Short Story Review: Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood.

in writeclub •  4 months ago

Short Story Review: Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood. 


Margaret Atwood is one of the few writers that can take a difficult subject, weave it through a complicated plot, and have it come out the other side as a seamless, self contained story with a message. Her tales (as she likes to call them) have enough depth to keep the critics talking for decades, but read easy enough to entertain the masses. 

For many wannabe writers like myself, that’s the dream.

But before I jabber on and ruin everything for you, go ahead and give this story a read. You'll be happy you did. 

This is 'The Stone Mattress', published in 2011 by The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/12/19/stone-mattress

All finished? 

Great! 

So let's acknowledge, first and foremost, that this story read fast.  

Margaret does whatever she can to switch up her game. When she gets tired of unfolding scenes, she gets into Verna’s head. And when we get tired of the present she takes us on a guided tour through Verna's troubling past.  And notice how Atwood uses the present tense to convey a sense of now-ness throughout the story, building suspense as the plot unfolds. We are witnessing the events as they happen, and we don’t know which way the story is going to go. Which is crazy because from opening line, the narrator tells us that Verna is going to kill someone. 

"At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone."

See? I find it amazing that even though the narrator insists that Verna is a murderer, we don't actually believe it's true until it happens.

And here's another thing I noticed. Margaret Atwood isn’t afraid to tell the reader something when it's time to move the plot forward. 

Take this for paragraph instance: 

“...so she headed for downtown Toronto. What was she thinking? No actual thoughts, only feelings: mournfulness, woe, and, finally, a spark of defiant anger. If she was as trashy and worthless as everyone seemed to think, she might as well act that way, and, in between rounds of waitressing and hotel-room cleaning, she did."

She could have Verna play this out in a series of scenes. She could have her act out all those emotions so that the reader could discover all this for themselves. But Margaret wants to move the fuck on. She’s got shit to do and we, the not-so faithful readers, don’t have all day either. 

That’s how we see Verna’s entire life in a flash. Margaret has complete control of the narrative. She anticipates where something might get boring and isn’t afraid to change up the formula. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but as the adage goes, easy reading is the product of hard writing

Also, easy reading isn’t usually something I’d ascribe to a story about a serial killer, but since we’ve learned so much about Verna, we can sympathize with her--hell, might even root for her. There is a clear sense of cause and effect in this story. 

And I’m sure everyone caught the fossil metaphor. To me, the fossil symbolizes violence as it crystallizes and hardens over time. It’s no accident that the fossil is what Verna uses to bash ol’ Bob’s head in with. My guess is that Atwood is saying that the emotional pain of sexual violence isn’t just something someone gets over. It petrifies and fossilizes over time, until one day, it’s a hard, sharp weapon. 

Thanks for taking the time to read with me. This review is part of an ongoing exercise over at the Write Club server. Our goal is to smash open a different short story every week and hopefully learn a thing or two from it. 

Tell me what you think in the comments. 



Image sources: 1, 2


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You know, I've never really read any Margaret Atwood until today. Maybe that makes me a terrible Canadian, or just a terrible woman, I have no idea. Perhaps because in my formative years, I associated her name with a very literary circle of material (which may or may not be true) and I've never been drawn to the genre. Give me outrageous pulpy high fantasy, or give me death! The more obscure the plot, the better! Social commentary is the wrong sort of puzzle for my brain to unwind!

But I did enjoy this. The woman knows what she's doing. Excellent stuff. So perhaps I need to go pick up another title or two and see if she's consistent.

Regarding the "tell-y" -ness of this story: You know, until I started writing and getting schooled on how to do it better, I didn't even know that "telling" was a thing! And you know what? It still doesn't actually bother me that much. My mind will happily supply the details an author leaves out when they tell me something, and if anything, it makes, for me, a better experience, because the author and my imagination have told the story together.

Telling does need to be done well. Artfully, even. Otherwise, you wind up with "Rocks fall, everyone dies, the end." It might work with an unruly bunch of D&D players, but there's simply too many possibilities for my imagination to lock onto in that type of scenario.

Since I'm way out here on this limb already, I'll put it this way: I have zero problems with a story full of telling, as long as it shows and/or tells me enough information to give my imagination a framework. Stone Mattress is an example of this. Ms. Atwood shows me some things, and tells me some other things, and together her words and my mind generate a kick-ass image of the tale she is telling.

(For the record, I would have murdered his ass too.)

So yeah. Telling. It's what we've been doing with stories since we started--well--telling them. ba dum tsssh

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I love everything you said here. It should be its own post.

I don't really have problems with a lot of telly stories; a lot of my favorite authors do exactly that. If they're good writers, then they're doing the telly stuff well...as well.

I'd prefer to read telly stuff from a good writer than anything else from a bad writer, and in the end I just want to read a good story.

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Neg's right. This comment would make an amazing article. I think showing and telling are just two sides of the same doubloon. The best writers use whatever mode is required to keep the reader engaged.

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Yes to all this Jayna. And Neg. And Jordan.

This is my first bout with Margie, and I'll have to say, I dig it.

The only thing, with me, is, honestly, it dragged a little for me. Maybe Steemit has spoiled my attention span, but I think certain parts were a little longer than necessary. I think it was a strong statement for feminism and what constitutes "rape" and what that does to a young person.

And @negativer laughed at my coffee cup kill. I mean, sure, rocks do it too, but the coffee cup could work!

I absolutely loved this story. I went from disliking Verna to laughing with her to feeling for her in a short time span. I agree with your assessment, that the present time works so well, I've noticed lately many aspiring writers seem to avoid writing in present tense, but it just moves this story forward so well.

I particularly liked the ending of the story as well. Which is her plans for covering up, how things will play out. And here the young naive Verna seems to come back, not thinking about cameras and about being seen wandering into Bob's room. I like that. You can feel the rush of adrenaline making her think she's on top of the world.

I did read 'the Handmaid's Tale' before, and can definitely recommend it. And I do like that it has a critique / feminist / social notion underneath the story. Without that, stories seem less attractive to me. But with too much of it, when a message is in your face and too obvious and doesn't let the reader make up his own mind, it's horrendous. This mix of having something to say and writing a story is the kind of mix I look for in my stories. Hopefully one day I'll reach the level of Atwood to be able to do precisely that.

I love this since I'm a wannabe writer as well.