For those of you who stay for the credits after a Monty Python movie there is a reward.
I have never understood why books include a note about the typeface. At first I thought it might be a copyright issue, but some typefaces are hundreds of years old. Certainly no one is afraid of being sued by a medieval guild.
The type for Margaret Atwood’s compendium of nine tales is Waldbaum. For those from the northeast U.S., you immediately think of a supermarket. This is not far off because the originator was Justus Erich Waldbaum (1768-1839). The note reads: “Young Waldbaum began his artistic career as an apprentice to a maker of cookie moulds. How he managed to leave this field and become a successful punch cutter remains a mystery.” Sometimes it pays to stay for the credits.
Margaret Atwood is an extraordinary writer. It has been my loss not to have read her since I read “The Handmaid’s Tale” decades ago. She is darkly imaginative, with a feminist point of view. The first paragraph of the first tale, “Alphinland”, is evidence of her mastery of language.
“The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. Under the streetlights it looks so beautiful: like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment. The beauty is an illusion, and also a warning: there ‘s a dark side to beauty, as with poisonous butterflies. She ought to be considering the dangers, the hazards, the grief this ice storm is going to bring to many; is already bringing, according to the television news.”
She then proceeds to parody television weather reports. She is funny and spot on.
Constance is a recent widow who continues to converse with her less than faithful deceased husband. She was a fantasy writer with a bohemian past that predates her husband. The tales morph into a computer game which becomes popular with youth who would be surprised by the age of its creator. The game is her world that embodies her past. There are chambers of secrets to which her husband is not allowed entry. Her unfaithful lover Gavin is imprisoned in the game. As you might expect, Ms. Atwood’s imagination is mind bending and the fantasy is enchantingly dark.
The second story “Revenant” is immediately less appealing. I had followed the famed short story writer, Mavis Gallant, suggestion that compendiums of short stories should not be read as a novel. “Read one. Shut the book. Read another.” Here a renown aged poet in failing health is being cared for by his 30 year younger wife who is his reluctant gatekeeper from budding poets who come to pay homage. There is a Virginia Wolf tension between the two. The poet reminisces about his affair that soured in his youth, retrospectively desiring his muse to his wife. He is visited by a graduate student who he initially believes is doing her thesis on his earlier poems. Age has made him lecherous in mind, but not of body, and he is brutally sexist to the young woman. The revenant she is researching is connected to Alphinland. Once you are past the literary name dropping, the surprising plot is gripping. Ignore Mavis’ suggestion and read the two stories together.
“Dark Lady” retraces the lives of twins Jorrise and Tin, the product of a father killed in action and an alcoholic mother who collected boyfriends. Jorrise and Tin are not their given names and this is not a story about both of them. It might have been titled “A Musing” or “Disabused” or simply “The Biography of Gavin”. This story completes the trilogy. A biography, unlike an autobiography, is told from the perceptions of others. Ms. Atwood is having a bit of fun with us and her characters, quietly mocking and redeeming those who have been spurned.
The six remaining stories stand on their own. “The Freeze Dried Groom” borders on the crime genre. As in many of the stories in this collection there is a failed relationship due to sex, although here the protagonist as in Ms. Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” is a con artist; the art being furniture.
“The Dead Hand Loves You” is another pulp fiction horror story. A jilted lover’s severed hand returns to retrieve what should have been his. It is not Ms. Atwood’s usual standard, but perhaps she spent an evening what “B” movies.
Quality returns with the title story “Stone Mattress”. A crime story this time. There is something worse than a woman scorned. The author captures a certain type of male whose presumed attraction is checkmated.
Ms. Atwood is getting on in years. These stories are adult stories; particularly adults who are or near senior status. “Torching the Dusties” focuses on a woman in an upscale assisted living facility who is trying to stay in the “independent” wing of the facility. Ms. Atwood captures the fear of seniors in such facilities who are held mentally, if not physically, captive like prisoners in a penitentiary. The reader has to decide if the tale is just a hallucination writ large as an extrapolation of Wilma’s Charles Bonnet syndrome, or an actual dystopian tale of revenge of the young. Ms. Atwood writes about relationships between men and more astute women. Here she examines it once sex is mythology, but men due to scarcity, are in demand.
This collection is fun to read becauce Ms. Atwood is as twisted as ever.