I am more of a novel reader, and only occasionally venture to read a collection of short stories, and usually only for a beloved writer. Margaret Atwood obviously qualifies, being my all time favorite writer, so I read her latest offering, Stone Mattress. Atwood’s writing very rarely displeases me (OK, I hated The Robber Bride but that is an exception) and that collection hit the mark in part because of its main theme, aging and its myriad indignities. Seven of the short stories highlight different aspects of the experience of aging, sometimes with a great deal of humor, if not outright fantasy. It’s bound to generate a few chuckles but also offers a great deal of food for thought: What place do we reserve for our elders in modern western society? What support is available to aging adults? How do families cope with the impact of aging on their elderly members? How do aging people think about and deal with their predicaments?
Here are some quick notes about what Atwood has to say on this topic in each of the 9 tales, as she calls them, which composed this collection.
- Alphinland: Constance, an elderly writer known for creating a fantasy world called Alphinland, battles loneliness and the elements with the elusive presence of her departed husband Ewan. Her expedition to the convenience store to get some salt for the front steps reveals her mobility limitations. She reminisces about her youth and a former lover called Gavin who was a poet.
- Revenant: We meet the elderly Gavin and his wife Reynolds. Reynolds has arranged an interview with a graduate student who wants to know about a certain period of Gavin’s life. To his great dismay, she really wants to know about this period because of his cohabitation with Constance in the 60s. He considers her work to be garbage and seems to resent that she has achieve a greater recognition than he has. As Gavin grows older, he is increasingly grumpy, resentful, and dissatisfied. He also feels bad that he cannot now give a better life to his much younger wife.
This isn’t what she signed up for when she married him. She most likely envisioned a fascinating life, filled with glamorous, creative people and stimulating intellectual chit-chat. And that did happen some, when they were first married; that, and the flare-up of his still active hormones. The last kaboom of the firecracker before it fizzled; but now she is stuck with the burnt-out aftermath. In his more lenient moments, he feels sorry for her.
- Dark Lady: Here we meet Marjorie, the elderly and cranky version of the lover that snatched Gavin from Constance. She drags her twin brother Tin (Martin) to Gavin’s funeral. After much discussion of what to wear, Marjorie looks sedate enough for Tin’s taste. Disaster strikes when she goes to the washroom and fixes her makeup.
She’s gone to town with the sparkly metallic bronzer, and on top of that she’s applied something else: a coating of large, glittering, golden flakes. She looks a like a sequined leather handbag. She must have smuggled these supplies in her purse; payback for his redaction of the shocking-pink Chanel. Of course she hasn’t been able to take in the full effect of her applications in the washroom mirror: she wouldn’t have been wearing her reading glasses.
The young graduate student is there to pay tribute to Gavin. She cannot believe her luck upon meeting both Constance and Marjorie.
Young Naveena can scarcely believe her luck. Her mouth’s half open, she’s biting the tips of her fingers, she’s holding her breath. She’s embedding us in amber, thinks Tin. Like ancient insects. Preserving us forever. In amber beads, in amber words. Right before our eyes.
- Lusus Naturae: The shortest tale in the book. Talks about a child who develops an illness that turns her into a hairy monster. Seemingly not connected to aging but… if one considers that the physical transformation described parallels physical aging, it does bring up the following question: Do the physical changes of aging change how we perceive the person? Do we value the transformed person less because of those changes? To what extent would be prefer to hide the changes, or even get rid of the now unsavory being?
What could be done with me, what should be done with me? These were the same question. The possibilities were limited. The family discussed them all, lugubriously, endlessly, as they sat around the kitchen table at night, with the shutters closed, eating their dry, whiskery sausages and their potato soup. If I was in one of my lucid phases I would sit with them, entering into the conversation as best I could while searching out the chunks of potato in my bowl. If not, I’d be off in the darkest corner, mewing to myself and listening to the twittering voices nobody else could hear.
It does sound like conversation about what to do with grandma… It does remind me of Fiona discussing her worsening dementia with her husband Grant in “Away from Her”, a short story by Alice Munro (that was turned into a wonderful movie by Sarah Polley).
- The Freeze-Dried Groom: An ambiguous end to a story about divorce furniture dealer who like to live on the edge. The groom was not supposed to die. It’s just that he liked rough sex involving strangulation. Still looking for a link with the rest…
- I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth: Atwood revisits the characters from The Robber Bride (oh no!), only they are now elderly and not necessarily wiser than when the evil Zenia stole their boyfriends way back when.
- The Dead Hand Loves You: Jack is broke and cannot pay his share of the rent. His roommates dare him to finish the gothic novel he is writing to make some money and pay his back rent. They draw up a contact that says they will each get a quarter of the royalties, which they do, for life, given the story is very successful and is turned into an also successful movie. Jack is fed up with this state of affairs which he considers unfair and hatches a plan to murder each of his former roommates. Rod is dying from pancreatic cancer, so he does not go through with the plan. Jaffrey’s divorce settlement from Irena gave her his share of the royalties, so there is no use killing him. As for Irena, she reveals she was always in love with him and the contract had been a way to stay in touch all these years. He decides to give her a chance.
There. He’s taken the plunge, but the plunge into what? Jack, be nimble, he tells himself. Avoid traps. She may be too much for you, not to mention crazy. Don’t make mistakes. But how much time does he have left in his life to worry about mistakes?
- Stone Mattress: An elderly woman goes on an Arctic cruise. She runs into a man who raped her when she was a teenager. She decides to murder him, hatches a plot and successfully carried it out during an on-shore excursion.
Here comes Bob as if on cue, lumbering slowly as a zombie up the hill towards her. He’s taken off his outer jacket, tucked it under his backpack straps. He’s out of breath. She has a moment of compunction: he’s over the hill; frailty is gaining on him. Shouldn’t she let bygones be bygones? Boys will be boys. Aren’t they all just hormones puppets at that age? Why should any human being be judged y something that was done in another time, so long ago it might be centuries?
But no, she does go ahead.
- Torching the Dusties: A nursing home is besieged by a throng that is calling for doing away with all elderly people, as they are parasites of modern society. Wilma, who suffers from macular degeneration (and sees pretty funny things, believe me), depends on her friend Tobias to help her out so she preserves a modicum of independence. Every night Tobias walks her back from the dining room after dinner.
Outside her apartment they exchange their standard peck on the cheek, and Wilma listens while he limps away down the hall. Is this regret she’s feeling? Is this a fluttering of ancient warmth? Does she really want him to enfold her in his stringy arms, make his way in towards her skin through the Velcro and zippers, attempt some ghostly, creaky, arthropod-like reprise of an act he must have committed effortlessly hundred, indeed thousands of times in the past? No.
On the question of the place of the elderly in society, I keep remembering the Quietus in Children of Men by P.D. James, which were essentially mass suicides for the elderly… Another dystopian take on what to do with the old.
And on the “creaky reprise”, I remember a description by Benoîte Groulx, the French author, of the difficulties of getting in and out of her sailboat at 70 or 80, I am not sure I remember the age, but none of it was very graceful. But she felt alive doing it, and that’s what matters.
I thought that Gabriel García Márquez proposed a more positive view of aging and love in old age in Love in the Time of Cholera though. Arnold Weinstein, a professor of comparative literature at Brown University, reflects on “keeping the heart alive” throughout life in Morning, Noon & Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books:
Cardiologists play their little role in the life of the aging, for we know that the heart is a muscle and blood-supply system increasingly subject to wear and tear. Is this not the case morally and psychologically as well? Can the old maintain their emotional vibrancy and élan right to the end? In some sense, all the prior discussions of growing old revolve around these basic questions, whether we emphasize the sexual, the somatic, or the spiritual side of things. Perhaps the most frightening fate that could await us is to die while still living, to cease to feel or to care about the lives around us.
Atwood shows us some people who do seem to have slipped into this dead-alive mode, but other do frantically fight against that slippery slope with all their might.
Of course, I don’t want to give it all away, there are layers and layers to peel away as you read… Atwood can be quite relentless in her unsentimental take on old age, but none of it is really overly exaggerated. There is so much we don’t see until it stares us in the face.
Atwood, Margaret. Stone Mattress. McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, 2014.
Atwood, Margaret. The Robber Bride. McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, 1993.
Munro, Alice. Away From Her. Penguin Canada: Toronto, 2007. (Movie tie-in edition, originally published in 2001 as Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage)
James, P.D. Children of Men. 1992.
García Márquez, Gabriel. El amor en el tiempo del cholera. Penguin Books: New York, 1985.
Weinstein, Arnold. Morning, Noon & Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books. Random House: New York, 2011.
And other things:
Ursula K. Le Guin’s review: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/fe6f7aa4-3822-11e4-a687-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3G0DaouAh