Moral Disorder: And Other Stories

From Powell Books:

Atwood_1 About halfway through Margaret Atwood’s latest book, I wondered whether that slight, afterthought of a subtitle, and Other Stories, might be a pun of some kind. What one expects from a short story collection, and what one encounters in Moral Disorder are distinctly different. One might read the stories in a collection at random, beginning at the end, or in the middle of the book and sampling stories here and there throughout. Indeed, Atwood’s other story collections can be read satisfactorily in this way. Moral Disorder and Other Stories reads like a novel, however, following the protagonist, Nell, from childhood, through adolescence, middle age, and finally, old age. The reason “and other stories” might give one pause is because Nell’s stories are about other stories — the ones she’s read in novels, the ones from history or regional lore, the ones she’s been told, or discovers in family photo albums. Nell’s story is about the way in which narratives — our own, and those of others — help us to read, and thus to understand, the world around us.

Of the persistent themes of Moral Disorder, the idea of “the reader” is perhaps the most important. Nell, from childhood, is a reader — of books, of characters, of situations. Her absorption of familiar narratives (housekeeping manifestos and Victorian and noir novels, in particular) often influences her relationship with the world around her. In “The Headless Horseman” Nell describes how her childhood as a reader set her apart from others:

[I]f I studied a thing in school I assumed it was general knowledge. I hadn’t yet discovered that I lived in a sort of transparent balloon, drifting over the world without making much contact with it, and that the people I knew appeared to me at a different angle from the one at which they appeared to themselves; and that the reverse was also true. I was smaller to others, up there in my balloon, than I was to myself. I was also blurrier.