To give you some context, the only other Atwood book I've read so far is The Handmaid's Tale, which was very smart and very creepy. I plan to read her Maddaddam trilogy soon.
As in The Handmaid's Tale, the narrative voice in Stone Mattress is, at times, confident, witty, and cutting.
Which I loved.
Of the nine tales, several stood out because of their unusual subject matter, by which I mean, issues that I personally haven't come across often in works of literary fiction: the problems and complications associated with aging, writers' relationships with zealous fans, and the conflict between a novel/poem and academic interpretations.
All of these issues surface in the first three stories of the collection--"Alphinland," "Revenant," and "Dark Lady"--which together explore the regrets and desires of now elderly writers and artists who were once closely connected. In each tale, Atwood brings up the issues of literary legacy, interpretation, and fandom. As Gavin (the poet) toys with a grad student who has come to gush over his work, he finds out that his first love, Constance, is now considered a major voice in fantasy fiction (he never took her seriously). Throw into the mix Gavin's current wife, and Jorie (one of his former girlfriends), and you have interconnected stories about the disconnect between physical and emotional age. Each of these characters remembers things that happened in the '60s as if they happened yesterday, and they look back both fondly and ironically on their early literary pursuits. They've aged, and they're tired and worn-down, but cling tenaciously to their current world.
In this same vein, Atwood gives us "Torching the Dusties," the last story, in which an upscale retirement home is attacked by younger people resentful of the elderly. Their movement, "Our Time," aims to eliminate the elderly, and thus their consumption of food and medical resources. It's chilling and reminiscent of the brutality and single-mindedness depicted in The Handmaid's Tale.
"The Dead Hand Loves You" and "Stone Mattress," too, evoke the frustration mixed with new-found confidence that stalk the main characters, holding onto old grudges and seeking vengeance for past wrongs.
Atwood's send-up of academia in "Revenant" and "The Dead Hand Loves You" particularly caught my attention, being an ex-academic myself. Her snarky descriptions of how some literary critics take a writer's words and then warp and twist them into unrecognizable shapes squares with my own misgivings about the lengths to which we take interpretation. Critical analysis is, of course, an important tool in understanding any kind of discourse, but even that can be taken to extremes. Only Atwood (in my reading experience) has raised this issue in fiction.
The stories of Stone Mattress were strange, unexpected, and fantastic. Highly recommended. But then, of course- it's Margaret Atwood.