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Moral Disorder: And Other Storiesby Margaret Atwood
"Unlike some books, in which key plot points revealed ahead of time may ruin the dramatic effect, the story of Moral Disorder — a woman's life — should be familiar, one in which births and deaths occur in the natural way. 'Where are we without our plots?' Nell asks, as her father loses his memory, and thus, his own narrative. The stories we know, Atwood suggests, help us make sense of the 'other stories,' the stories yet to come." Alexis Smith, Powells.com (read the entire Powells.com review)
Synopses & Reviews
Margaret Atwood is acknowledged as one of the foremost writers of our time. In Moral Disorder, she has created a series of interconnected stories that trace the course of a life and also the lives intertwined with it — those of parents, of siblings, of children, of friends, of enemies, of teachers, and even of animals. As in a photograph album, time is measured in sharp, clearly observed moments. The '30s, the '40s, the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, and the present — all are here. The settings vary: large cities, suburbs, farms, northern forests.
"The Bad News" is set in the present, as a couple no longer young situate themselves in a larger world no longer safe. The narrative then switches time as the central character moves through childhood and adolescence in "The Art of Cooking and Serving," "The Headless Horseman," and "My Last Duchess." We follow her into young adulthood in "The Other Place" and then through a complex relationship, traced in four of the stories: "Monopoly," "Moral Disorder," "White Horse," and "The Entities." The last two stories, "The Labrador Fiasco" and "The Boys at the Lab," deal with the heartbreaking old age of parents but circle back again to childhood, to complete the cycle.
By turns funny, lyrical, incisive, tragic, earthy, shocking, and deeply personal, Moral Disorder displays Atwood's celebrated storytelling gifts and unmistakable style to their best advantage. As the New York Times has said: "The reader has the sense that Atwood has complete access to her people's emotional histories, complete understanding of their hearts and imaginations."
"An intriguing patchwork of poignant episodes, Atwood's latest set of stories (after The Tent) chronicles 60 years of a Canadian family, from postwar Toronto to a farm in the present. The opening piece of this novel-in-stories is set in the present and introduces Tig and Nell, married, elderly and facing an uncertain future in a world that has become foreign and hostile. From there, the book casts back to an 11-year-old Nell excitedly knitting garments for her as yet unborn sister, Lizzie, and continues to trace her adolescence and young adulthood; Nell rebels against the stern conventions of her mother's Toronto household, only to rush back home at 28 to help her family deal with Lizzie's schizophrenia. After carving out a 'medium-sized niche' as a freelance book editor, Nell meets Oona, a writer, who is bored with her marriage to Tig. Oona has been searching for someone to fill 'the position of second wife,' and she introduces Nell to Tig. Later in life, Nell takes care of her once vital but now ravaged-by-age parents. Though the episodic approach has its disjointed moments, Atwood provides a memorable mosaic of domestic pain and the surface tension of a troubled family. (Sept. 19)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A young writer, like a young woman, has a narrow strip of experience from which to contemplate an unknown future, empty and waiting for its form. An older writer, reminded of mortality by aging knees and dying parents, has the consolation of seeing everything in rich detail, meaningful and apparently pointless together. Moral Disorder is about a whole life, the life of Nell, married to Tig, or Gilbert.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) It is told in segments, stories concentrating on particular gritty or glittering episodes or problems. It covers every decade from the 1930s to the present. Margaret Atwood balances the apparently random _ disorderly _ events and memories against the sense we all have that a life as a whole has its own shape, possibly a destiny. Moral Disorder is a perfect title _ apparently one from a novel abandoned by Atwood's husband, which fits. And the work, with its isolated tales, some in the first person, some in the third, is a perfect shape for contemplating life and death. It is like our memories: There are things that persist in refusing to be forgotten, are as clear as the day they happened, whereas all sorts of more apparently significant things vanish into dust or persist only in old newspapers and fashion magazines. A life, unlike a biography, does not unfold in a neat progression. Nor is it entirely incoherent. Each of these stories coheres round a defined patch of Nell's life, and each has its own cluster of brilliantly described and unforgettable things, which are as important as the people. In 'The Art of Cooking and Serving,' the 11-year-old Nell is knitting a layette for an unborn sister _ the garments' slight lopsidedness and lumpiness unforgettable _ and reading a book of household advice that gives her a vision of a perfect life ahead, with table centerpieces and housemaids in daytime dress or dressed with black stockings and organdy collar and cuffs for afternoon tea and dinner. In 'The Other Place,' the young graduate is living in a bedsit with a gilt mirror and a horrible green satin bedspread. In 'Monopoly' and in 'Moral Disorder' itself, Nell is living with a married man (knitting again) in a ramshackle farm and attached, as one is at that age, to the Earth, which is madly overloaded with too much flesh, feathers, fur, vegetables, pots, pans and rapidly changing seasons. Only Atwood could have written the fat white horse called Gladys and the intransigent lamb (and the abattoir where he ends) with such grim and delicious comedy. Atwood remarks dryly that at that stage, Nell 'still thought life on a farm represented some superior form of authenticity.' Houses, too, mark the shape of a life, not least as containers for the memorable things. Tig's ex-wife, Oona _ a 1970s cookery and good-life guru in a caftan, author of Femagician's Box of Tricks _ falls on bad times and needs a manageable house, which Nell, her supplanter, provides. It is discovered by Lillie, a concentration camp survivor turned real estate agent, incurably imaginative about what can be done to hideous or uncomfortable houses. In this house, Oona dies in the kitchen, her son bleeds on the floor breaking in to help her, and Nell calls in a 'feng shui friend, who found her an expert in crystals and purification.' The 'crystal person, whose name was Susan' discovers a 'channel where the entities come and go' that has to be purified. The house is sold to two gay men, who mistake the entities for 'aunties' and find it all funny. Nell thinks about the 'entities,' which can be seen as shorthand for the things and memories from which Atwood has movingly and artfully constructed her book. 'All that anxiety and anger, those dubious good intentions, those tangled lives, that blood,' she writes. 'I can tell about it or I can bury it. In the end, we'll all become stories. Or else we'll become entities. Maybe it's the same.' I understood only slowly how integral to the whole book was the contrast between blood, pain, sickness and death and those visions of a planned future purveyed by household advice, television images, children's stories. The child Nell had a book in which the ideal home with the ideal mother had white frilly curtains that haunt her as something that must be in the future until they are tried and found impractical. Nell, in a lopsided, ungainly and morally disordered way, does attach herself to the human community of men, women, children and work. But she has a recurrent dream, all her life, of the 'other place,' a place still haunted by the gilt mirror and the 'green satin bedspread, which has taken on a life of its own and is able to morph into cushions, or sofas, or armchairs, or even _ once _ a hammock.' In this dream, like the hero of Henry James's chilling 'The Beast in the Jungle,' whose doom is to be the only human to whom nothing happens, she understands: 'I'll have to be all by myself, forever. I've missed the life that was supposed to be mine.' And she is aware, in a room she hasn't yet entered, of an imprisoned child. 'We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on,' says Prospero, 'And our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.' Moral Disorder is cunningly constructed of the vagaries of memory and is rounded by Alzheimer's and forgetting. Nell, Tig and Nell's sister test themselves for failing memory as they ruefully allow for failing knees. There is a moving, evocative story of Nell's father, after a stroke, inhabiting a story Nell reads to him, of three explorers disastrously astray in Labrador. There is a plain and very sad tale of Nell's mother, reduced to immobility, her memories slipping away, though living on, briefly, in a different form, in Nell's own memories. The mother dreams a repeating dream of being lost, and no one, no thing, being there, only the empty sky and a logjam she tries to climb. This tale, like all these tales, is both grim and delightful, because it is triumphantly understood and excellently written. A.S. Byatt is a writer of novels and stories. Her latest book is 'Little Black Book Of Stories.'" Reviewed by A.S. Byatt, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Her stories are sophisticated, reticent, ornate, stark, supple, stiff, savage or forgiving; they are exactly what she wants them to be. They are stories from the prime of life." Times Literary Supplement
"Stories like 'The White Horse'...prove Atwood is still a master of the compelling, peculiar portrait of human behavior. (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"...Atwood's stories evoke humankind's disasterous hubris and phenomenal spirit with empathy and bemusement." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Crisp, vivid detail and imagery and a rich awareness of the unity of human generations, people and animals...make Moral Disorder one of Atwood's most accessible and engaging works yet." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"In these reflective selections, Atwood...turns inward, as autobiographical as she has been to date. The result is alternatively humorous and heart-wrenching, occasionally sardonic and always brutally honest....Recommended..." Library Journal
This collection of ten stories is almost a novel by turns funny, lyrical, incisive, tragic, earthy, shocking, and deeply personal — displaying Atwood's celebrated storytelling gifts and unmistakable style to their best advantage.
Margaret Atwood has frequently been cited as one of the foremost writers of our time. MORAL DISORDER, her moving new book of fiction, could be seen either as a collection of ten stories that is almost a novel or as a novel broken up into ten stories. It resembles a photograph album ? a series of clearly observed moments that trace the course of a life, and also of the lives intertwined with it ? those of parents, of siblings, of children, of friends, of enemies, of teachers, and even of animals.
About the Author
Margaret Atwood's books have been published in over thirty-five countries. She is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid's Tale, her novels include Cat's Eye — shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; and her most recent, Oryx and Crake — shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2003. She lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.
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