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By Margaret Atwood
It's not always easy to quibble about a book you like. Of course, a stony-faced surgeon's objectivity toward a book, even a book I might've found a lot of fun, is part of my role as a reviewer. So let's start by saying that I had fun with Stone Mattress. Smashed-up fairy tales are always welcome at my doorstep. Besides, Atwood's eye for genre-blending (the noir-flavored title story) and her terrifically barbed sense of humor (this shines through most on "Dark Lady," where funerals become a joke and then get serious again) make for several great moments, and both "Alphinland" and "The Dead Hand Loves You" are excellent. Yet with all that in mind, I still feel there were a few things missing from this book, so before I get further into why I had fun with this book, I'd at first like to discuss what didn't work.
Initially I saw my issues with this book as issues with a couple of stories, namely "The Freeze-Dried Groom" and "I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth." The former has a great macabre premise that comes in too late to save the day and isn't worked enough with when it hits. It's used too purposefully to quite count as the literary equivalent of a jump scare, but it's at least in that neighborhood. Besides, the story before that is overstuffed with underdeveloped conflicts, rushing along to hit the big twist, which I'll admit you can infer from the title but which I won't spoil anyway to keep with Atwood's campfire-storyteller style. As for the second, I'm willing to admit "I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth" might be better if I'd read its prequel, the Robber Bride. However, I haven't, and "Zenia's" rather caricatured protagonists make me less interested in it.
The problem with these two stories, and with a few of the better ones here as well, is that they're missing the empathy that you get in so many great Atwood books. She's written a number of brutal antagonists, but she imbibed them with motives so strong that you at least understood where their brutality came from. To say nothing of what she does with her protagonists, who are often forced into antagonistic roles. See her terrific 1988 novel Cat's Eye, where the abused protagonist takes on a seriously harsh personality, for an example of this at work. This sense of empathy is in the better stories, but when it's not present, Atwood's characters in their bizarre environments don't come off as much more than bizarre themselves.
Of course, this could be a consequence of the genre; Atwood admits in the afterword that these nine stories aren't meant to be taken as conventional shorts, but rather ancestors of fairy tales. Still, the best stories have a great blend of fairy tale weirdness and acute character examination. "Alphinland" makes a story about a fantasy author who retreats from a brutal winter and dead husband into the world of her own making from potential satire to a sad and harrowing story about an unfulfilled life. On a similar note, the popular but trapped horror author "The Dead Hand Loves You" centers around is endlessly compelling; hard not to love a story where the horror writer finds himself in a horror story closely related to the horror story he wrote. Still, I wish she'd put a little more emphasis on the characters behind these stories.
Out of 10: 8.2