Looking back

STONE MATTRESS: Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.
STONE MATTRESS: Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.

Stylish, acerbic and wickedly funny, Margaret Atwood has assembled a group of stories in which people reflect on past lives while soldiering on. All but two of the central characters in these nine new stories are crunching resolutely toward extreme old age, and every one of them has a past.

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth brings a trio of BFFs from The Robber Bride (published in 1993) into this century, along with the women who stole their men. Flamboyant Zenia’s dead, but she’s still around, and shriveling but spunky Charis and Tony collude with the wraith of Zenia to protect their friend Roz from her predatory ex.

The first three stories in the collection, Alphinland, Revenant and Dark Lady read like outtakes from a novel, as they depend heavily on backstory set in the 1960s, when Constance Starr, creator of a Narnian utopia, the self centered poet Gavin, her unfaithful first lover, and Jorrie, the heedless seductress, were still young.

Sitting out an ice storm, Constance talks to her dead husband while remembering all that; she’s stashed bitter memories of hubby, perfidious Gavin and Jorrie in her personal Memory Palace, signified by imaginary objects that exist only in Alphinland.

In Revenant, Gavin totters toward the grave, exhuming sexy ’60s memories as he goes, and in Dark Lady, Constance and Jorrie finally meet.

Both The Dark Hand Loves You and Stone Mattress depend heavily on characters whose lives in the present and the future are shaped by the past. In the title story, aging Verna meets the high school flame who raped her and makes sure he remembers her before she avenges the crime.

Perhaps the most important sentence in the book comes in The Dark Hand, when Jack, whose fortune comes from a trashy “dark hand” novel written in his desperate grad school years, tracks Irena, his onetime girlfriend and prototype for Violet, the near victim of the Dark Hand. Because of a contract he wrote to pay his rent back in the hungry days, his old roommates have each siphoned off a quarter of the proceeds for all these years.

Intent on reversing the contract, he confronts Rod, once a sexual rival.

Rod is dying of cancer. “ ‘We had fun, didn’t we?’ he says. “In that old house. It was a more innocent age.’

“ ‘Yes,’ says Jack. ‘We did have fun.’ From this distance it does resemble fun. Fun is not knowing how it will end.”

Here, as in the title story, Atwood uses events in the present to reconcile the heartbreak and collisions of the carefree — or is it careless? — past.

Less successful is Lusus Naturae. A monster story written for an invited anthology, it has a slick, not new, glaze. The Freeze Dried Groom, however, is a real winner. Going broke, kicked out by the woman he married for her money, antique/junk dealer Sam keeps going by buying and reselling contents of storage lockers. Then he finds a locker number of a scrap of paper. Leaving his second in command in charge, he takes off on a mission to score the contents and find out what it’s worth. The title provides the spoiler, but it is rather a setup line. Atwood is quite wonderful at drawing what comes next and what may happen after that. It’s a swift, neat trick, cleverly brought off.

Most interesting, however, is the way Atwood’s aging characters regard one another with clarity, with sympathy and with regret. The principals in the Alphinland trilogy describe their friends’ and lovers’ wrinkles and sagging flesh with close attention to the extreme measures (wardrobe, makeup, included flecks of gold) the women take to convince themselves they still look young. Yet this is done with sympathy: been there, going there, all that.

The last and probably the finest story in the collection, Torching the Dusties, introduces Wilma, a woman over a certain age, dependent on her ancient friend Tobias, who squires her everywhere because she can’t see.

“ ‘I should have known you back then,’ Tobias says to Wilma during his chocolates and champagne recitals” of past triumphs. “ ‘What sparks we would have struck!’ Wilma parses this in silence…”

Meanwhile their luxury assisted-living castle is under siege. The staff has fled. While Tobias rambles on about past conquests, a mob chanting “Torch the Dusties” gathers outside the gates, intent on eliminating the useless old people. Wilma, who depends on Tobias to lead her lunch, to dinner and, as it turns out, to safety, reflects: “We have to be kind to one another in here, she tells herself. We’re all we have left.”

With wit, sympathy and precision, Atwood draws readers into a reflective frame of mind. Then again, thinking about old age and what follows is an inevitable stage of life.

Kit Reed is a writer in New York.