Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Moral Disorder

Margaret Atwood. Does just the mention of her name make you swoon like it does me? Next to Virginia Woolf, Atwood is my favorite prose writer. She has a dry sense of humor and the ability to choose just the right word. I also love that she takes risks. No one can accuse her of writing the same book over and over again. I finished reading Moral Disorder this afternoon. Would you be surprised if I said I loved it? The book's main character is Nell and she is carried back and forth through time in each of the short stories which read more like chapters of a novel with long breaks in between than short stories. We start with "Bad News" and Nell and her husband in the present talking about an unnamed war. It is obvious what war they are talking about especially when Atwood writes things like this

The leaders of the leading countries, as they're called, those aren't really leading any more, they're flailing around; you can see it in their eyes, white-rimmed like the eyes of panic-stricken cattle.
From "Bad News" we move back in time to "The Art of Serving and Cooking" when Nell is eleven and her mother unexpectedly pregnant. From here the stories go on a forward trajectory, though within each one there are flashbacks of memory and moments when Nell, the narrator most of the time, speaks from the present to comment on events of the past. The stories end first with one about Nell's ailing father and then one about her ailing mother, the parents that Nell throughout has loved and hated and been estranged from and now has made her peace with. One of my favorite stories is "My Last Duchess" which takes place when Nell is in high school studying for the exams that will determine if she can go to college (what do they call these in Canada?). Atwood weaves in study of Browning's poem with Nell's life and boyfriend worries. What I enjoy most about the story is the way she captures what it is like being in high school:
The dropouts, as we called them, had left as early as they could, but not before they'd tortured us with taunts of "brainer," "brown nose," "show-off," and "suckup," and had jeered relentlessly at anyone who actually did homework. They'd left us with an ambiguous opinion of ourselves. "Think you're so smart," they'd sneered, and we had thought we were smart, smarter than them at any rate; but we didn't altogether approve of our smartness. It was like having an extra hand: an advantage for opening doors, but freakish despite that.
And then there is "The Other Place" in which Nell has finished college and is moving around, unable to settle down, trying to misbehave but unable to because her parents keep talking to her inside of her head, sending her thought waves like "Why are you living in this dump?" and "Wear less black!" And there is a moment that I have not decided yet whether Proust would agree or disagree:
I see it in retrospect, indulgently, from the point I've reached now. But how else could I see it? We can't really travel to the past, no matter how we try. If we do, it's as tourists.
Maybe when I reach the end of Proust I will be able to come to a conclusion. Moral Disorder is also rather autobiographical at times and reminds me in places of Surfacing. As to the title itself, one of the stories is called "Moral Disorder," but it also applies to the whole book as Nell moves through her life, making choices right and wrong, good and bad and coming to terms with the consequences. I wouldn't call this Atwood's best book, but it certainly is solid and frequently sparkling with genius.