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Author: Margaret Atwood

Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood

The political turmoil in the world has made me turn this year to Margaret Atwood, who is enjoying a resurgence as a result of her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale being broadcast as a much acclaimed television series.  I haven’t reread The Handmaid’s Tale, which does still stick with me from when I first read it nearly 20 years ago, but I have been working my way through her other novels.  Given the time constraints in my life, I’ve been picking them out mostly by page length, which brings me to Moral Disorder and Other Stories, a novel told in a series of short stories.

Even Atwood’s earliest novels are full of her wit, wry humor and bitingly funny characterization, so it is unsurprising to discover these same qualities throughout all of the stories, which tell the life story of a woman named Nell in short episodes.  The stories are framed by aging; in the first story, Nell is in late middle age and meditating on the nature of a long-term marriage.  In the next, she is a young girl, who has yet to meet Tig, the married man that she makes her life with.  By the last stories, Nell is long past her adventures and taking care of her elderly parents.  Although each story could stand alone, together they tell a powerful story of an ordinary, but interesting, life spent in the Canadian countryside and wilderness.

Moral Disorder and Other Stories is very much literary fiction, so some readers may find it frustrating, particularly if they’re not accustomed to the genre or to short story collections.  But for readers who are willing to forgo an orderly plot for the love of language, there are many delights to be found in each story’s vivid description and Atwood’s strong voice.

It’s morning.  For now, night is over.  It’s time for the bad news.  I think of the bad news as a huge bird, with the wings of a crow and the face of my Grade Four school teacher, sparse bun, rancid teeth, wrinkly frown, pursed mouth and all, sailing around the world under cover of darkness, pleased to be the bearer of ill tidings, carrying a basket of rotten eggs, and knowing — as the sun comes up — exactly where to drop them.  On me, for one.

One theme that has emerged for me, in reading several of Atwood’s early novels, is how prevalent the Canadian wilderness is in her writing.  Perhaps because I have always lived either in a city or in its suburbs, there’s something about the wilderness and the farm settings in Moral Disorder and Other Stories that really caught my imagination.  Nell and Tig rent a farm and then later purchase their own.  They are city people pretending at the rural life, so it is not too surprising that their first set of ducklings are eaten by owls.  After this first disastrous foray into livestock, their herd begins to expand in much more productive ways.  First there are Tig’s children from his first marriage, who visit on weekends, running wild around the farm and smoking pot in the barn.  Then there’s a high-strung dog, a herd of sheep, constantly escaping cows and eventually a fat horse.  Atwood doesn’t shy away from the brutality of farm life, as Nell trades in her city upbringing for a rural lifestyle, but she always shows the beauty in it as well.

There’s never been such a lovely spring, Nell thought.  Frogs — or were they toads? — trilled from the pond, and there were pussy willows and catkins — what was the difference? — and then the hawthorn bushes and the wild plums and the neglected apple trees came into bloom, and an uneven row of daffodils planted by some long-vanished farmer’s wife thrust up through the weeds and dead grasses besides the drive.  Birds sang.  Mud dried.

Unfortunately, for me, the last story did a poor job of finishing off the book, because some of the details contradicted and confused the overall narrative arc, which pulled me straight out of the story and had me flipping back pages to see if I had missed something. Perhaps I had – or perhaps the story kept its conflicting details because, like many of the stories in the collection, it was published elsewhere before being collected into this novel.  But for all that the novel felt unresolved because of this, I would gladly read the whole novel over to answer my questions.

It’s just that there are so many other Atwood novels that I have  yet to read…

Publisher: Doubleday
Publish Date: 2006
Hardcover: 225 pages
ISBN: 0385503849
Language: English
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

 


Genre: contemporary, literary fiction, short story collection
Subjects: ageing, canada, coming of age, family, feminism, love, nature, politics, regionalism
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The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Book cover: The Edible Woman by Margaret AtwoodMarian McAlpin is a sensible career girl, not “the other kind” that only dreams of catching a man and marrying him.  So when she meets Peter, a handsome up-and-coming lawyer at a party, he quickly asks her out.  Several months into their relationship, he loses his last unmarried friend to those scheming wifely types and, in a panic, asks Marian to marry him.

Filled with a postmodernist Thomas Pynchonesque absurdity, The Edible Woman carries the reader along from one hilarious situation to another, as Marian tries to discover why she isn’t happier about finally reaching that apex of female achievement: an engagement.  When she describes her triumph to her roommate Ainsley, Ainsley is barely interested because she’s in the middle of tricking Marian’s friend Len into fathering a baby by exploiting his weakness for underage girls.  Meanwhile, Marian falls in with a misanthropic English graduate student named Duncan that barely seems to exist of enough substance to stay alive – and it is their relationship, contrasted with the steady but domineering Peter, that forces Marian Into behaviors that she barely understands.

It is small wonder that, as the wedding hurtles ever nearer, Marian’s dissatisfaction begins to manifest physically, as her body begins to reject different types of food.  When she is forced into quitting her job, as her boss – a single career woman of intermediate skills and advancing age – doesn’t want young, married women working for her, as potential pregnancies make them too unpredictable, her body joins forces with all the other people taking control of Marian’s life.

That morning her body had finally put its foot down on canned rice pudding, after accepting it with scarcely a tremor for weeks.  It ad been such a comfort knowing she could rely on it: it provided bulk, and as Mrs. Withers the dietician had said, it was fortified.  But all at once as she had poured the cream over it her eyes had seen it as a collection of small cocoons.  Cocoons with miniature living creatures inside.

Although the novel is heavy-handed with symbolism — it is Atwood’s first — the light-hearted touch that Atwood deploys keeps it from feeling like an English class assignment.  Written in 1969, The Edible Woman gently satirizes on the beginnings of pop psychology and the emergence of a widespread feminist consciousness, while lodging the modern reader enjoyably in the formality of the late sixties, with its boundary pushing girdle advertisements and long white gloves.

Although the novel is witty, Atwood also delves fearlessly into the complexity and complicty of the power struggles within heterosexual relationships.  Before Marian and Peter become engaged, Marian adjusts her behavior to suit his moods, sidelining her own needs to please him.  Once they agree to marry, she hands over decision making to him, even down to what she wants to eat, until her body revolts.  When Duncan enters the picture, he gives Marian the impetus to choose, while his misanthrophy offers no obvious solutions.

Atwood is an accomplished poet and, by the time she wrote The Edible Woman, she had published three volumes of poetry.  Many passages that would be mundane in a lesser author’s hands read like sardonic prose poems.  In describing a Western movie that Marian watches, Atwood writes:

The coloured pictures succeeded each other in front of her: gigantic stetsoned men stretched across the screen on their even more gigantic horses, trees and cactus-plants rose in the foreground or faded in the background as the landscape flowed along; smoke and dust and galloping.  She didn’t attempt to decide what the cryptic speeches meant or to follow the plot.  She knew there must be bad people who were trying to do something evil and good people who were trying to stop them, probably by getting to the money first (as well as Indians who were numerous as buffalo and fair game for everyone), but it didn’t matter to her which of these moral qualities was incarnate in any given figure presented to her.  At least it wasn’t one of the new Westerns in which people had psychoses.

 

There are so many moments in The Edible Woman where Atwood’s prose is distracting from the story, but it is in this way, where the images suddenly strike you as so unusual that you must stop and read the passage again, enjoying the sensations that Atwood presents to you.  This is the strength of The Edible Woman, which is a must-read for any student of writing or second-wave feminism.  Atwood brings you into it with her wit and her poetry, in a journey that will still feel modern and relevant to any woman.

 

Publisher: Anchor Books
Publish Date: Originally 1969, republished June 1989
Paperback: 336 pages
ISBN: 0765331721
Language: English
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Genre: fiction, literary fiction, postmodernism
Subjects: family, feminism, love, regionalism, youth
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