Me and Margaret go way back. I discovered her when I was a teenager and predictably started with A Handmaid’s Tale. Then I devoured her oeuvre. Cat’s Eye was like a bible to me. The Edible Woman made me a vegetarian for nearly a month. Lines from her poetry were written on posterboard on my quote wall and carved into my ceramics class artwork. She is one of the two writers who truly made me want to write.
I have read almost everything she has written, but I don’t stay informed about adult publishing these days so I didn’t know she had a new book out until I was wandering the big bookstore chain in our neighborhood. I bought it immediately, even though it was not in our tight budget. For books, money can always be found. Margaret Atwood must be owned, not borrowed.
Moral Disorder is a book of connected short stories following the life of one woman. I think I read that on the back when I purchased the book, but I didn’t read it for a couple of months and I forgot. So I didn’t realize until she named the character the same thing. I read the first several essays, the ones that are in first person, thinking they were separate but strangely echoing one another. They echo other aspects of Atwood’s work, too. She has written many stories of childhood and they always share a sadness and distance. Her view, her memory perhaps, of childhood is far from the idyllic version many writers use. It always seems a dark and uncertain time. She captures the hardest feelings we had as children, the confusion and fear and dependence on unreliable adults. I think her stories featuring children are my favorites.
In the beginning of this book, we follow the main character (“Nell” in later chapters) through the birth and childhood of her much younger sister. We see her great anxiety when caring for her pregnant mother in a brilliant chapter called, “The Art of Cooking and Serving.” This particular story beautifully sets place and time through the 50’s advice the child reads in her mother’s cookbooks, and this pressure pushes Nell until she breaks, sick of caring for her mother and then for the baby her mother delivers.
The next story, “The Headless Horseman,” hit close to home for me. In it, Nell’s baby sister is shown to be a fearful and strange child who ends up adopting the scary, papier-mache head from Nell’s Halloween costume and caring for it like a doll. She also demands that Nell be a monster sometimes but Nell’s vaguely menacing tone even when the game is over torments the little girl: “A sister pretending to be a monster or a monster pretending to be a sister? It was too much for her to decipher.” Bizarrely, I played Monster with my own little sister and tormented her with undoubtedly similar questions. At least Nell’s little sister begged to play the game in the first place. Mine did not and was scarred forever by my meanness.
The four stories in the middle of the book use third person and we meet Nell as a woman, living with a married man in the country. This sudden narrative switch didn’t bother me when I thought they were all separate stories, but since I realized that they are connected and feature one character throughout, I have been pondering Atwood’s decision to use two different points of view. I haven’t come up with much by way of reason. I can speak to my reactions – I judged Nell more when she was presented in the third person. I wondered what the hell she was doing in the country with the married man. I felt she was a bit stupid for getting herself into the strange situation involving him and his ex-ish wife. I kept thinking that I would never put up with what she put up with from him or from the situation. It wasn’t extreme, but those were my thoughts.
Then we switch back into the first person and the character moves back to the city and I found that I felt closer to her again. So was this device used to try to give a fuller picture of the character? Can we never really know a first person character except through their own image of themselves? And can we never empathize with a third person character without their self reflection to assist us? I know. These are totally Lit 101 type questions. It’s just been a while since I thought about them.
I recommend Moral Disorder to lovers of Atwood. I didn’t find it that substantial of a book, not grand or sweeping or dramatic. It captured a life. It said a few lovely things and a few deep ones. It was a quiet and simple book. Enjoyable but maybe, if I am honest, not that memorable.