Admirers of Margaret Atwood’s fiction may well feel they are revisiting old territory when they read her latest story collection. They may recall the north woods island of Surfacing (1972) or the high school English class of Lady Oracle (1976). Those who know something of the author’s life may suppose that they recognize certain characters and places: that Tig must be Graeme Gibson, Atwood’s partner of thirty-five years, or that his farm must be near Alliston, Ontario. Such readers will do well to heed the warning in the publisher’s cover blurb: “Moral Disorder, and Other Stories is fiction, not autobiography; it prefers emotional truths to chronological facts.” Atwood has always felt free to draw upon other people’s disastrous childhoods and eating disorders. Nevertheless, the stories here are very much her own. The blurb concludes that not since her 1988 novel Cat’s Eye has Atwood “come so close to giving us a glimpse into her own life.”
Cat’s Eye tells the story of a mature painter returning to the city of her youth for a retrospective exhibition. Alone in her former husband’s studio, she recalls scenes of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthoodscenes that resemble episodes from many of Atwood’s early novels. Moral Disorder, and Other Stories has much less to say about artistry and much more about everyday life. The central figure, Nell, is a modestly successful editor in her mid-sixties, comfortably settled in a present life that she thinks of as “still”: a time when she no longer suffers the crises of early adulthood and does not yet face the depredations of old age but has her wits about her still. In the first story, she struggles with the bad news in the daily papers and wonders how she and Tig would have dealt with such news had they lived in the last days of the Roman Empire. She has an imagination, we find, but she also has a strong moral conscience and she is easily drawn into reverie. She might be knitting a pattern she learned as a girl, when she was trying to help her mother, or might be driving across town with her sister. Suddenly she is possessed by memories of how she acted years ago. A line from Robert Browning’s famous poem “My Last Duchess” (1842) is enough to remind her not only that she helped a boyfriend prepare for a high school exam but that she herself practiced the same sort of serial monogamy as Browning’s duke.
All the stories in Moral Disorder, and Other Stories are about Nell. Six tell about her family of origin, the other five about the domestic arrangements she has made for herself. They all tell about what really matters to her, before and beyond any public persona: the places where she has lived and the people with whom she has shared space. They depict a conscientious daughter, sister, companion, and mothersurrogate or real; a woman may or may not realize just how conscientious she is. Her uncertainty surfaces early on and is neatly captured in the two photographs on the book’s cover of a domestic servant in daytime and nighttime attire. They are taken from a 1930 book on entertaining that Nell studied at the age of eleven, and they serve to recall the question that occurred to her at the time: Would she grow up to serve or be served? In some ways that is the basic dilemma of Christian culture, where the first shall be last and the self is thrown in question. Atwood has often written about the problems of duty and independence but perhaps never has brought them so close to home. Not for nothing is this book offered “for my family.”
In what is perhaps the book’s most striking stylistic feature, the narrative voice shifts from the first person in the first five stories to the third person in the next four and then back to the first person. Atwood made this sort of shift in earlier fictionfor example, in her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969), where it signals a temporary break in the main character’s psyche. In Moral Disorder, and Other Stories it has the effect of giving a more distanced and objective look at Nell’s life during the crucial period after she has left home and before she has achieved the comfortable domesticity of the presentduring the period that saw the social experimentation of the 1960’s and its aftermath.
In the title...
(The entire section is 1781 words.)