Authors can subtitle their books however their editors permit. Whether or not we readers must accept the “tales” category to which Margaret Atwood has assigned this collection, however, is probably covered by the intentional fallacy. That she wants this collection of a short trilogy and 6 other fictions to be read as tales is clear enough (in beginning her “Acknowledgments”  she makes that ‘ask’ lengthily explicit). But the fictions here resemble a number of genres, from the folk tale to realistic short story, genre fiction, and speculative fiction. Moreover, the strong resemblance of all “nine tales” to Atwood’s earlier novels and story collections suggest that she could equally declare those too to be “tales” of varying lengths. “Cautionary tales” perhaps. Aspiring critics of the kind twice satirized in this collection may some day want to explore that.
On the other hand, possibly Atwood’s insistence that these are “tales” rather than stories “about what we usually agree to call ‘real life’” (271) is designed merely to protect her from biographical interpretation, or threats of legal action from acquaintances who imagine they see themselves here. Many of the stories are indeed set in Toronto times and places with which Atwood is known to be familiar. She has also inserted a more obvious attempt at legal protection on the collection’s copyright page, one aimed at recent scandalous interpretations of Canadian copyright law: “This is a collection of individual works, not a unified text. “Fair Use” is not a license to reproduce whole stories without permission of the copyright holder.” I wish her luck in defending that.
Subtitle and “not a unified text” claims aside, readers of my generation who enjoy reading representations, however unromantic, of the culture of their adolescence should like this book, as should fans of early Atwood. She returns
The opening trilogy, “Alphinland” - “Revenant” -“Dark Lady,” with its focus on a shy young woman, Constance, who creates and publishes stories of a kind of J.K. Rowling/J.R.R. Tolkein fantasy world, “Alphinland,” in an attempt to earn enough money to stabilize her relationship with an arrogant and penurious young poet, strongly resembles Lady Oracle and its main character Joan Bennett’s pseudonymous writing of Harlequin-like romances. So too does the fourth story, “The Dead Hand Loves You,” in which Jack, an empoverished U of T student, writes a horror novel in order to pay off debts to his student housemates – only to have it unexpectedly spawn two movies, sequels and both a cult and academic Cultural Studies following, and for forty or more years wreck his relationship with the only woman he will love. One gets a sense here that Atwood could write genre fiction that was at least as successful as that of these characters. One senses also that the cult followings that she has both Constance and Jack attract – Constance’s “Alphinland” becomes a series of immensely popular fantasy fiction – are satires of the large and not always discriminating following that Atwood herself attracts. Some of the satire appears to be of cultural studies, Freudian and Jungian academic fandom similar to what her own writings have received. She clearly doesn't like critical approaches that assume a text to be shaped in part by forces outside of an author's control.
With the rather slight third story, “I dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth,” she returns to her semi-gothic 1993 novel The Robber Bride to create a brief sequel in which the novel’s three main characters, Charis, Roz, and Tony, imagine that their long-dead tormentor Zenia is interfering, possibly for good, in their post-retirement lives. In the concluding story, “Torching the Dusties,” with its apocalyptic scenes of social chaos in which mobs of enraged youth torch nursing homes and their elderly residents to punish them for having ruined the planet, she repeats the social collapse scenes of her early stories “When It Happens” (1975) and “The Festival of Missed Crass” (1979) and novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The now septuagenarian Atwood here is not exactly going back to childhood, but definitely revisiting parts of the childhood of her career.
She is correct that this is not collection of realism – it is mostly satire, as much of her writing has been. The 1960s in these stories were not a time of especially ‘boho’ excitement; they were one of as much confusion, exploitation and betrayal as any other time. The young women viewed then in these pages as limited and secondary were in the long term more resourceful, determined, and successful than the men – humiliatingly so to the men in some cases. Demure they might appear, but they can nevertheless harbour resentments and thoughts of revenge, including symbolic or actual murder. In general the men have been in decline, especially those who have defined themselves – like the blustering poet Gavin Putnam of the opening trilogy – by their sexual prowess, and are now in this digital age of ‘easy’ communication amusingly impotent. In Atwood’s dry tale-telling, these male-female contrasts can generate scenes close to situation-comedy.
With Stone Mattress Atwood joins other writers of her generation who in recent books have reflected on aging, mortality, dying and death. She has more fun doing so than the others whose books I’ve looked at here, largely because of the ironic and often woman-advantaging settling of accounts that she appears to see mutability accomplishing. Her women not only live longer than men but also seem less disillusioned by aging, more accustomed to viewing disappointment and loss with irony or equanimity. "Stone Mattress" is the name of a story (the penultimate) and a murder scene, but as the title of the collection is also everyone's fate, including the murdering mob of youths in "Torching the Dusties," and including the reader. An 'engaging' joke.
Despite its high profile publishers (McClelland & Stewart, Penguin, Random House, Doubleday, Bloomsbury) the collection is not especially well edited. Almost every time that Atwood describes the dry skin of her elderly women her metaphor is ‘paper’; twice she makes fun of the cultural studies approaches of young academics and associates such research with the “University of Austin” (57) (presumably the University of Texas at Austin) and “a symposium in Austin, Texas, home of super-cool nerdery” (190). Surely Atwood and her advisors all know that Austin is far from being the only academic site in the world that deserves such compliments.