Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood, 2011
The magic trick:
Luring the reader in with an arch tone but demonstrating a very sad truth through a story that plays it a lot straighter than initially appears
It’s a harrowing tale of revenge, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of stories from the 1970s like “Coming Close To Donna,” by Barry Hannah, or “Greasy Lake” by T.C. Boyle, when our protagonist relates the backstory behind what happened to her and how she was date raped as a teenager. The difference of course being here we get the perspective of the woman.
It’s an interesting story. It’s obviously dark subject matter and full of tragedy, anger, and really the worst of society. But it plays out in a way that feels very detached. When you think of an anger strong enough to make you want to kill, it’s very easy to jump to a word like “passion.” You think of rage and maybe a lack of control, but that’s not what we see here with Verna at all. It’s not necessarily calculated. The first sentence tells us: At the outset, Verna did not intend to kill anyone.
You know it’s almost arch in its tone. But this story is not funny. It’s not arch, really. I felt more like the attachment and the lack of passion involved in this murder was more terrifying in some ways than had it been a series of actions set up with emotion and rage and passion.
Instead I think it speaks to the way that the rape so many years before really kind of killed Verna’s soul and shut down something in her that could feel passion and emotion and all those things – certainly joy but also anger. She’s just kind of dead inside, and that’s an even more harrowing thing and a greater indictment of what this man took from her.
And that’s quite a trick on Atwood’s part.
Cheap. Cheap and disposable. Use and toss. That was what Bob had thought about her, from the very first.
Now Bob grins a little. He looks pleased with himself: maybe he thinks Verna is blushing with desire. But he doesn’t recognize her! He really doesn’t! How many fucking Vernas can he have met in his life?
Get a grip, she tells herself. She’s not invulnerable after all, it appears. She’s shaking with anger, or is it mortification? To cover herself she takes a gulp of her wine, and immediately chokes on it. Bob springs into action, giving her a few brisk but caressing thumps on the back.
“Excuse me,” she manages to gasp. The crisp, cold scent of carnations envelops her. She needs to get away from him; all of a sudden she feels quite sick. She hurries to the ladies’ room, which is fortunately empty, and throws up her white wine and her cream-cheese-and-olive canapé into a cubicle toilet. She wonders if it’s too late to cancel the trip. But why should she run from Bob again?
Back then she’d had no choice. By the end of that week, the story was all over town. Bob had spread it himself, in a farcical version that was very different from what Verna herself remembered. Slutty, drunken, willing Verna, what a joke. She’d been followed home from school by groups of leering boys, hooting and calling out to her: Easy out! Can I have a ride? Candy’s dandy but liquor’s quicker! Those were some of the milder slogans. She’d been shunned by girls, fearful that the disgrace—the ludicrous, hilarious smuttiness of it all—would rub off on them.
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