This book is number two for me in the Summer of the Canadian Short Story challenge over at Write Reads. And, it is my first Margaret Atwood book on this blog. I have read and loved many of her other books, but this is the first of her short story collections that I have read. I’ve had Moral Disorder on my shelf for quite some time, so I’m glad that I have finally read it.
Moral Disorder is a short story collection in which the stories are inter-related. It traces the course of Nell’s life, but also involves the lives of others who are connected to her in some way; her parents, her sister, her husband and his ex wife, her real-estate agent, and even her animals. These stories give us snapshots of different times in her life; the birth of her sister, school, living on her own, living on a farm, life with a partner and his children, helping with her aging parents.
This book is not what you would call a page-turner. Instead, reading it feels like sinking down into a big comfy couch with a mug of hot chocolate, while watching an episode of The Littlest Hobo. The two words that come to mind are pleasure and comfort. And, all the stories contain her trademark humour and wit.
My favourite stories in the book were the ones that take place on the farm. In Monopoly, Nell and Tig run away together to the country. Tig is leaving behind his wife and two boys. It is a time of getting used to each other, adjusting to the boys’ visits to the farm, and trying to figure out if this is the life she wants.
She’d been in love, a state of being she thought of as wiping the mind clean of any of the soothsaying abilities or even ordinary common sense it might otherwise have had.
It was the marriage, which Nell pictured as a large thorny growth- a cross between a dense, dark-green bush or shrub and a thundercloud-shaped cancer, with the adhesive qualities of tile cement and a number of tentacles, like a ball of leeches.
In Moral Disorder and White Horse, Nell and Tig buy and live on their own farm. With that come many amusing anecdotes about life on a farm.
Maybe she would grow cunning, up here on the farm. Maybe she would absorb some of the darkness,, which might not be darkness at all but only knowledge. She would turn into a woman others came to for advice. She would be called in emergencies. She would roll up her sleeves and dispense with sentimentality, and do whatever blood-soaked, bad-smelling thing had to be done. She would become adept with axes.
Between the two of them, Nell and Gladys (her horse) passed their riding time pleasantly enough. It was a conspiracy, a double impersonation: Nell pretending to be a person who was riding a horse, Gladys pretending to be a horse that was being ridden.
The last two stories in the book are about Nell’s parents coming to the end of their lives. They are full of familiarity and nostalgia. It could be any of us in those stories. The Labrador Fiasco is especially amusing as it describes her aging father’s reactions as he listens to his favourite book being read to him. It is about inexperienced explorers going into the wilds of Labrador without having done their research.
They know they’re going into danger, but they also know they are immortal. Such moods do occur, in the north.
In The Boys at the Lab, her mother is bed-ridden, and they spend their time looking through her photo album, reminiscing. At that point, memories were all she had.
Now she’s smiling. In there- at the end of the long dark tunnel that divides her from us- she’s off again on that wild gallop, over meadows, through orchards of apple trees in bloom, clinging to the reins and the pommel for dear life, her heart going a mile a minute with terrified joy. Can she smell the apple blossoms, in there where she is? Can she feel the air against her face as she rushes through it?
Some of these stories took on new meaning once I found out that they are based on events in Margaret Atwood’s life. She lived on a farm with her partner for a while, and tells us in this interview that all the animals in the stories are real. Also, her father was an entomologist, like the father in the story. She spent much of her time as a child in northern Quebec surrounded by nature, like Nell in The Art of Cooking and Serving.
Here is another review of the book that was written shortly after it was published.
What are some of your favourite Margaret Atwood stories/books/poetry?