Moral Disorder: And Other Stories
by Margaret Atwood
Where the Plot Is
A review by Alexis Smith
About halfway through Margaret Atwood's latest book, I wondered whether that slight, afterthought of a subtitle, and Other Stories, might be a pun of some kind. What one expects from a short story collection, and what one encounters in Moral Disorder are distinctly different. One might read the stories in a collection at random, beginning at the end, or in the middle of the book and sampling stories here and there throughout. Indeed, Atwood's other story collections can be read satisfactorily in this way. Moral Disorder and Other Stories reads like a novel, however, following the protagonist, Nell, from childhood, through adolescence, middle age, and finally, old age. The reason "and other stories" might give one pause is because Nell's stories are about other stories -- the ones she's read in novels, the ones from history or regional lore, the ones she's been told, or discovers in family photo albums. Nell's story is about the way in which narratives -- our own, and those of others -- help us to read, and thus to understand, the world around us.
The first story in the collection does not, actually, introduce Nell as a child. In fact, in the beginning we meet Nell as an elderly woman, waking up to her husband's pronouncement of the "bad news" from the morning paper. This curious chapter, told in Nell's voice, describes the rhythms of the couple's life -- their voiced and unvoiced concerns, their unresolved pet peeves, their breakfast table. The pace is steady, but slow; it nods and heaves sighs, and makes its way deliberately. Very deliberately. Atwood, whose approach is always measured and precise, establishes a domestic scene of absolute comfort, then deftly yanks the tablecloth from under the tea service. The elderly couple, arguing about assassins, are privately terrified by an unimaginable but inevitable future known as "not yet," a future in which only one of them remains. The last two pages of the story shift perspective dramatically, to ancient times, just before the Roman Empire has fallen. In this scene from the past, a woman breakfasts with her husband and "bad news" of invading barbarians makes its way to their table. The "not yet" trails like an ellipses at the end of the story, to place us, the readers, in a parallel narrative of the past.
Atwood cunningly introduces us to Nell as an elderly woman, then shifts to Nell's childhood in "The Art of Cooking and Serving." The chapters that follow are a mostly chronological account of different stages of Nell's life. The older Nell -- the opinionated, wry Nell of "Bad News" -- seems to be recounting these memories, building a narrative of her past through snapshots, dialogue, and reminiscences. In this way, Atwood's crafty use of the short-story framework comes in handy: there are entire years missing, and some characters -- Nell's older brother, or Nell and Tig's daughter, for example -- remain outside the narratives collected here. Omissions like these don't read like vacancies in the plot, but rather, like the strange way in which our strongest memories are not necessarily about the most important moments in our lives, or the most important people. In that way, "and other stories," implies a selective process, one that acknowledges the ways in which one story leads into another, but accepts the impossibility of telling every one of them. Despite the implied separateness of the stories here, a feeling of unity persists that suggests Atwood's awareness of a novel-schematic at work in the book.
Of the persistent themes of Moral Disorder, the idea of "the reader" is perhaps the most important. Nell, from childhood, is a reader -- of books, of characters, of situations. Her absorption of familiar narratives (housekeeping manifestos and Victorian and noir novels, in particular) often influences her relationship with the world around her. In "The Headless Horseman" Nell describes how her childhood as a reader set her apart from others:
[I]f I studied a thing in school I assumed it was general knowledge. I hadn't yet discovered that I lived in a sort of transparent balloon, drifting over the world without making much contact with it, and that the people I knew appeared to me at a different angle from the one at which they appeared to themselves; and that the reverse was also true. I was smaller to others, up there in my balloon, than I was to myself. I was also blurrier.
Nell dresses as the Headless Horseman, only to realize that in addition to not being terrifying, no one gets the literary reference. The awareness that slowly dawns on her, throughout the story, and the book, is that her perspective is always outside of the stories -- the stories in books and magazines, which never quite help her to negotiate the roles she finds herself in (there are stunning references to Jane Eyre in "Monopoly"), and the stories those around her are living. She is able to read them, alongside novels and poems and magazines, but not to enter the narratives with them.
Lizzie, Nell's younger sister, is perhaps the only character with whom Nell can share her story. The sisters' dialogue is one of the most charming and interesting aspects of the book. With each other, the sisters communicate without explication, so that entire linking, explanatory sentences are missing from their speech (in much the same way Atwood organizes the book around certain detailed episodes, leaving others to stand in a sentence or two). The sisters weave two or more strands of conversation together, so that surprising and revealing juxtapositions occur.
"The air's so great," said Lizzie, breathing in. "You should stay here forever. You shouldn't even bother going in to the city. When are you going to get rid of that rusty old machinery?"
"It's lawn sculpture. That would suit them," said Nell, "They'd never have to see me again."
"They'll get over it," said Lizzie. "Anyway they live in the Middle Ages. Is it a harrow?"
"They might like Gladys," said Nell hopefully.
"Gladys is beside the point," said Lizzie.
Nell thought about that. "Not to herself," she said. "I think it's actually a disker. The other one's a drag harrow."
"They would like Howl," said Lizzie. "He's too craven for them. What you need is a rusty old car."
"We've got one, we're driving it," said Nell. "He's mentally deficient. I can see their point though."
Atwood subtly splices the conversation about the "rusty old machinery" with the conversation about the elderly parents (should they be sent to the landfill, or appreciated as the quaint but obsolete avatars of another time?). Gladys, the horse, once thought by Nell to be a potential lure for their mother, stands in for Nell, whose relationship with her parents is strained because she's living with a married man. While Howl, the wandering, lunatic dog, stands in for Lizzie, whose mental health is the subject of both fear and shame for the parents. Atwood's writing shines in these moments, when the sisters perform a metadiegetic summary, like a Greek chorus.
In the final, most moving chapters of the book, Nell watches her parents slowly deteriorate with age, and in these moments the importance of knowing the stories of others, and reading with care, becomes the only way to communicate with them. In "The Labrador Fiasco" Nell's father, having suffered a stroke, wants to hear the same story of two hapless explorers over and over again. Atwood sets the story of the explorers side-by-side with the story of Nell's father, placing both tragedies -- one a matter of historical record, and one deeply personal -- on the same dramatic level. This chapter, along with the final chapter, "The Boys in the Lab," which is about Nell's mother, bring Moral Disorder full circle. That first, strange glimpse at Nell's old age, with its "not yet," paralleled with the "back then" of her parents.
This isn't a spoiler, by the way. 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.