In the recent film (and Academy Award Best Picture winner) Birdman, Michael Keaton plays a washed-up actor attempting to revive his career by directing a Broadway show. The play is based on Raymond Carver’s book of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. All of the production’s onstage action is contained within two rooms: a kitchen and a bedroom.
This modest set is all that’s needed for the adaptation of Carver’s book, the majority of which takes place in these intimate settings. The deepest parts of humanity are revealed in the spaces where breakfast is prepared, where stiff drinks are poured. We reveal our truest selves in the privacy of the domestic sphere, and Carver’s stories brim with suppressed emotion.
But Carver’s renowned ability to depict the compressed details of ordinary lives is largely an anomaly in fiction. More often, everyday details pale before the grandiosity of adventure or tragedy. We are accustomed to stories that exclude banal routines, that command us to forget that characters are human beings who drink water as well as scotch. And for good reason – the daily drudgery of self-care can be boring. Beyond the magnificent example of Carver, few other authors successfully write meaning into the mundane.
There are several notable writers who do succeed in this milieu. Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road uses the home of two married protagonists as a setting to explore their failed expectations. Alice Munro injects the gothic into the domestic in her short story collections, and Ann Beattie’s short stories reflect the emotional ramifications of interactions within family households. Continuing in this tradition, Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short stories, Stone Mattress, uses domestic settings to explore intimacy.
The book opens with Alphinland, which details the persistence of a marriage’s daily tendernesses even after death. Newly-widowed author Constance is preparing for an ice storm. Her husband still talks to her, despite being ‘no longer in a tangibly living condition’. Through this supernatural (or delusional) interaction, Atwood characterises the tone of Constance and Ewan’s relationship: ‘A striding voice, showing the way. An extended index-finger voice, teasing, making light: that was often his manner towards her before he became ill.’ Beyond the grave, the husband continues to support his wife in practical ways, reminding her to take a flashlight when leaving the house for supplies, and to make sure the pipes don’t freeze.
Atwood also depicts the emotional caretaking and protection of their relationship. Constance remembers caring for Ewan as he died of cancer: ‘She tucked the plaid car rug around him and sat beside him, holding his hand, with the tears running silently down her cheeks and her head turned away so he couldn’t see. He didn’t need to be distressed by her distress.’
There is great intimacy in Ewan and Constance’s complimentary care. Such repetitive acts of love are a necessary and beautiful part of partnered life; it’s validating to see these faithfully reflected in fiction.
The eager, heartfelt dependency of this story’s couple is subverted in Revenant, where we meet Gavin, Constance’s first love and first heartbreak. Like her, he is now elderly. His third wife, Reynolds, is thirty years his junior, and his full-time carer.
While Gavin was a ‘grimly satirical’ poet in his youth, now he is a terribly ungrateful and nasty old man, whose disdain for his wife is tempered only by his absolute dependence on her.
‘“Are you awake?” says Reynolds brightly as she clacks across the floor … Reynolds tucks the pillows in behind Gavin, one behind his head, one at the small of his back. This pillow arrangement, she claims, makes him look taller and more impressive. She straightens the plaid car rug that covers his legs and feet, and which she insists on calling his nap blanket. “Oh, Mr Grumpy!” she says. “Where’s your smile?”’
She cares for him in a dopey, patronising way. Their domestic intimacy is a twisted web of humiliation. Reynolds sees Gavin at his weakest, and treats him with no more respect than she would a child, revealing and cementing his powerlessness.
The similarly dependent relationship depicted in Torching the Dusties showcases Atwood’s talent for pace and suspense. Wilma is almost blind, and relies on bon vivant and fellow resident Tobias for help around the upper-class nursing home they live in. The balance of invalid and caretaker mirrors Gavin and Reynolds, yet Wilma embraces her powerlessness with good humour. ‘We have to be kind to one another in here, she tells herself. We’re all we have left.’
Their everyday coexistence relies on a tight routine. ‘Here comes Tobias, punctual as ever. They always have breakfast together. He knocks first, like the courtly gentleman he purports to be.’ When a protest outside the home turns violent, Tobias, ever by Wilma’s side, keeps her safe. In taking responsibility for another’s life, he demonstrates another essential facet of intimacy: loyalty.
In Dark Lady, twins Tin and Jorrie are also loyal companions. Unlucky in love, the pithy, Wilde-esque characters have each other for company in their old age. They talk flippantly about cancer and murder, and laugh easily at people. When side-by-side, they are wholly themselves. ‘Even when they’re putting on a front, they fool only outside people: to each other they’re transparent as guppies, they can see each other’s innards.’
Could that be a definition of intimacy? To see each other’s innards? In the act of living together, of serving each other coffee and bagels, can one know the true inner self of their partner: the ugly bits, the failings, the selflessness, the kindness?
In Stone Mattress, Atwood’s stories make a remarkable study of intimacy, of seeing each other’s innards, in different partnerships. Through the domestic details she describes, her masterful characterisation and her sharp tone, Atwood crafts the mundane into the profound. It is in the daily rituals of partners that we find life’s harshest truths and greatest beauty.