A stony affair

Helga’s Post #102: More rain warnings, storm warnings and just plain misery here in Vancouver. Hard to believe we are among the lucky ones. But we are, by far. Weather forecasts in other parts of the country and from our neighbours to the south read like chapters from a Stephen King novel. Grizzly headlines like ‘Winter Storm Juno: Blizzard Warnings for New York City, Boston, Parts of 7 States; Potentially Historic Northeast Snowstorm Ahead’, and worse, ‘Boston pounded by 3 feet of snow’, and flood warnings galore. I try to think how this could be woven into a story.

I love to read about weather in novels. If the author does a good job, weather can be an important character in a novel. I am sure most readers can recall books where weather added greatly to the plot and put the protagonist in severe danger or perhaps saved him/her from an evil antagonist. Weather can also be a great tool for an author to use as a platform to make statements about our society. This struck me while reading Margaret Atwood’s ‘Stone Mattress’. In usual fashion and with her deft hand at sarcasm, she spares no one. For me, reading her books as a writer (not just to be entertained) is more valuable than a great many ‘how-to’ books. With this in mind I would like to chat about this book and about her style of writing in this post.Print

It has taken me a while to appreciate what she does with her writing. It’s not so much her plots that keep me turning the pages, but her wry sense of humor and sheer cleverness. Admittedly, not all the nine ‘tales’ in the book are winners. Although, for the most part Atwood’s narrative control, her ability to surprise and her sparkling language are on full display. Let’s take a look at what critics have to say.

The Guardian tells us what to expect of ‘Stone Mattress’: Horror stories, fantastical worlds and something very nasty in a storage unit: A sly take on the memories and myth-making of old age.’ I would like to quote some excerpts where Atwood makes some statements about our society and old age using weather as a tool:

Two young commentators – a boy, a girl, both of them wearing stylish black parkas with halos of pale fur around their faces – hunch under dripping umbrellas… They’re ecxited; they say they’ve never seen anything like it. Of course they haven’t, they’re too young. Next there are shots of calamities: a multiple car-crash pileup, a fallen tree that’s bashed off part of a house… An ambulance is on the scene, a fire truck, a huddle of raingear-clad operatives: someone’s been injured, always a sight to make the heart beat faster. A policeman appears, crystals of ice whitening his moustache; he pleads sternly with people to stay inside…. His frowning, frosted eyebrows are noble, like those on the wartime bond-drive posters from the 1940s.

Finally, a minor touch of pathos: a stray dog is displayed, semi-frozen, wrapped in a child’s pink nap blanket. A gelid baby would have been better, but for lack of one the dog will do. The two young commentators make Aw cute faces; the girl pats the dog, which wags it sodden tail feebly. “Lucky guy,” says the boy. This could be you, it’s implied, if you don’t behave yourself, only you wouldn’t get rescued. The boy turns to the camera and solemnifies his face, even though it’s clear he’s having the time of his life. There’s more to come, he says. Stay tuned!

So, while nothing has really happened here, (not yet) we learn much about the main character; her age and her intelligence and her mockery of society’s appetite for calamities as a form of entertainment. The characters of the first three ‘tales’ (as Atwood insists on calling them, rather than ‘stories’) are linked to one another while later ones are stand-alones. All share a kind of common theme, or a current that flows hidden underneath.

You could call it sub-text, which most writers know to be a powerful tool when crafting a story. In fact, all successful stories have sub-text if we look closely. Sub-text is sort of like a cousin to the premise of ‘show don’t tell’. It’s often the unsaid or unwritten words through which we learn more about a character than simply describing it (or spoon-feeding the reader). Another example from ‘Stone Mattress’ where Atwood exploits the use of sub-text:

The TV screen is a flat high-definition one that Ewan bought so he could watch hockey and football games on it. Constance would rather have the old fuzzy one back, with its strangely orange people… there are some things that do not fare well in high-definition. She resents the pores, the wrinkles, the nose hairs, the impossibly whitened teeth shoved right up in front of your eyes…

Without describing (telling) their relationship we get more than a glimpse from that one sentence about the TV. Ewen bought it so ‘he could watch games’. It’s the story’s undercurrent of their relationship. No other words are needed to describe it.

Jeong Hwa Min

Jeong Hwa Min

So, sub-text can be a writer’s powerful friend. Here is how author Irene Ziegler describes it:

Sub-text is how to talk about something without talking about it. Subtext is like a donut hole. It exists, but only in the context of something else. You don’t really write sub-text, because that’s the stuff people don’t say.

To put it another way:

1. The stuff that people say is text.

2. The stuff that people mean, is sub-text.

Now that’s a long way from how I started this post, writing about the weather. It’s my undisciplined writer’s mind, I guess. Or maybe weather is a fascinating topic for me especially at this time: You see, I am preparing to leave the gritty wet coast for warmer climes next week. No packing sweaters, gum boots and rain gear. My luggage will consist of swim-suits, sunscreen, and sleeveless tops. I will throw in my sun shield so that I can read the remaining tales of ‘Stone Mattress’ at poolside. If I sound gleeful, that’s just what it is. A much-deserved getaway with my spouse after months of challenges that life has a way of throwing in our path when we least expect it.

4 thoughts on “A stony affair

    • Hilary, I am in the same camp as you when it comes to Atwood. If I read her as a ‘reader’ for entertainment, I am not a fan of all her plots and concepts. But reading her as ‘writer’ is a different matter. That’s when I can admire her. Thanks for your comment.

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