I was introduced to Margaret Atwood’s writing a few years ago in a class called “Novel Form, Style and Structure.” Novel survey classes never give one the time to think very deeply about a text; and I’d been completely entranced by The Blind Assassin on a very superficial level. Only in the last pages did I realize that the book was layered with all kinds of imagery and symbolism that I’d missed altogether the first time around – and that I’d missed a great deal of the meaning as a result. The Blind Assassin went straightaway onto the “Books To Re-read” list.
Last week, when I read “Stone Mattress” in The New Yorker, I enjoyed the story greatly on a superficial level. Atwood said in an interview that she’d written the story on an Arctic cruise, “after some idle conversation about whether one could murder someone on such a cruise and get away with it.” It sounded like a superficial sort of thing, tossed off on the spur of the moment. (Let me be clear: any story I would write on an Arctic cruise would by definition be superficial. I’d be too anxious to return to my puffin-watching to think deep thoughts or put them on paper.) But it’s Margaret Atwood, and I had a feeling I’d missed the layers again.
So I read “Stone Mattress” once more. Here are five things I found that I really liked.
1. Stromatolite imagery.
What a surprise – a stromatolite has layers! It was a perfect centering image for the story, and for the character of Verna, both of which also have…layers.
“Here are the best stromatolites, a whole field of them. There are unbroken ones, like bubbles or boils, small ones, ones as big as half a soccer ball. Some have lost their tops, like eggs in the process of hatching. Still others have been ground down, so that all that’s left of them is a series of raised concentric oblongs, like a cinnamon bun or the growth rings on a tree.
“And here’s one shattered into four like a Dutch cheese sliced into wedges. Verna picks up one of the quarters, examines the layers, each year black, gray, black, gray, black, and at the bottom the featureless core.”
Because of the Bob Incident, Verna’s life has been fractured. She never fully hatched; she has been ground down. Her life has been a series of black and gray years, aged husbands; at the bottom is the featureless core that Verna’s soul has become.
The prehistoric blue-green algae created the oxygen that Bob and Verna are breathing, and Bob and Verna’s shared history has created the conditions of the story’s present. “Stromatolite” is from the Greek words for “mattress” and “stone”; when Verna’s mother says that “Verna had made her bed, and now she would have to lie in it,” we know that it was a hard bed indeed: a veritable stone mattress. The stromatolite becomes the murder weapon, and when Verna adds it to the rock table afterwards, it will acquire fingerprints and become not just a symbol of the past actions that have made Verna who she is and given her a motive for murder. The fossil itself will become a mute accomplice to murder. Folks, that stromatolite is one hard-working rock.
2. Verna, the Femme Fatale.
At one level, Verna reads a bit like an aged character out of The Diary of Bridget Jones. She checks out the guys, writes off the attached ones as being too much work, chooses killer clothing and positions her nametag to draw attention to her rack, and assesses her attractions (noting the need to be “fully clothed and buttressed with carefully fitted underwiring”). She rates the candidates by noting that Magnetic Northward attracts “serious punters,” a term meaning both “party animals” and “victims of a con man.”
I enjoyed Verna’s wry observations on aging (“though elderly noses aren’t as keen as they may once have been, it’s best to allow for allergies; a sneezing man is not an attentive man”) and feminine wiles (“a piggy, gobbling woman is not a creature of mysterious allure”). She says she isn’t extravagant or greedy; she only ever wanted enough layers of money to protect herself from harm. She shares with readers another woman’s hilarious comparison of a rogue walrus and liposuction.
But her wit masks a sinister layer, a more literal one, to her femme fatale image. Verna is a Morgan le Fay-type enchantress, a stacked and layered fata morgana mirage whose sexual siren song will lure poor old Bob to his violent end. (I saw a fata morgana in the Barents many years ago: a Russian frigate put out to sea from the Kola Inlet, steaming along simultaneously rightside up and upside down. It was totally freaky.) When Verna married, she’d “done her best to provide value for money,” murdering four hapless husbands with no regrets by giving them “tacit permission to satisfy every forbidden desire: to eat artery-clogging foods, to drink as much as they liked, to return to their golf games too soon.”
And she isn’t done. She claims to have renounced sin – the vices of flirtation and its consequences – but she considers the potential candidates for a flirtation all the same: “…there’s nothing wrong with a little warmup practice, if only to demonstrate to herself that she can still knock one off if she wishes to.” Oh, she can. And she will.
3. Feminist Commentary
It wouldn’t be a Margaret Atwood story without some feminist commentary, would it? I loved the image of Teenage Bob dancing around with Verna’s panty girdle on his head, straps “flopping around like jester’s bells.” Verna thinks that panty girdles are “prehistoric,” that times are different now, that a girl would go on the Pill or have an abortion. “How Paleolithic to still feel wounded by any of it,” she thinks.
4. Clichés and Aphorisms.
But that image of Teenage Bob and the panty girdle is a slightly twisted version of an old teenage-boy cliché – as is slipping Verna a Mickey to get her to put out. Bob himself is a cliché: a teenage heartthrob, a football star, a great catch, the rich boy from the classy end of town. And the story is chock-full of other clichés and aphorisms, for example: “there’s life in the old dog yet” and “old habits die hard.” There are the timeless slogans of her taunters: “Easy out! Can I have a ride? Candy’s dandy, but liquor’s quicker!” Her mother’s reaction to the scandal is a whole string of aphorisms: “Verna had made her own bed, and now she would have to lie in it. No, she could not wallow in self-pity – she would just have to face the music, not that she would ever live it down, because one false step and you fell, that’s how life was.” Atwood never lets up. Verna goes to a Home for Unwed Mothers. Her baby is taken from her and she is scarred, unable to bear more children; it’s as well, says a nurse, because “those sorts of girls made unfit mothers anyway.” Bob “gets off scot-free, without consequences or remorse,” and his adult life is a cliché of success: law school, marriage to his college sweetheart, three kids, five grandkids. An aphorism has also turned Verna into a murderer: “It was Bob who’d taught her that only the strong can win, that weakness should be mercilessly exploited.” There are the cheap gift-shop gloves that Verna buys because she has read a lot of crime novels, and the let’s-get-together-for-a-drink banter between Bob and Verna. As the murder scene unfolds, Verna’s second thoughts spill out in aphorism: “Shouldn’t she let bygones be bygones? Boys will be boys. Aren’t they all just hormone puppets at that age?”
One could argue that the entire story – murder on an Arctic cruise – is a kind of cliché, sort of like one of those murder mystery party games – Clue for adults – where participants come in costume and read clues aloud while trying to guess which of them is the murderer. The superficiality and frequency of the aphorisms in “Stone Mattress” can lull the reader into thinking that the story is simple, light, almost a genre story. But this is Margaret Atwood, and the clichés and aphorisms can’t be sloppy editing or immature writing – the kind of thing that one’s fiction workshop mates find and slash up brutally in one’s fifteen-page submission. Their use must be deliberate. What on earth is Atwood up to?
I’m still not sure. But I think that a possible key can be found in the sentence that followed Verna’s aphoristic second thoughts: “Why should any human being be judged by something that was done in another time, so long ago that it might be centuries?” The root of the word aphorism is boundary, and I think that Atwood is using cliché and aphorism to light up a flashing neon sign (cliché?) that points to a question of memory, judgment, history, and the boundaries of good and evil.
5. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord
Verna’s mother is a strict Presbyterian, so rigid in her notions and hardheaded that she was “unlikely to have been influenced by anything softer than a granite wall.” (Though she has her own sordid past, her own stromatolithic layers; Verna’s father decamped, and she is a single mother in a “Paleolithic” time and place where being a single mom was judged scandalous in its own right.)
It’s a religious cliché – a stereotype – that Presbyterianism is an Arctic version of Christianity: bleak, unforgiving, cold. In that stereotype, we are all born to sin, and only some of us are predestined to go to Heaven. Good and bad are black and white; there are no layers, no gray. God’s wrath and judgment of our actions and our faith take precedence over Christian love, wisdom, mercy, and compassion. And in murdering Bob, Verna has become this vengeful, judgmental God. “Her sense of justice has remained Presbyterian: she doesn’t want much more than her due, but she doesn’t want much less, either. She likes balanced accounts.”
Verna’s third husband was fond of quoting poetry, and many of his favorite lines have stuck with her. While she says that his passion was for the Victorians, who “always coupled sex with death,” she leaves his final favorite quote unattributed. The story ends with a little “senior moment” – another cliché of aging. “Who was that poet anyway? Keats? Tennyson? Her memory isn’t what it was. But the details will come back to her later.”
Final lines are often the most significant in a story, and I think that these are no exception. As it turns out, “Calm of mind all passions spent” is not Victorian at all. The quote is from John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, like “Stone Mattress” a tale of violence, vengeance, and judgment with its conflict rooted in sex and pride. Atwood leaves the question of whether or not Verna gets away with murder unanswered, and she is equally non-prescriptive on the larger question of vengeance and judgment. I think that these final lines ask readers to consider for themselves the relationship among memory, the boundaries of good and evil, judgment, and vengeance while hearing the story of how Verna takes a breather, does some inner accounting, and sheds some worn skin. To what degree are our own judgments based in aphorism — in “universally known” general truths? Readers must decide for themselves how to balance memory and judgment.
In “Stone Mattress,” Margaret Atwood has given readers a literary stromatolite: “a choice fragment, a cross-section” of an imagined life.