Hello Gentle Reader
The short story is a genre which is plagued with an inferiority complex. It is often passed over and looked down upon when compared to its literary relation the novel. It wasn’t (it appears) until recently that the short story begin to gather overdue attention. The most spectacular recognition came for the short story in two-thousand and thirteen, when Alice Munro, would be crowned the Nobel Laureate in Literature. Munro in her usual modesty, sloughed off any personal pride of the award and shifted the attention to the short story, by stating the award was a wonderful thing, but certainly a wonderful thing for the Short Story. As Alice Munro often voiced, the short story, was often seen as something a writer did as practice—in order to prepare themselves—for the great novel they were about to publish. Munro herself admitted and lamented her own dissatisfaction with the short story genre at first, she continuously told herself after this she would get ready to write ‘that novel,’ in which she was meaning to write. Yet every time she would set around to write it, the work in which she produced, would lose its steam and become, yet another short story. Eventually, Alice Munro would stop thinking about the great novel she dreamed of writing, and resigned herself to the short story. In what many writers would see as failure or a shortcoming, Munro had appeared to take this ‘set back,’ in stride. Rather than giving up Alice Munro pushed forwarded with the short story genre, and began to make it her own. As her career began to mature, and each new short story collection was refined and produced, one after another, critics began to see and claim that in a span of thirty pages, Munro had depicted a life; better than most novelists could in three hundred plus pages. A hallmark of Alice Munro’s fiction is the ordinary lives of the characters in which she depicts. She once claimed that every life she can muster is extraordinary—never ordinary. In an interview in nineteen-eighty six, Munro is quoted to have stated:
“I don’t know who the ordinary people are. Because everyone is extraordinary to themselves. In fact, I read one review that said: ‘These people don’t have any extraordinary experiences. They’re civil servants, farmers, accountants, nurses.’ Well, nurses have about the most dramatic life I can think of. I don’t know about, it’s probably that I don’t write about—what secret agents? Or people who have psychic experiences or something like this? But I never consider these people ordinary. But then I never meet anybody I do consider ordinary.”
Such is the truth with Alice Munro’s work. There are the quiet dramatic moments of a life which gradually unfold in her clear prose. Despite the ordinary and mundane being present and her characters varying from nurses, to accountants, to farmers and civil servants—tragedy can still strike. Much like Doree from the short story ‘Dimension,’ from the collection “Too Much Happiness,” who at the age of twenty three, finds herself emotionally and socially isolated—and be aware this is the clincher; her husband Lloyd was abusive, and in a fit of righteous delusions, asphyxiates their children to death. Beneath the quiet surface of household chores, motherhood, careers, and small town values and the quiet and nameless luxuries of the ordinary, Alice Munro, shows just how unordinary, gothic, and tragic the lives of her characters are; and just how little we anyone may know about the person sitting next to them on the bus, or their neighbour. The short stories of Alice Munro, are gentle stones tossed into a pond, and the ripples orbit out, caress only briefly—they never crash. Yet, just as soon as they were there, the surface of the pond falls back into its stable self once again; and life goes on.
Alice Munro’s short stories are written with grace and ease. The language is plain, ordinary, and rooted in an almost colloquial manner. They are written as if someone is relaying neighborhood gossip to another over a cup of coffee; or a chance encounter confession from someone, whose is casually feeding the ducks at a pond. There is never a hint if literary pretentions to one of her short stories. Alice Munro never eviscerates, dissects, vivisects; pokes or probes her characters, nor does she display their internal workings, or seek to understand the reasoning by their actions. Rather, Alice Munro depicts their lives as they are—no frills—and observes them as they putts about or go about their daily lives; it just so happens, a moment happens in their life, be an abnormal event or one of those everyday tragedies, their lives change course, and as the story begins to wrap up; the tomorrows; their futures are endlessly set forth before them, while their pasts whisper and haunt from in the background.
Writers like Alice Munro and Anton Chekhov may have brought the short story out of the literary shadow of the novel; but their own success with the genre comes at a price as well. Success for the short story is now marked by the success of Alice Munro and Anton Chekhov. Munro wrote short stories, which could rival and battle novels. Her work moved forward through time, and often depicted not a slice of life; but a life which had been lived; recounting all events that lead to that particular moment, or characters reviewing and reflecting on a particular moment, which lead to their current circumstances, and it is there at the end, Alice Munro leaves her characters to the uncertainties of life, of a future which goes on, with the usual routine. Life in these instances just goes on.
It should seem unfair that any writer writing in the short story format would require themselves to attempt to replicate or duplicate the success of either Alice Munro or Anton Chekhov. Though the two writers—among many others—have found great success in the format, they’re way of kneading it into their own functioning literary form of expression, should be left to themselves; while aspiring and veteran writers should swath their own literary achievements and successes in the genre, by their own merit. This is not to state that there is nothing to learn from reading Alice Munro or Anton Chekhov; but what they have accomplished, is their own success; in moving forward the genre should find greater success by writers who practice the form, and take in to new adventures, such as Alex Epstein and Gyrðir Elíasson, have done.
Contrary to what I have just stated: Alice Munro and her short stories are now considered the reluctant measuring stick of short stories. Her work has found international success and appeal, as it has always reshaped how serious the short story is taken on the literary stage. In order to become a great master of the form, one must first be measured to a standing grand master of it. Aspiring writers, who now are being pushed through the marketing molding machine of Master of Fine Art degrees with an emphasis on Creative Writing. It is here (or so I am told) these writers are taught to formulate their short stories on the similar vein of Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemmingway. What an unfortunate thought. Those who have written great short stories (and yes Hempel, Hemmingway and Carver are talented and worthy writers), often have done so without the requirement to lean on these writers. Antonio Tabucchi is one great short story writer. “Little Misunderstanding of No Importance,” hints at often great and grand narratives, of unique lives lived of adventure, and now reflect and tell their tales, of incidental moments of their lives, as they attempt to recapture that youth, but beyond that asks questions of: is it a touch of chance or simply magic which makes life worth living and pushes each of us forward. Ersi Sotiropoulos’s stories are short, bare bones, but not minimalist; rather they are frank and cautious of a precision of words and poetic detail, which often litters her works which orbit in relationships, miscommunications, and general mundane absurdities. The hallmark of great short story writers such as Alice Munro, Antonio Tabucchi, Anton Chekhov, and Ersi Sotiropoulos, is they are not a slice of an individual’s life presented in its entirety; they hint beyond what is left on the page to an uncertain future, a knowable past, and a grander life which the reader is not privy too, but can dream about.
In the acknowledgements of “Stone Mattress,” Margaret Atwood, makes clear the works collected in this volume of work are best defined as ‘Tales,’ (as is the subtitle of the book) not ‘Story.’ She further explains the semantic and inherent difference between the idea of a story and that of a tale:
“These nine tales owe a debt to tales through the ages. Calling a piece of short fiction a “tale” removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales. We may safely assume that all tales are fiction, whereas a “story” might well be a true story about what we usually agree to call “real life,” as well as a short story that that keeps within the boundaries of social realism.”
“Stone Mattress,” was published in two-thousand and fourteen, a year which many noted, showed a resurging interest in the short story. Many believed this renewed interest came from Alice Munro’s Nobel; and in following year, many well-known writers (Graham Swift, Lydia Davis, Hilary Mantel, and Margaret Atwood) would publish a collection of short stories; be it to capitalize on the short story’s unprecedented success, or perhaps in celebration of its success.
I stumbled upon “Stone Mattress,” after a hellish day and in a frenzied night of my mind whirling about. I rarely stop by the local library; its shelves are packed with the populist demands and general requirements of the reading public. The library does not (with no one at fault) even begin to scrap the surface of my niche literary tastes. Upon arrival though, I stumbled upon Atwood’s limited selection available. To be honest, it was difficult to say what I was looking for—perhaps just a familiar old friend who I haven’t chatted with in a while and desired to meet again, if only briefly. The works available of her extensive bibliography did not begin to quench my desire to read her work. First and foremost I looked for the final volume of her “MaddAddam Trilogy,” the eponymous novel “MaddAddam,” but could not find it. Then I decided perhaps there will be something from her back catalogue worth exploring, which I had not read. The only other books available were: “Oryx and Crake,” “The Year of the Flood,” “Hag-Seed,” “Blind Assassin,” “Cats Eye,” and “Stone Mattress.” I had known “Hag-Seed,” was the most recent publication and picked it up first, after which I made my way to an office chair (because all the comfy chairs were taken by a gaggle of gabbing girls, swooning and awing amongst their juvenile gossip), and sat down to read. My first impressions after reading the prologue, was that I was not in the mood for a novel written in the format of a play—now after further research, the only hint of a play like format at first glance was in the first part, while the rest moves with greater ease of controlled prose, with its sentences and paragraphs. After that it was “Stone Mattress.” I rationalized the decision by stating, I’ve read most of all the other works, and I do enjoy short stories—so “Stone Mattress,” it was; after settling into the office chair again, I read the first story “Alphinland,” and decided, the book would return home with me.
First impressions are dangerously important. “Stone Mattress,” begins with three strong interconnected tales, titled: “Alphinland,” “Revenant,” and “Dark Lady.” These three short stories recount the encounters of three individuals, who were involved with artists and poets during the sixties. The three works recount two women who orbit and revolve on the axis of infatuation, lust and even love for a poet by the name of Gavin. Gavin is introduced as a poet, who is bloated egotistical nature, is remarked with crystal cold clarity that is afforded to those of age. Gavin becomes well known for his sexually charged poems of his youth, where he discusses sex and immortalizes his lovers in his sonnets. One such lover is Constance (from ‘Alphinland,’) who lived and loved Gavin in their shared youth. They lived in abject poverty, which she rationalizes the circumstances, by adding a bit of glamour to the situation, with the romantic notion that she was supporting the great poet Gavin as he starved for his art and lounged around for inspiration, while she worked monotonous and mundane jobs to pay the rent and get some food. Solace comes for sweet Constance in her fantasy writings titled ‘Alphinland,’ which she sells off and makes a pretty penny from; though her fantasy writings are looked down upon by both Gavin and his friends; though when it came to pay for beer or pick up a tab they would always sing praise with undercurrents of mocking malice:
“They’d tease her by saying she was writing about garden gnomes, and she’d laugh say yes, but today the gnomes had dug up their crock of golden coins and would buy them all a beer. They liked the free beer part of it, and would make toasts: “Here’s to the gnomes! Long may the roam! A gnome in every home!”’
Youth is not without its pitfalls. Gavin who is defined by his own self-assurance he is genius; and this vanity does not stop simply at his confident state that he is creative genius—his physical appearance also allows him to be equally as vain, and show off his sexual prowess. As it would happen, he would cheat on Constance with a certain woman by the name of Marjorie. Constance and Gavin would then split apart, and Constance would move to become a multimillionaire, with hordes of fans devouring and devoting themselves to her personal sanctuary of ‘Alphinland.’ A fact which only later on, would drive Gavin to be resentful of the success of Constance with her “juvenile pablum,” then he was with his literary superior poems. Though he would resign himself to his own fate, as a professor of creative writing in Manitoba before taking up with a third wife and heading to the west coast, to reflect and spew his vitriolic contempt at those who come near; much like the young scholar:
“This idea is dismaying: having some estrogen-plumped babe a quarter of his age contort his stringy knobbled limbs while comparing the dashing protagonist of his earlier poems, replete with sexual alacrity and sardonic wit, to the atrophied bundle of twine and sticks he has become.”
Yet what could be more insulting, but to find out that Gavin—the mediocre ego driven poet—is not the subject of her research and thesis, but rather Constance, and her subpar literary achievements in the realm of fantasy.
Its Atwood’s wicked and vicious commentary via her narrators and her own authorial voice is what makes this collection worth the read. It turns out rather quickly that Atwood has little patience of the grieving of loss youth and beauty, or the mindless comfy thoughts of nostalgia, in an attempt to make life feel all that much better. It is in these moments her humorous venom seeps through with the greatest criticism attached, as she asks more daunting questions about the indignity of youth and the arrogance of youth, in the context of a new idea and form of discrimination such as ‘ageism.’ Her commentary on the crumbling boundaries between high literary art and that of genre fiction is lively and enticing; just as is her depiction of the indignities of age and the arrogance of youth, in the context of ageism. Her social viewpoints contain just as much merit as they do delightful rancor with her scathing candor.
Admittedly while reading “Stone Mattress,” I picked up the meter stick of measurement for short story collections, to hold up against Margaret Atwood’s recent collection. Currently, “Family Furnishings: Selected Stories 1995-2014,” by Alice Munro sits next me. I often dive (much like an Olympic diver—speedo and all) into the selected work of Munro’s fiction presented to me, from her later career. In it is there is much to savour and enjoy. Some short stories are better than others; but the usual Munro charm exists regardless. While reading a Munro short story such as “The Love of a Good Woman,” with its spectacular opening narrative, with the three young boys who find the submerged car of the town optometrist; Munro gracefully and briefly sketches the different homes lives of each of the three boys, and then the narrative once again shifts to a different perspective. Throughout reading the short story, once is able to see the endless and grand potential of the short story. How it is capable of twisting and twining through a complex and multilayered narrative, and still concludes with Munro’s typical understated understanding with a great dosage of uncertainty. It should come to no surprise when reading “Stone Mattress,” by Margaret Atwood; I would compare the two short stories, and what the two writers do with each form.
With the exception of “Alphinland,” “Revenant,” and “Dark Lady,” the remaining six tales collected, often leave something to be desired. The eponymous tale “Stone Mattress,” left one with a certain hankering for more. Verna is a compelling creature. Despite her age she retains a certain vanity, coupled with a well-earned vitriolic perspective towards life and men, which she has carefully disposed of, like unwanted luggage left at the airport. As the short tale progresses, we grasp the connection between Verna (and her unfortunate past) with a fellow member of an artic cruise, by the name of Bob. The story reaches its eventual conclusion, with a fair great dose of Atwood’s wicked and scathing sense of humour. Yet Verna remains in my mind undeveloped. Youthful naivety coupled with a sheltered childhood, led to a recipe for disaster. Though we gather a glimpse of this through Verna’s reflection of the time, and how quick she learned to survive in a world which would quickly abandon her, as it tosses her aside as a disposable creature. Her resilience is admirable, though her resentment is disturbing (though understandable). In this instance, greater elucidation would have been more enjoyable to have seen, to grasp a better understanding of Verna. She’s not entirely evil or nasty (a murderer yes) but not inherently evil; it brings to mind these vicious words of wisdom from Veira from “Dolores Caliborne,”: “Sometimes you have to be a high riding bitch to survive. Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to.” We are given a glimpse of Verna’s character before and her realization, beyond that we are only given the vitriolic husk in which she has become, and her darkly twisted vengeful self.
Reading, “Stone Mattress,” after a rough go, was a delightful read; made pleasurable by the scolding sarcasm which is populates the collection. Margaret Atwood is considered one of the best of Canadian literature, by merit and statistical evidence with her critical acclaim and reader popularity. Her work is noted for its social observations and dire warnings (“The Hand Maids Tale,” and “The MaddAddam Trilogy,” come to mind); but beyond the possible pessimistic doom, which may lurk around the corner; Atwood is profoundly wry lively and delightfully dark in voicing her brutal candor with a delightful rancorous characters.
Not many books have made me guffaw loudly, as some of the tales in “Stone Mattress,” have. It was an enjoyable and required read, which, given the circumstances helped diffuse a rather explosive situation in my personal life. Though some of the works collected succeed, it is often apparent, that the novel is a literary form which is perhaps more suited for Margaret Atwood, in which she is allocated the room necessary to fully develop and discuss her observations and ideas. But this judgement is once again being measured next to the work of Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, among other great short story writers, who found great success in the form and were capable of making the short story their own. When Margaret Atwood as at the pinnacle of her abilities, they shine with her wit and her keen sense of social injustice or observations regarding where society is at; when it does not reach that same level, they come across as under developed and a bit dissatisfying. Yet if this collection of work is to be read, for anything above else, the first three tales, are wroth the read!
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
And As Always
Stay Well Read