Book Review: Moral Disorder

Here's the story on me and Margaret Atwood. A friend in uni introduced me to The Handmaid's Tale and I absolutely loved it. A couple years later, I went through nearly her entire oevre all at once.

I recall someone saying to me at the time they remember going through an "Atwood phase' and being aggravated by the very idea that these books could be reduced to a 'phase', though I later realized that's exactly what it was.

While I don't remember the exact plots of the individual titles (they all swim together, Handmaid's Tale being the notable exception), I do have an unshakeable impression of the depth and consideration she always gave to her female characters - which is indeed the reason I read the books so voraciously - here were people I could recognize, relate to, understand, and yet who were more than that, emblematic in some way.

I read the last couple Atwood books (not including Tent), and I was frankly unimpressed by Oryx and Crake, which appealed to a new crowd yet seemed to me all structure and no heart, there was a message but the characters were all props in service to it.

Penelopiad I liked better, but somewhat disappointing given what I thought Atwood could accomplish with Greek Mythology at her fingertips.

Moral Disorder brings back the elemental Atwood I admired in uni, but almost stripped bare. There is no mission, no experiment or exercise, other than that which sits unconsciously beneath any story. And it succeeds beautifully. It is effortless.

The book could be described as a series of interlinked short stories, the same cast of characters within each story illuminating a brief period in life, presented chronologically. I'm more inclined to imagine it more as an episodic novel. The jumps in time are not so significant that the larger arc is dropped, but the focus is indeed on these little moments and choices.

Popular opinion has it that this is Atwood's most personal novel to date - in that the characters and circumstances presented most closely mimic her own. I had that half in mind as I read, glancing at details that seemed to me, at least, the kind of thing one would mentally note as something illustrative.

The eleven stories follow Nell through various major and minor incidents, from her responsible youth helping out at home, as she grows into a sometimes reluctantly responsible woman. Nell's narrative deals primarily with her relationship with Tig (who is, initially, in a marriage with a 'gentleman's agreement' which becomes something else as time goes by and Nell remains part of his, and his wife's life) and the extended network of friends, family, and neighbors they accumulate.

Nell roams between downtown Toronto and rural Ontario, living with family, living alone, and with her man Tig (and occasionally his boys), living in apartments and houses and on a farm.

Throughout it all, Nell, responsible Nell, simply tries to do the right thing, which (as everyone learns one way or another) becomes a foggier proposition as time goes by. Helping your mother is a far cry from helping the mother of your lover's children. How much can fairly be expected of you? How much is right and at what point must lines be drawn, in self-defense if nothing else?

Atwood's stories inhabit these questions with ease and simplicity and honesty. Life is morally ambiguous. We are responsible for that which we feel responsible for - legal requisites and disapproving looks, even our own rationalizing are overthrown by the standards to which we hold ourselves.

Ultimately, we can answer only to ourselves.

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