Moral Disorder and Other Stories

book by Margaret Atwood

Annotation by Kat Kambes

At once saturated with wry humor and a piercing undertone, the stories compiled to create Atwood’s Moral Disorder moves across time focusing on intense points of Nell, the lead characters, life. Atwood grabbed hold of me right from the beginning and held me tight through her entire trip. It is a deeply provocative group of stories that combine more as a thread of autobiography. It isn’t quite autobiography, in that there are only points of life explored, and not quite fiction, as we get the sense that there is definite and real foundation that she is spieling from.

In the eleven stories that Atwood has presented us with, we negotiate our way back and forth through time – she stitches the fabric of her life together. There is something quite delicate in the way Atwood handles her memories. She hones in on very particular moments, expanding them as her lens moves in closely to scrutinize, finding that one crack in the world where understanding is gained. As in “Bad News” when the morning starts with the “news” over breakfast. “Look at the paper,” says Tig.” We witness the couple dancing around each other in a kind of tactful allegiance, drawn crisply as near polar opposites. “There are pictures. Is bad news worse with pictures? I think so. Pictures make you look, whether you want to or not….”

What really strikes me is how masterful Atwood is at what she does not say, always breathing deep into a situation and then leaving the reader to watch the air escape. In “The Art of Cooking and Serving” we learn all about a young girls anticipation over the birth of her sister, shrouded in fear and parental isolation, where she learns to be the most helpful and accepting daughter in all ways, but soon discovers an inner side to her developing, one in which she would no longer be compelled to always do everyone’s bidding – “Why should I?” I said. “She’s not my baby. I didn’t have her. You did.” This moment, as she liberated herself, her mother slapped her face forcefully. “…I also felt set free, as if released from an enchantment…another more secret life spread out before me, unrolling like dark fabric.” It is in these concise moments that Atwood captures something of her growing spirit, a spark of what is lit under the behavior of the tale itself that radiates the true story.

Each of these narratives touch upon an incident and draws out the blood of the moment, like some poison bite sucked to its surface. There is the precarious relationship with her younger sister, who is ultimately diagnosed with mental illness. There is her first love, who has the misfortune of being a math wiz and not an English wiz, and must prepare for a state English exam, one in which the fate of their future would be based upon in the school system they attended, and the desperate knowledge that “I’d be going on. I’d be finding things out. I’d be all on my own” and her first love would not.

She takes us through some unsettling issues with developing a relationship and then living with a married man, one in which she herself has plenty of misgivings about. There are several stories that touch upon this relationship, as well as the abundance of relationships surrounding it.

The title piece, “Moral Disorder” takes place as the couple Nell and Tig purchase their first place together, a farm in a rural community. Nell’s life is rapidly overcome with the needs of their homestead and attending to the myriad of animals which Tig is intent upon obtaining, as well as caring for his boys when they come up for weekends, plant a garden, and cook homemade bread and goodies. It is when they must slaughter one of the animals that Nell comes to grips with what farm life is really about, at what level of survival and what responsibility we have in the cycle of life. “Maybe she would grow cunning, up here on the farm. Maybe she would absorb some of the darkness, which might not be darkness at all but only knowledge…”

What I found Atwood most superb at is taking one item, one thing, and focusing in on that and building a story around it. We start with the newspaper, the knitting of a layette set, a paper mâché horse head, the poem “The Last Duchess,” the visiting odd guy, Owen, a game of Monopoly, a horse, Lillie, the adventure tale of The Labrador, a picture of some boys at her father’s lab, large and small things that she hitches her tale to. She utilizes the imagery to find her way into the story, but also to radiate some compelling issue or discovery from the time, overlapping and stitching as she goes, juxtaposing a story inside the story, as in the tale of the Labrador set against her father’s diminishing abilities; the adventurers desperate to find their way back home, her father, after multiple strokes, unable to find his way back “home” as well.

This group of stories, besides documenting a long life of familial joy and pain, moments of epiphany, also renders with warmth and humor a deep sense of Atwood’s own Canadian heritage, deeply rooted in a fondness for wilderness and nature, while struggling to have both autonomy and career. It is a most compelling journey. There are no big dramatic sweeps, but in the simplicity of real life, in the hearts of real people, in the tenderness of fragile moments, her life speaks to us. There were considerable gaps that struck this reader as noticeable, as in the amount of time she focused on the children of her lover, yet Nell’s own child was never portrayed or spoken of. While I do not doubt that she was with good reason to make this choice, it did feel that something as life altering as the birth of your own child might be considered in a book that attempted to touch upon the key turning points of one’s life.

Atwood seems to capture with such clarity and nuanced tone the fragrant moments of the life she did wish to portray however, that I am all at once moved to both re-read the pages, and find a paper mâché head in my own life.

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