The telling of Nell’s life is like flipping through a family’s photo album: eleven perfectly rendered moments, eleven short stories, one novel with eleven chapters. These are the captured moments-in-time that make up Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder, a book defying catalogue and categorisation, one person’s story told through many stories.
Broad-ranging in scope, minute in its emotional intimacy, Atwood’s voice is both dispassionately observant and keenly accurate. There a moments, lines, that just hit you with the force of true experience. Moral Disorder opens with Nell and Tig, a couple no longer situated in a safe world, situating themselves in a different one all together. We then move to childhood, Nell preparing herself for a surprise little sister late in her parents’ lives. Little context or explanation is given as we piece together these images from her life: in fact, it’s not until a few stories in that we even realise that they are all about the same woman.
I bought this book second-hand, and the front-leaf stamp tells me it once belonged to a Wilma Davidson. Wilma, or perhaps another owner before her, highlighted certain resonant passages in a now-fading fluro yellow, and following them was another story in itself for me.
“These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet.”
There was a highlighted sentence or two every few pages at first, but then they almost stopped. Did Wilma run out of steam? Did the book fail to impress after the first initial burst? Then Wilma would come back again, the highlighter pulling another sentence to my attention:
“In the end, we all become stories”.
I think Wilma was most interested in ageing: parents, the self, children. In the edition I have, there is a story about Wilma, as well as a story about Nell.
It’s interesting that Wilma seemed enamoured most with the chapter that caught me the least: the opening “The Bad News”. I found it confusing and disorientating, and even though it made sense once I finished the book, upon re-reading it a second time it still didn’t sit well with me. After growing up, meeting each other, taking care of their ageing parents, are they themselves now on the terrifying brink of senility? Or are they just now free to escape together: from the country, to the city, to wherever is next?
But this is an anomaly in what emerges as an incisive, moving, earthy Atwood story. It defies genre and categorisation. It is both funny and tragic. In the end I suppose, it’s just a story about a woman’s life, but it is the way that it is told makes it a beguiling and substantial read. There is an unmistakable wit in these stories, an emotional weight beneath the surface. Atwood is a brilliant, surprising writer.