On Tuesday, Margaret Atwood released Stone Mattress, a collection of “wonderfully weird short stories.” Stone Mattress is Atwood’s eighth collection of stories, not to mention her 14 novels and other formidable volumes of poetry, children’s literature, and nonfiction. Reviewers across the boards are heralding this most recent work as “wise, sharp,” and “rich.”
Let’s look at the title story of the collection, published by the New Yorker back in December 2011. Take the absurd world of cruise ships, this one bound for the even-more absurd location of the Arctic region, then give us an aging, slightly narcissistic widow of at least four, and send in the man who raped her as a young girl. It’s probably no surprise that, with ingredients like these, you get a tremendous story. But even better, you get a tremendous Atwood story.
Perhaps beyond even that, you can’t help but feel this might be an Atwood story in conversation with a Munro story. (Aren’t these Canadian sister storytellers always in conversation in one way or another?) Which is only to say, if you’re a literary conspiracy theorist, you could say there are rocks laid down in a Munro story like “Axis,” for example, that Atwood picks up in “Stone Mattress.” Both take place across a 50-year time span. Both feature the aftermath of young and troubled male-female relationships. Both involve romanticized and somewhat less modern modes of travel (train, boat). Both present beautiful geological metaphors that ripple across the surfaces of their narratives. And both keep us in the wise, sharp, rich minds of women.
Just saying. Try spending a moment here with Verna, as she assesses the available men on her cruise ship:
Passing over the women, she ear-tags the male members of the flock. Some have females attached to them, and she eliminates these on principle: why work harder than you need to? Prying a spouse loose can be arduous, as she discovered via her first husband: discarded wives stick like burrs.
It’s the solitaries who interest her, the lurkers at the fringes. Some of these are too old for her purposes; she avoids eye contact with them. The ones who cherish the belief that there’s life in the old dog yet: these are her game.
From a one-tale glimpse, this looks to be a collection worth investigating. Which, of course, most of Atwood’s works are. She is after all, a writer who contains multitudes—of worlds, visions, darknesses, surprises, voices, psychologies, adventures, insights. Over the years, she has become something of a Mother Time for us all, especially with the recent news that she is at work on a book that will not be published for 100 years as part of the Norwegian Future Library project. Certainly, we all could learn a bit about being cool as we age following Atwood’s lead.
Like Hannah Horvath on Girls, most of us have probably spent a little bit of time imagining sitting in the legendary Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Next week, you have the chance to do so for free through the university’s Open Courses website. After MOOC-tackling poetry this summer for 3,000+ online students, professor Christopher Merrill will partner with R. Clifton Spargo to co-host the six-week long MOOC titled: “How Writers Write Fiction.”
The course will feature weekly craft videos and writing prompts from prominent writers, including Jonathan Lethem, Leslie Jamison, Andrew Sean Greer, and Anthony Marra. The craft talks cover topics such as opening lines, setting up fictional worlds, storytelling structures, and revision and rediscovery. In addition, participants will be able to submit their work for critique by other workshop participants, offer feedback to others, and a lucky few submissions will be selected for workshops led by Iowa University moderators.