Thursday, January 22, 2009

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

I was going to start this review off by talking about Atwood is one of the few authors I've read more than two books by, but then when I realized that list also includes Michael Crichton I'm not really sure I should brag about that list after all. So I'll just mention that Atwood is one of the few writers I've read more than two books by that makes me want to keep reading more books by that author, and we'll leave it at that.

This is a book that tells the story of one woman in the form of a series of short stories that together give us a picture of her life, though each works as its own piece. In fact, since I don't read jacket blurbs and Atwood doesn't give much in the way of names until much later in the book, I was under the impression the stories weren't even related!

That's part of the beauty of this book--you can take the stories as a collective whole, think of them on their own merits, or, as I did, look at them in both ways.

I recently described Atwood as writing good stories that aren't "earth-shattering" and by that I mean that we aren't going to learn a big social lesson by reading a book like Moral Disorder. No one's facing racial discrimination or trying for gay rights or any of those things that might take a novel and make it trendy. This is book about Nell, a woman who comes from a dysfunctional family, tries to deal with her own issues, and ends up making choices that seem to benefit everyone but her.

Like many of us, Nell's going through life as best she can, and like many of us, we can see her flaws but not our own. It's easy for me to say, "Why does she stay with Tig?" but I bet in her shoes, I'd have dug myself deeper, just like she did. (And you know what? I think you would, too.) That is the brilliance of this book. While we may not have matching problems, Nell stands in for those of us who feel like life pushes us about, and the best we can do is try to hold our own. Whether it's making it by in school, dealing with relationships, juggling friends, or dealing with the emotional problems of our relatives, all of us have to face the same types of things Nell does. (If you don't ever see yourself doing this, if you think you have control of everything you do, then don't bother reading this book. You won't like it. It's like listening to Pink Floyd's "The Wall"--you either get it or you don't.)

To be sure, Nell does herself no favors. She seems to be more adrift than anyone else, and that leaves her as a doormat, especially in relation to Tig's ex-wife. Still, there's the feeling that everything that happens, right up to her watching her parents grow old and die, fits into a life that's disordered. Whether it's because the character is too moral or too immoral is left up to the decision of the reader.

Atwood's prose is very lyrical, which makes sense since she also writes poetry. Little lines like, "free at last from the thought rays beamed out by my parents" pepper the text in the way that only a truly great writer can do. Her description of Nell's thoughts really put us squarely inside her head. She never tries to break the viewpoint--the only way we see Nell is through her own, highly critical, eye. We don't get an objective opinion of Tig, Nell's sister, or any of the others. This is a novel squarely in the first person viewpoint, even when it's not directly narrated by her.

There is no clear beginning or end to this book, as befits the idea of short stories. Nell and Tig are made to be timeless at the start, morphing from themselves to a Roman couple, talking about the same meaningless problems as the larger world revolves around them. At the end, Nell tries to piece together parts of her family's past, but to no avail. We can't ever get the closure we're looking for. There will always been options not pursued, ideas unknown, pictures uncaptioned. Nell shows us this in her life, and Atwood confirms it with the wrap-up story. We all live in a moral disorder, whether we realize it or not.

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