Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Nobody does short stories better than Canadians. When you think of the great CanLit short fiction creators usually a few choice names come to mind: Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, but very often Margaret Atwood’s name does not get grouped in this particular list, which, in my humble opinion, is a great omission. Ms. Atwood is definitely a master of the story genre. Her story collections generally fall into two categories: traditional stories, collections such as Dancing Girls or Wilderness Tips, and her flash fiction/prose poetry, such as Good Bones or The Tent. Moral Disorder, Atwood’s 2006 book, is a hybrid between a novel and a short story collection. It is a story sequence in the same Canadian tradition as Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town or more recently, Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Each of these stories could easily stand on their own but collected together they weave a beautifully crafted portrait of these rich living characters.

I am a huge Margaret Atwood fan; when I pick up one of her books I do so with very high expectations, and, thus far, have never been disappointed (although I still have trouble wrapping my head around Lady Oracle). Of the eleven stories, nine of them lay out a chronological tale of Nell, and eventually, her partner Tig. The first and last stories are the odd two out that do not follow this chain; although these are both well written they didn’t have the same affect on me as the other nine. What has always impressed me about Margaret Atwood’s short stories is how they are snapshots in the extraordinary lives of seemingly ordinary people. Every story has very intense imagery but one in particular really stuck with me: the title story “Moral Disorder.” Nell and Tig’s beheading of their first hen, the death of the peahen and mental decay of the peacock, the aggressive lamb that was eventually processed into dinner, and the scene where the defective chicks are born and euthanized with a shovel. Vivid writing as only someone of Margaret Atwood’s caliber can pull off.

As I read this book I felt a strong sense of family, more specifically the trials and tribulations that go along with the word “family.” So many everyday yet major occurances are tackled: the birth of a younger sibling, dealing with aging parents that are falling further away as each day goes by, the relationship between adult sisters, dating the divorced man and handling the inherited children, having children of your own, and death. The stories set on the farm examine these themes through heavy, yet accessible, use of metaphors, namely the animals that Nell and Tig are charged with. These animals become characters in their own right in stories like “Moral Disorder” and “White Horse.”

My favorite stories are the ones from when the central character, Nell, is young. “The Art of Cooking and Serving” and “My Last Duchess” are not only the two best stories in the book, but, I believe, two of the best stories Margaret Atwood has published. Moral Disorder slipped under the radar, for me anyway, when it was first released. It didn’t receive the same kind of fanfare here in Charlottetown that both The Door and Year of the Flood received. I hope this was simply an oversight of the local booksellers here and not a nationwide problem. This is the first book of fiction by Ms. Atwood that I have read in about two years (I have read a ton of her poetry and criticism in this time) and this book was a marvelous way to rekindle my love affair with the Queen of CanLit.

4 responses

  1. I feel the same as you when it comes to Atwood, though I admit I have to read Oryx and Crake again and then actually finish Year of the Flood. I don’t think I had enough time to read those books properly and because I love her (I have all of her books), I want to make sure I give them a fair chance. The thing is, maybe, too, I just prefer her earlier works.

    Although I did love Moral Disorder, and finished that quite quickly, I remember, and I also remember my favourite, I think, being The Art of Cooking and Serving, which I first read in a magazine and which lead me to the book later. (Well, I would have bought it anyway!)

    I agree that Canadians sure can write short stories. Carol Shields is another fave. I’m not such a fan of Alice Munro, or at least I can’t do her stories one after the other; they’re too depressing.

    1. I also prefer Atwood’s earlier works. Surfacing is by far my favorite novel of hers.

      I love reading collections by Alice Munro. I have the problem you mentioned with Mavis Gallant, I have trouble getting through a full book of hers. She is merciless and almost cruel with her characters; it’s a bit like watching Kevin O’Leary on Dragon’s Den.

      1. Surfacing and The Edible Women. My two.

        I’ve never been attracted to Gallant, so I can’t say! I have to admit Munro is memorable and well crafted. I just can’t read too many at once. But even when I read Lives of Girls and Women, I don’t remember being totally enamoured with her. Really, I’m not sure why. As a canlit lover, it’s almost embarrassing!

  2. Hah!

    “The first and last stories are the odd two out that do not follow this chain; although these are both well written they didn’t have the same affect on me as the other nine.”

    I felt the exact opposite: the first and last (and second to last too) stories had the most affect upon me. Its a funny old world, isn’t it!

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