is the first Margaret Atwood book I finished reading. Earlier, I had managed to bring home a few of her books and then return them back to the library, unread. This, I’m afraid, probably doesn’t tell well of my reading habits. Anyway, coming back to the reading of Moral Disorder – which incidentally is also my first reading of this year – one feels the prowess of an author who is at the peak of her form. It’s as if the author lets herself flow – a measured, controlled flow, bearing the weight of experience – and the stories just take shape, almost on their own, following trajectories they had to follow, and described in a tone that’s perfect. These stories that do not overwhelm us with their spectacularness, but these stories that stay with us, linger in our minds, evokes strange emotions, and demands re-reading. I have already read it, in piecemeal, about twice; some stories more than that.
Moral Disorder is a collection of eleven short stories, which can probably also pass off as a novel, when viewed as a whole. These stories, brought in from different periods of time, essentially tells the stories of a fixed set of connected characters; the main character, Nell, being the apparent alter-ego of the author. There is much that tends to be autobiographical here, but that’s beside the point – this nosey hair-splitting business of how much of it is actually drawn from personal life – and it stands, like any good fiction, hovering over the tantalising realm of unknown.
It begins with Bad News
, which is set approximately in present day, and introduces us to an elderly couple, Nell and her husband Tig, going about usual business one of the mornings.
In The Art of Cooking and Serving
, the second story, we go back in time and meet Nell, who’s all of 11-year-old and is furiously knitting in preparation for welcoming her unborn sister. When not knitting, the girl is also taking care of household chores, because her expectant mother is not supposed to work much, her father is always away on his expeditions, and her brother away in boarding school. For some reasons, this is a story I have gone back to several times. This is a very beautiful and touching portrayal of a lonely childhood – pleasing and pensive.The Headless Horseman
, the third story, takes us much forward in time when we see Nell and her sister driving home to see her ailing widowed mother. However, as the story moves forward, the story, through reminisces of the sisters, moves back and forth in time – mostly about a Headless Horseman outfit Nell had created one Halloween and what happened to it afterwards.
In the fourth story, My Last Duchess
, we see Nell on the brink of her high school finals. The title of the story is taken from a Robert Browning poem, which Miss Bessie, the English teacher, is teaching the class. In this story we also get a glimpse of puppy love between Nell and Bill, a classmate who Nell occasionally helps study English poetry. They break up over their different views of the Browning poem.
By the fifth story, The Other Place
, Nell is an estranged, floating woman, living on her own, changing jobs and cities at will, carrying only her meagre belongings (books, clothes, towel) wherever she goes. This is a phase – uncertain, unsettled, and doubtful – that is not just physical, but also mental.Monopoly
, the sixth story, begins rather strikingly (“Nell and Tig ran away to the country.”) But, more than moving forward, the story goes backward from there, introducing us to the circumstances that brought Nell and Tig together. Alongside, we also meet Tig’s wife Oona and the “boys” (their two sons). With this story we also see a change in voice – from first person to third person – as if the author now wants to have a more critical view by observing from a distance. This is actually the first time we learn that the stories narrated earlier was by someone named Nell.
The seventh and eighth stories – Moral Disorder
and White Horse
– both deal, somewhat similarly, to the country life Nell and Tig tries to settle into. These two are expansive stories that have several pastoral themes running. There are vegetables being grown, animals being tended and raised, local folks being befriended. But, above all, it’s the several domestic animals – especially the lamb in Moral Disorder
and the horse Gladys in the White Horse
– that lend certain poignancy to these stories; Nell’s love and concern for them almost motherly. Indeed, we do get to learn Nell’s longing to become a mother (in Moral Disorder) and by the end of White Horse, we find Nell pregnant.
By the time we reach The Entities
, the ninth story, much time has passed. Nell and Tig has moved away from the countryside. Tig’s first wife, Oona, now unhappy, lonely and ailing, now wants a home, which they eventually buy her. In the course of the story, Lillie, an ageing but fastidious real-estate broker also makes an appearance.
The last two stories – The Labrador Fiasco
and The Boys at the Lab
– are separated by a gap of few years but both deal with old age. The Labrador Fiasco
is about Nell’s ailing father and The Boys at the Lab
is about Nell’s mother on deathbed. Though they both deal with a similar theme – old age – they unfold differently. The Labrador Fiasco
weaves a disastrous real-life expedition story into the narrative of a dying man, Nell’s father, who is gradually losing his memory. In The Boys at the Lab
, conversely, we see memory being revived and reconstructed through a series of old photographs and conversations. Both these stories are unsentimental yet caring, sad but still full of life, even if these are the lives of dying ones.
It's probably not a suitable thing to briefly outline the stories, like I just did. It doesn't really give anyone a good idea about what these stories may be like. Much of the brilliance of these stories are due to Atwood's writing; one needs to read them to fully appreciate them.