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.)
"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
"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
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.
Reading Group Guide
One of our best-loved storytellers, Margaret Atwood writes with a wry wit and a keen understanding of human nature. In Moral Disorder
, she has created a series of interconnected stories that illuminate a lifetime of emotions, crossroads, and ironic fates. From the 1930s to the present, each decade serves as a rich palette for AtwoodÕs imaginative, at times wickedly humorous portrayal of the world. Guided by the protagonist, a writer named Nell, we tread terrain that ranges from the scenic to the treacherous: love lost and found, sibling rivalry and the nostalgia of childhood, political anxiety, the aging process, and contemporary life versus the raw power of nature.
A provocative depiction of humanity, Moral Disorder brims with topics for good conversation. We hope that the following questions will enhance your reading groupÕs discussion of this powerful collection.
1. Discuss the form and structure of the book. How was your reading affected by the fact that Moral Disorder
is neither a novel nor a collection of freestanding stories? What freedoms does this form provide both the author and the reader? What was the impact of the shift in point of view from first person to third person? In what way did these shifts correspond to the shifts in Nells life?
2. A starred review of Moral Disorder appearing in Kirkus Reviews describes Nell as “a freelance journalist and sometime teacher whose eventual commitment to writing seems born of the secrets and evasions into which a lifetime of relationships and responsibilities propels her.” What is your understanding of Nells impulse as a writer? In what way does being a writer shape her approach to the world around her?
3. How did you first interpret Tigs news that “they just killed the leader of the interim governing council” in “The Bad News”? How did you respond to the narrators frustrated musings on Tigs words, and on the violent history of the world?
4. Why does the narrator find Sarah Field Splints domestic ideals so appealing in “The Art of Cooking and Serving”? How does she feel about the maid shown in the photographs, in daytime and more formal dress? When you were a teenager, where did you look for role models and fantasies about your future?
5. What accounts for the sisters tremendous differences in “The Headless Horseman”? How did their mother address these differences? How did their perceptions of her, and of each other, change throughout their lifetimes?
6. In “My Last Duchess,” what personal woes do the narrator and her boyfriend project onto the poem? Obtain a copy of this Robert Browning classic and read it as a group. Whose interpretation do you favor? Was the duchess a victim, or a tart? Would the count have been concerned about his daughters fate?
7. What does the narrator want from a home and a city in “The Other Place”? How is she changed by her encounters with Owen?
8. How would you characterize Oona, who is introduced in “Monopoly”? As “governess,” should Nell have let the boys win at games? How did she adapt to the other new worlds to which Tig introduced her?
9. What meaning did you ascribe to the title of the featured story, “Moral Disorder”? Did you think of disorder in terms of disarray, or in terms of a malfunction or medical condition? In the title story, what morality does Nell find or not find in nature, from the profusion of crops to the demise of the lamb in the ending? How does the title apply to the collection as a whole?
10. Do Lizzie and Gladys share common ground in “White Horse”? What allows Lizzie to become freed from misdiagnosis and saved from attempted suicide? Why couldnt Gladys be rescued?
11. What was the real reason Nell felt compelled to house Oona in “The Entities”? In the closing lines
of this story Atwood writes, “In the end, well all become stories. Or else well become entities. Maybe its the same.” What entities have you left behind in various houses?
12. In “The Labrador Fiasco” the story of the doomed explorers sets an ominous tone as the narrators father copes with life after a stroke. She concludes the story by saying he is right to doubt her skill. What universal emotions are captured here, as parents reach the point of needing their children to become their guides?
13. In “The Boys at the Lab," we are told that the narrators mother only allows happy endings. How would you characterize the ending of her story? What is the significance of the books closing image—the memory of the aristocratic Indian venturing into raw wilderness?
14. Compare Moral Disorder to the Atwood fiction you have read previously. Are there traces of her signature themes, such as dystopia or violated trusts, in these stories? What new territory does this collection chart?