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Originally published Friday, September 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Moral Disorder and Other Stories": Linked tales about generational disconnect

Margaret Atwood's "Moral Disorder" is a compact book embracing long perspectives. What else it might be, apart from a deeply pleasurable...

Seattle Times book critic

"Moral Disorder and Other Stories"
by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 225 pp., $23.95

Margaret Atwood's "Moral Disorder" is a compact book embracing long perspectives.

What else it might be, apart from a deeply pleasurable read, is a little ambiguous.

It's billed as a short-story collection but feels more like a novel as it follows its characters from early in their lives into their twilight years.

Atwood's publisher is promoting it as the closest Atwood has come "to giving us a glimpse into her own life" but cautions that Atwood here "prefers emotional truths to chronological facts."

Worries over how to define the book are beside the point. What matters is: Here's the Canadian author ("The Handmaid's Tale," "The Blind Assassin") playing once again with narrative form, even as she delivers all the traditional satisfactions of fiction — sharp and subtle prose; suspenseful situations; rounded, credible characters struggling unpredictably against fate. There's mystery here, and humor, and a tough brand of knowledge that can only come with age (Atwood is in her 60s).

The opening story, "The Bad News," depicts an aging couple, Nell and Tig, living in uncertain times while facing their own uncertainties about how the late stages of their lives will play out ("These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet").

Nell's memory of a trip they took to Glanum, the ancient Roman town in the south of France, triggers a leap back through time — and suddenly she and Tig are discussing the bad news of the late Roman Empire rather than that of the early 21st century.

"The barbarians are invading," says Tig. "They've crossed the Rhine."

"Not before breakfast," Nell complains.

The whimsy makes a wry point: The more things change, the more they stay the same. And no one wants to hear about it before she's had her coffee.

Atwood then concentrates on the six-decade span of Nell's memory, in 10 beautifully realized story-chapters.


In "The Art of Cooking and Serving," Atwood humorously captures 11-year-old Nell's limited comprehension of time's expanse as she reads a book "from the olden days, ten years before I was born." The same story tracks Nell's first moment of rebellion against her mother, after she tires of always having to baby-sit her younger sister. Young Nell's shift from frantic sense of responsibility for her sister's welfare to sudden exasperation at having such responsibility foisted on her is brilliantly drawn — especially in the way Nell herself is surprised by her own rebellion.

Younger sister Lizzie, always unstable in her personal life, figures prominently in later stories — with Atwood cannily noting how Lizzie's overt crises have covert parallels in Nell's own choices in life and emotional inner weather.

Nell's most pivotal choice: embarking on an affair with the married Tig, under rather unusual circumstances — for she has the feeling she's been "fingered for the position of second wife" by Wife No. 1, Oona.

Nell, by living in the sticks with Tig and trying her hand at farming, usurps Lizzie's role as their parents' problem child. It's the 1960s, and moral codes — especially sexual moral codes — are shifting at the foundation. Atwood is both droll and perceptive on what the fallout from this countercultural shift does to personal relationships, both marital and familial. She's also hilarious on the hazards of raising cows.

Along the way she introduces some memorable extra-familial characters who figure in Nell's life — a challenging high-school English teacher; various ephemeral boyfriends; an upbeat Holocaust-survivor real-estate agent turned confidante.

Many of these figures (Nell's parents, the manipulative Oona, that real-estate agent) become enfeebled with the passage of time, and the entire story-cycle becomes a meditation on how roles are reversed, how memories are lost and how you can never know the full truth — or even the outlined truth — of lives that glancingly touch on yours.

Repeatedly, Atwood's "emotional truth" hits home — yet it's selective. Nell has an older brother, for instance, who, unlike her parents and sister, scarcely rates a mention. His near absence from the book gives it an odd feeling of imbalance.

Or maybe the imbalance here is deliberate. After all, the vertigo-inducing "disorder" brought on by cultural, historical and generational change is what this inventive, affecting suite of memory pieces is all about.

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