‘Happy Endings’ by Margaret Atwood

How do we choose an ending to a story, and where does it really end? This is a very popular short story from Atwood, one that would perhaps be familiar to many of you. I wanted to include this because it perfectly illustrates what this anthology has tried to do: to say that there is no one way of writing a story, and that all of us are unreliable narrators even of our own lives. And, even if the middle of our stories differs, and the way we shape the paths of our lives, the ending is often the same: we all die. I find this ending quite comforting. 

First published in Murder in the Dark, 1983

‘Orphan Stories’ by Margaret Atwood

How swiftly the orphans set sail! No sooner does the starting gun fire than they’re flying! Their yachts are slimmer, their lines trimmer than ours – than our stodgy barges.

Like all the pieces in The Tent, ’Orphan Stories’ is somewhere between an essay and a story, possibly a prose poem, or perhaps a journal note or sketch made up of  broad, confident sentences. If you read or write a lot, or think about words a lot, you can sometimes feel bogged down. Every time I go back to it, this story feels like throwing open the doors and windows in a musty room. Read it! Let the air in!

From The Tent, Bloomsbury, 2006

‘Happy Endings’ by Margaret Atwood

A metatext; at 1,300 words it’s flash fiction. First published two years after The Handmaid’s Tale. John and Mary and their various configurations, then Madge and James. A multiple choice of possibilities. Atwood moves in and out of third and second person. The commentary on the characters: “You can see what kind of woman she is by the fact that it is not even whiskey.” This is a text we show Imperial students a lot – they love it. The games we play in the love game. The deceptions. There is something so banal and knowing in the writing; Atwood playing God. The final page is the most revealing. “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun.” We always ask the students to write their own endings. And they do write – with varying degrees of wit and drama. Invariably John and Mary turn out to be gay. Or mass murderers. It’s a great one for debating construction of a narrative – even though the tone has a clinical distancing. I think ‘Happy Endings’ would make a great short film.

First Published in Murder in The Dark, January, 1983, Coach House Press

‘Stone Mattress’ by Margaret Atwood

Atwood, it strikes me, is into revenge: it is writ large in her recent Hagseed; it is the fantasy driving The Robber Bride (a favourite of mine). ‘Stone Mattress’ has one of the most delicious opening lines I’ve read, enticing us to follow Verna as she coldly calculates a revenge most satisfying. In many ways this is a simple story. Verna is aboard an arctic cruise ship when she encounters the man who turned her life upside down forty or so years before. Will he recognise her, and apologise, and if not, what should she do? The glory here is in the quiet organisation as she plots her method, disturbing yet immensely cathartic, even more so in the wake of #MeToo. It is also in Atwood’s hilarious characterisation of the other men in Verna’s life, and Verna’s honed flirtation techniques, ‘perching the Magnetic Northward nametag just slightly too low on her left breast’, pronouncing Bob’s name with a ‘small breathy intake, a certified knee-melter.’ Refreshingly, nobody in this story has an epiphany, or goes through some profound change. Revenge is best served at arctic temperatures.

In Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales (Virago, 2015) and in The New Yorker, available to read online here

‘In Search of the Rattlesnake Plantain’ by Margaret Atwood

The narrator’s father takes the family out into the woods search of the rattlesnake plantain, an unprepossessing bog orchid. “He doesn’t want one of these plants for anything; if he found a rattlesnake plantain, all he would do is look at it. But it would be reassuring, something else that is still with us. So I keep my eyes on the ground.” This story is about vanishing worlds: memories – the narrator’s, and the narrator’s ailing father’s – that slip away; species that are driven to extinction. ‘My father has a list in his head of things that are disappearing,’ she writes. ‘Leopard frogs, certain species of wild orchid, loons, possibly. These are just the things around here.’ Atwood writes about wild things with measured introspection: “With dead birches, the skin outlasts the centre, which is the opposite from the way we do it. There is no moment of death for anything, really; only a slow fade, like a candle or an icicle.”

First published in Harper’s Magazine, 1986, and available online here. Collected in Bluebeard’s Egg, Vintage, 1996