Living with the silent `not yet'

Atwood's characters grapple with tragedy, joy and finally mortality

Review Novel

October 08, 2006|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Moral Disorder

Margaret Atwood

Doubleday / 240 pages / $23.95

Canada's Margaret Atwood is, without doubt or hyperbole, an exceptional writer who has charted the territory of women's lives with seamless skill and precision. Her latest collection, Moral Disorder (which also constitutes an informal novel in interconnected stories), is unerring in its elliptical perambulations through one woman's life and the lives of those around her.

Atwood has long deconstructed the lives of women in her fiction, delving deep into the darker realms of the lives of women and girls, exploring the nuances of various historical eras and the way women have lived - or have been forced to live - in those periods. Her early novel Surfacing was a ground-breaking feminist text. The Handmaid's Tale, a work of speculative fiction, with its cautionary tale of sexual and reproductive repression in a not-so-distant future, was also a landmark, as was her quieter but equally stunning novel of the 19th century, Alias Grace. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the prestigious Booker Prize.

Moral Disorder is a short but ambitious collection whose non-linear progression details the complex life of Nell, a Canadian woman raised in rural Ontario, living off and on in that most cosmopolitan of cities, Toronto. Nell ends her days with her lover of many years, Gilbert, nicknamed Tig. The book spans more than 60 years of an explosive, if not always fully realized, life. The opening tale, "The Bad News," represents the end - almost - of Nell and Tig's journey together, which is completed in the book's final, riveting story. "The Bad News" is almost unbearably painful in its keen rendering of the later years of this couple, who are too old not to touch each other in the night to be sure breaths still come, but still mobile and febrile enough to concern themselves over wanton political forces as terrifying as the huns of an earlier time encroaching on their doorstep. Other, more mundane and daily strifes compound their inchoate fears. Atwood explores those fears that come with aging with such economy of language and brevity of emotion that the aftershock of the story comes as a true surprise.

As the narrator explains, the two of them are still alive, still well, if slowed and pained and fearful. She asserts, "Not yet is aspirated, like the h in honour. It's the silent not yet. We don't say it out loud. ... These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet. We live in the small window between them, the space we've only recently come to think of as still, and really it's no smaller than anyone else's window."

After this scene is set, Atwood takes the reader back in time to Nell's childhood. The 11-year-old Nell knits a layette for her soon-to-be-born sister, Lizzie, in "The Art of Cooking and Serving." Later, readers will discover Lizzie is schizophrenic, and Nell will forever be responsible for her younger sibling, as detailed in the most compelling story about their relationship, "White Horse," in which Atwood parallels the relationship between Nell and Lizzie and the two women's with a rescued mare, Gladys.

In "My Last Duchess," Nell's adolescent miseries (the perils of being a smart "girl," the shadow of Lizzie) are rendered with a heart-breaking truthfulness that resounds later in other stories.

Nell's life has always been uneasy. Her relationship with her family - her overbearing mother, manic sister and entomologist father - precipitous and tempestuous. Her love life has been complicated. (She meets Tig when his wife, Oona, a colleague of Nell's, tires of him and foists him and his teenage sons on her, divesting herself of responsibility for them.) Nell is a writer, like Atwood herself, aging like Atwood, who turns 67 in November, living with her partner of many years in Canada, like Atwood, and elusive - again, like Atwood. Readers might easily presume a clear autobiographical link between the female protagonist of these tales and Atwood. (In the third-person narratives, that protagonist is clearly Nell; in the first-person narratives where the narrator remains unnamed, in the style of classic Gothic fiction heroines, one assumes Nell, also, but Atwood has been known to play with identity in her fiction, as she did in Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake. The reader could as easily divine that the narrator is Atwood herself.) In Moral Disorder, Atwood does much more than reveal the subtext of her own life, or the life of Everywoman, in these intense tales of Nell and her family. At the heart of each and every story is a parallel shadow story: how we cope with tragedy, loss, joy, redemption and finally, mortality - our own and that of those we love.

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