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.


Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular

Book by Rust Hills

Annotation by Kat Kambes

Rust Hills quickly lays out his thematic impetus in Writing In General and the Short Story in Particular. On the first page he states “only two things can be said about the nature of the short story.” He quickly points out that “a short story tells of something that happened to someone” and “…will demonstrate a more harmonious relationship of all its aspects than will any other literary art form…” This philosophy drives the books content, as the individual chapters each focus upon an aspect that Hills is quick to point out as an aspect, part of the necessary “harmonious relationships of all its aspects.”

Hills attempts to pull out the threads that make the cohesive whole, beginning with the story creating a change in behavior of the character. He drives this more explicitly to note that character does not really change, but that we are revealed something new about that character or witness the character understanding something new about himself. This is brought about through moving action. He explores the ideas of fixed action, something that is “constant (or repeatable) before the story happens,” as belonging to the beginning, so that the everyday, fixed quality of the character, will allow us to witness the “changed” character.

I particularly enjoyed the concept of “fork in the road” that was formative to the point where the real story is. These are events for the short story writer to focus on. The point of no return, where the character can no longer turn back. There has historically been much discussion about this point, the climax, the crisis point, or the crux and what is really driving here is that this moment bears a dynamic weight, that some truth be revealed. It might also be considered the “turning point” or reversal, but clearly the peak moment of change.

What Hills definitely approaches that is pronounced from the many books on writerly skills that I have encountered, is not the concept of internal conflict, which we have seen specified, but the astute further rendering of this idea: “…to be effective the situation of the conflict must be developed so that the forces or weights or values on each side are more or less balanced.” Stressing that the development of these forces, which heighten the conflict create more difficulty for the character. But this only takes us to the question of tension, in which Hills uses a definition close to is Latin root – tensus, meaning “stretch.” He states “Tension in fiction has that effect: of something that is being stretched taut until it must snap.”
Hills delves into character and challenges the writer to really know the character, the way their energy works, the abstract and mechanical intelligence, the sociability, habits, lifestyle, ad infinitum. It is through really knowing the character that an understanding of the character’s motivation can be made manifest. He states “…motive seems to create a sort of potential for movement in a character, to seem almost that part of character which potentially is plot.” He talks about using stress, and understanding the way this stress is expressed or suppressed in a character. We seem to know people more fully after going through a stressful situation with them.

As regards plot Hills states that “Plot…is never there for its own sake…. Any action in a story must be justified by its contribution to the whole.” He discusses at length the importance of selectivity in the short story form, how the selection process is crucial not just to characterization, but to setting, and that each of the aspects must subordinate themselves to the whole of the piece.

He does some exploration into the unique sections of the story, beginning, middle and ending and spends a good deal of time on point-of-view where he discusses both their individual usefulness as well as their limitations.
Hill was a long-time editor for Esquire magazine and strove heartily to bring the “literary” short story back into its framework. He spends a good deal of time extolling the virtues of literary endeavor and talks at length about the changing landscape of literature in our times.

This work of exploration on technique in writing the short story has at its core the perception of someone who has seen how the best of stories work. By this I mean, how all the moving parts fit together. For this reason, the book’s approach is different. Since Hills was an editor, he has a detached distance from the work. I previously read another book on craft written by editors Renni Browne and Dave King entitled Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which was much more nuts and bolts, dealing with specific issues of tense, beats, mechanics, proportion. These were all issues of practicality.

What Hills strives for is a deep level of “understanding” in the overall cohesiveness of the moving parts, which he explicitly sees as being in motion, action being a key concept to the unfolding nature of the whole.

Little Birds

Little BirdsBook by Anaїs Nin

Annotation by Kat Kambes

Little Birds is a collection of thirteen short stories of what has come to be known as erotic literature. Nin herself writes of this collection as her becoming “the Madame of an unusual house of literary prostitution.” Not because the work itself did not have the literary quality of her other work (for which I note some 40 + books) but that she had gotten to a point and place in her life where she needed money with a certain amount of desperation, so that, in her words, “my real writing was put aside when I set out in search of the erotic.” This was not an easy road to take, especially in the times written and she talks somewhat about this as “…at first difficult. The sexual life is usually enveloped in many layers, for all of us — poets, writers, artists. It is a veiled woman, half-dreamed.” So considering the great difficulty and challenge that a woman had to engage in to write these stories and sell them for making a living, I found them quite remarkable.

The nature of this work can be found to be avant garde for her time, in that, with regard to female sexuality, there still seems to be a hesitation amongst female writers to explore sexuality fully from the point of view of women. This might be due to the deeply internalized taboos that we have been formed by, or the fact that our history has largely been depicted through the imagery of male artists and consequently those are the viewpoints which have formed our ideology about art (what is and what isn’t). The fact that that these stories depict women who have desire is rather revolutionary in the sense that it breaks such a long held silence about women’s sexuality and Nin rather approaches her female characters as women who have command over there own sexuality. In this sense, I think Nin did women, and female writers, a service by expanding the preconceived concepts of what the “feminine” is. In this way, the stories hold a kind of empowering effect for women of her time.

Little Birds, the story, seems to take a non-judgmental view of a pedophile. This story would have received much more criticism in today’s time than it did in her own, just by the shear idea of the dynamic of the fantasy and how her main character, Manuel, ultimately entices young girls into his apartment. So while this particular story resonated an eroticism in her time, it undoubtedly would have been spurned in our time. None-the-less, she did capture the calculating behavior of this person in great detail, and when he finally exposed (literally) his lechery, her ending was full of humor and vindictiveness for the lewdness of his behavior.

The Woman on the Dunes seemed fully male fantasy, but in that respect, Nin was able to achieve a kind of dream like quality for her main male character, which remained unnamed, and as such enveloped a kind of dream-like effect. This seemed, when juxtaposed with the move to move, play by play of the sex scenes, (“…He placed it between her legs. She touched it. His hands searched her…”) to created a kind of tension. So what we get in the lead up is very poetic, then there is a bluntness to the sexual encounter, then the ending is once again poetic. I read where she was told to “take out all the poetry, it has to be nothing but description of sex,” and can see that clearly in the sex scenes of this story in particular. However, she did hold on to a fair amount of her poetry here.

Lina was an exploration of the lesbian experience. As such, it was brief and conflicted. This was much, I suppose, as Nin’s own experience. This brief story seemed almost more one of power than of sex, which is an interesting view on the lesbian experience, considering that her character Lina was the one who was ultimately duped and overpowered, yet portrayed with unresolved lesbian tendencies. I’m struck again by the directness of the sexual encounter, the way she refers to a man’s penis as his sex. But also the way Nin captures the conflicted nature of woman, wanting but unable to express her desire, for fear of being thought of cheaply or as less than.

Nin seems to travel through the gamet of sexual fantasy in this collection. From Lina she moves on to the Two Sisters, where Robert ultimately gets both. To this point, the stories seem to be written with the male fantasy in mind. It seems to me that, although Lina depicts two sexually assertive women, that the females in two sisters seem decidedly more conventional. However, it is in this convention, that she is able to define the ways in which these characters find themselves locked into their roles, and so their ultimate sexual expression is a great leap toward freedom.

My absolute favorite in the collection was The Queen, in which the model gets her body painted as a leopard for the masquerade party, and tells the painter she will meet him there. The imagery she draws, not just of this majestic character getting painted, but the artist who can hardly control himself to its completion is vivid and humorous. When the artist arrives at the party and follows her trail, it is a boldly drawn piece, and as such, the female, Bijou, is quite beautiful. To be able to capture this kind of bold beauty in the time written took great courage. She drew a particularly sharp line to a defining sexuality, and depicted her character fully in touch with that aspect of herself.

She touches upon themes of infidelity in Saffron as well, but interestingly is able to distinguish between physical infidelity and emotional infidelity in a way that is not often so clearly delineated by women. In Mandra she hits infidelity differently, a shared sexual experience between two females under a fur coat in a car on a way to an event with the husband sitting right next to them. Her tension is built as much in the context of the possibility of getting discovered as it is in the hand reaching between Miriam’s legs under the coat, fingering her clitoris until she “grows tense under my fingers.”

These themes are more or less repeated in various incarnations throughout the stories. While their appeal may be limited, they do carry with them a kind of political statement, and while Nin herself may have felt prostilitized by having to go “there” in her writing, she undoubtedly opened the door for many female writers, romance writers, or otherwise, who came up behind her. Her direct approach to the smells, sensations, and physical attributes of both her male and female characters make the work vivid and engaging. Her direct approach to the clitoris and penis and the way they behave, regardless of how their owners (male and female) might think about it, was an interesting exploration.

Angle of Repose

Angle of ReposeBook by Wallace Stegner

Annotation by Kat Kambes

Very eloquently written study of early California frontier life, particularly focused on an artist and the mining industry as seen through the exploration and foraging of the grandson. Stegner does a number of things that hold you deeply engaged through this lengthy depiction. Structurally, the book is two books entertwined. The first is the story of the young couple Susan and Oliver who make their way west during the early days of mining, and their eventual life together, the ups, downs, disappointments and accomplishments. Susan is an artist and Oliver an engineer. Susan is genteel and Oliver is enraptured by her gentility. This juxtaposition of the lives of Lyman Ward’s grandparents and his own life, which has been excruciatingly limited, and the veracity of the times play against each other to create tension.

The second book is that of the “author/narrator,” Lyman Ward, who is writing the history of his grandparents whilst being restrained in a wheelchair and having to learn to accommodate himself to a new life, one in which his wife has betrayed him and his son does not want to be burdened by him. These two texts work against each other and reflect each other throughout the book, bringing our historian writer, Lyman Wagner (grandson of the esteemed Susan and Oliver) closer to the truth about his own struggles, inhibitions and limiting attitudes which have “crippled” him.

There is an additional world created in this book, which is that of Grass Valley, its inhabitants and the times which are affecting them. Somehow, it is this third world that helps us to keep reality with Lyman Ward, our narrator, and keeps him from becoming an unreliable narrator. We seem to be able to rely upon him because he is cross-comparing in his research the differences between then and now (60’s at the time) and positioning himself between them.

The book utilizes knowingly the “Doppler Effect” – where the grandmother is continually longing for things in her past that are receding further and further into the distance an eventually lost and juxtaposes this as well against Oliver’s very forward looking, advanced thinking, toward the future.

The portrayal of the west in its full glory and beauty is seen while at the same time revealing the myth of the west as a kind of brave new world, full of gold, wealth, and opportunity. We see it’s fraying at the edges. We see it at the “Angle of Repose” – to the utmost angle before its loose surface begins to crumble. A metaphor encapsulating the book within the title.

There is a lot of reflecting that occurs throughout the book, Susan’s being restrained to be a “lady” – even in the most unseemly conditions, Lyman’s being restrained in a wheelchair. Susan having to have men do all for her, Lyman having to have others do for him. Susan being an artist. Lyman being a writer. There are numerous parallels throughout the text, that interconnect the story lines on a very subliminal level.

The artistry of Stegner to “paint” the locations are remarkable. He does some stunning work in drawing you into the scene, one sense, two senses, aural, visual, physical. Over and over again he meticulously drives the story with these “painted” portraits of the wild west, much as his Grandmother would have seen them. He has a unique ability to depict something in such stunning detail that the clarity is astounding. To this effect, the landscape itself becomes a character in the book, each location having its own definite color and contributing its own strengths and weaknesses to the story.

He mixes into the storyline, clippings, letters, journal entries that help drive the narrative. Through the letters Susan writes to her best friend back east in the “best circles” of artists and writers, we are provided a lens with which to see and experience her precariously complex nature and how conflicted she is about social standing and or this new spirit she is experiencing in the west. She wrestles with these issues. There are also communications with publishers and the on-going artistic projects, so that while she has an unrelenting longing to return to the civility of the east, she is truly becoming in every sense of the word in the west, the artist and writer that captures her place in the world. There are suggestions of infidelity, and it is in this grappling with the possibilities of Susan’s human frailty that Lyman must confront his own doggedness and grapple with forgiveness. The fact that these facts are never completely disclosed, but alluded to, seems to heighten the effect.

The cultural heritages that she was able to experience and engage with were on a much deeper level than her eastern counterparts experience of foreign culture, and she was able to capture this in her art. Stegner brought a great complexity to these characters and wove the stories together in subtle tones. There could have been less perhaps of the historical scenes, and brought the two novels into more direct proportion, but I got the distinct feeling that the “larger life” of Susan and Oliver was part of his overall thematic quest, as his critique of the “modern” students of the present day, seemed to on one hand move in the quality of looseness, he considered that a process of dilution, whereby people were losing a sense of personal and particular identity and sensitivity to each other. So on another level this was also a critique of the modern relationship, and its inability to endure and begs the question of dedication.