Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is not only marvellously well written but it is also very funny. Hard to put the book down. Old age is the context, accurately evoked for those personally aware of it, and undoubtedly rather incredible for those who aren’t. Which brings into play the relationship between the factual and the perceived, and how the latter is often more real, and more compelling, than the former; that is, that the factual is not always, in fact seldom, the actual.
The first three tales are intricately, and often unexpectedly, interlinked. The last six are situations and escapades that tell of unexpected demise—allegorical, grotesque, somnambulant, imagined, planned, and contemplated.
“Alphinland,” the opening tale, is a pure marvel of hexed ashes. “Dark Lady,” which closes the opening trio of tales, is both fabulous writing and wonderful wit. I hadn’t considered that stockbrokers represent the final demise of the preoccupation with having tongue studs, but I can recognize the incontrovertible accuracy of the observation. The middle three tales are lurid recountings of those suddenly but not unexpectedly disappeared: “Not that there’s any percentage in not forgiving a person who’s no longer alive.”
The concluding tale, “Torching the Dusties,” is an elongated satire on the emptiness of many modern and degraded mantras of social injustice, and on how easily dubious and lethal means remain employed to achieve the goal in mind, however foolish the goal and however immoral the means.
As I recently have lost people in an eldercare facility and with macular degeneration, I had some difficulty with this tale, as the setting is an old folks’ home—described in unadorned detail—in which the lead character has macular degeneration—described in the same manner as my recently deceased friend, who had the affliction, did—but I think the point, as I think is a point in all the tales, is that we all get old, and being old doesn’t make one worthless—despite the protestations to the contrary in Canadian and American societies.
And that this imputed worthlessness is not an excuse for vexatious exploitation of the defenseless. So, in that respect, the book, in its wit, does a nice job of exposing the witless.