September 17, 2008

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Moral Disorder and Other Stories is a quiet sort of novel, not completely like Atwood's other novels, but still recognizably Atwood... and that's actually not a typo - Moral Disorder is a novel told in short stories. I didn't actually realize this when I picked up the collection. I just felt like reading some Margaret Atwood (like you do sometimes...) and Moral Disorder was on my sagging, overburdened "To Read" shelf, so I read it. Even if the novel-in-short-stories wasn't one of my favorite structures (it really is) and a lovely surprise, I still would have enjoyed the book, though not as much as some of Atwood's other work.

The stories make up a semi-chronological biography of a woman named Nell, some narrated by Nell in the first-person, others in the third. Most of the stories Nell narrates deal with her childhood and adolescence. In these, Atwood employs the lovely, hazy tone that distant memories have, mostly through language and observation. Nell's narration lopes along, peppered by the very specific, quirky details - the raisin stains on the layette she struggles to knit for her baby sister, the patronizing laughter of her mother's friends, how her sister adopts the paper-mache head Nell makes for Halloween because she feels bad for it (it's not Bob's fault that he doesn't have a body). The first-person narration ends with the last story of Nell's adolescence, "My Last Duchess", which ends with her walking into adulthood.

The adult Nell's stories are picked up by a third-person narrator. While the tone is more clipped and necessarily more distant, the switch works. For much of her early adutlhood, Nell is disconnected from her family and from herself. The narrative shift shows that. It also allows Atwood to play with a less halcyon tone and humor.

Overall, I enjoyed the stories in Moral Disorder. It's a quiet sort of account of a quiet sort of life, with none of the speculative, psychological or epic qualities much of Atwood's work tends to have. In fact, Moral Disorder feels more like a fable - an edifying look into someone else's life, from which you can take what you need. 


Anonymous said...

Charles de Lint does the same style in some of his book. I really like the style of telling a story with short stories, especially when there are different perspectives. You keep writing reviews and now my "to read" shelf is starting to sag. Keep it up, I like to read them.

Madeleine said...

I agree with you on the different perspectives in novels told through short stories. They have a flexibility in point of view that you can't get a way with otherwise.

And thanks - I like reading your reviews too. I've got some Charles de Lint waiting for me thanks to you :-)