|You believed you could transcend the body as you aged. You believed you could rise above it, to a serene, non-physical realm. But it's only through ecstasy you can do that, and ecstasy is achieved through the body itself. Without the bone and sinew of wings, no flight. Without that ecstasy you can only be dragged further down by the body, into its machinery. Its rusting, creaking, vengeful, brute machinery. —Margaret Atwood|
—So much for growing old gracefully, with dignity, and with the oft-touted conciliatory "rewards of transcendent wisdom."
Most of the nine stories in Margaret Atwood's "Stone Mattress" feature older characters not quite but well on their way to terminal decrepitude. We are "treated" to darkly humorous but closely, poignantly observed details of the old folks' crumbling exteriors and haunted interiors. All the chips and scars, wrinkles and aches, all the regrets and dreams of revenge, griefs and grievances that aging flesh is heir to are sharply and unflatteringly delineated in what amounts to the literary equivalent of one of those motel mirrors at four in the morning. You know the kind I mean: the kind that tell you more than anyone needs to know about what they really look like.
Christ, this is a depressing book in spite of the irony and funereal humor. It's one of the most depressing books of fiction I've read in a while. And I often head straight to the Depressing Literature section of any bookstore or library. I've got several honorary Ph.D.'s in Suicidal Pessimism. My work in the field is without precedent or equal. I take a back seat to no one intent on driving their car straight into a bridge abutment.
These stories were so powerful they convinced me not to grow too much older. But the problem remains: how old is too old? And how do you know when the time has come to bail? You can't really hope for disease to decide the matter—they are often nasty and painful and accelerate the aging process, forcing you to experience prematurely everything you wished to avoid by hanging on by the skin of your teeth. You can hope to get hit by a cement mixer, but that's a hope as unlikely to be fulfilled as winning the lottery. That leaves suicide, of course. But again…when? And more to the practical…how?
This is life: You wake up on a speeding train with a newspaper in your lap. You don't know how you got on the train. You don't remember boarding. Or why. You don't know where the train is going. The conductors are scarce and unhelpful even when they can be located. Outside the window, the scenery races passed in a blur. There are people in the club car. They're drinking cocktails and laughing and playing cards. They aren't of any help. As a last resort, you can always join them. Meanwhile, you move along the rattling train and you begin to understand: the train you're on is heading straight off a cliff. There is no engineer, no brakeman; at least that's the conclusion you're obliged to come to given the evidence. If there is anyone at the controls, he must be mad. In any event, the door to the locomotive is locked. It's hopelessly jammed. There's no jimmying it. The best have tried. No one has ever been inside. No one ever will.
The other passengers seem to be vaguely aware of the situation; they're just trying not to think about it too much. They seem fuzzy at best about the details of their ultimate destination. They seem to figure someone must be in control. Others are pretty fanatical or fantastical in their belief that at the bottom of the abyss into which the train is inexorably going to plunge, some fraction of the passengers will miraculously emerge intact. Naturally they believe themselves to be among these lucky souls. You find yourself unable to engage in the narcotic of this sort of magical thinking.
Meanwhile, you sometimes stand between cars and look at the earth speeding beneath your feet like the blade of a circular saw. One step—instant oblivion. But it's better than waiting for the catastrophic end, for with every mile the ride gets rougher and more nauseating. How do you get yourself to take that fatal leap. "Now!" you tell yourself. "Now!" But you don't move; it's as if you were hypnotized, paralyzed. The miles race by like moments. "Now!" There you remain standing, going nowhere, but speeding closer to the inevitable abyss with every passing second.
If only someone would give you a firm shove from behind. Some kind stranger. Or even psychopath.
You can imagine the firm decisive hand between your shoulder blades. Like wings.
Your feet leaving the platform.
You can almost feel that hand, those wings.
But no one is there.
There is no one to give you a hand.
There are no wings.