I spent much of my reading time this week-end reading Margaret Atwood's latest collection of short stories, The Stone Mattress. It's an apocalyptic story, but apocalyptic in a different way than her other apocalypses.
Since it's a collection of short stories, perhaps it's unfair to see this book as one work. But it has many threads unifying it, and one of the threads is the many horrors of old age. Most of the characters in this book are well past mid-life. Atwood explores the many apocalypses of the land of old age, where the body fails in so many ways, and friends and family abandon the inhabitants.
In the last story, the character is trying to read Gone with the Wind, which is an apocalyptic tale of a different sort. The character's life has interesting parallels to that book, as her own civilization goes up in flames, just like Scarlett O'Hara's did.
The first three stories are linked, and I enjoyed them thoroughly. It's a wonderful portrait of the artist as an elderly man--and there's an elderly female artist too. The stories explore their younger years too, and it's an interesting meditation on the use of new technologies.
I was hoping that the stories would continue to be linked and would continue to explore the lives of these characters and others in their orbit. But the rest are new, although there's a story that picks up the lives of the characters in The Robber Bride.
That story made me think of all the Atwood books I loved before the Oryx and Crake trilogy. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, I'll read The Robber Bride again.
Still, I don't regret reading The Stone Mattress. Atwood is one of our great writers, and it's always wonderful to spend time with her.
And as a writer of short stories, it's good to see what the great writers are doing with the genre.
I've also been teaching an online literature class that explores the short story, many of them written in the middle of the 20th century. Many of my students approach those stories as interesting historical documents.
A hundred years from now, what will readers assume about this time period from reading these stories?
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