life to the paltry and the vicious is often humourless. But many folk tales laugh at both bloodshed and petty cruelties, and the grotesque, the dreadful and the banal are always getting mixed together in comedy and satire.
Look at these tales, then, as eight icily refreshing arsenic Popsicles followed by a baked Alaska laced with anthrax, all served with impeccable style and aplomb. Enjoy!
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, by Margaret Atwood, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99/Nan Talese, RRP$25.95, 288 pages
Ursula K Le Guin is author of ‘The Unreal and the Real’ (Gollancz)
Illustration by Toby Whitebread