This post is a review of the short story collection “Moral disorder” by Margaret Atwood.
“Oryx and Crake” was the first book I read by Atwood. It was amazing how the novel combined a sophisticated yet plausible sci-fi1 plot, an emotionally convincing yet unusual palette of characters, and a down-to-earth yet beautiful literary style2. That book sure got me thinking about lots of things and hit me right in the feels, but it’s another story. Naturally, I wanted to know more about Atwood, and followed her online presence for a bit, but it took several years to get myself to actually read something else by her.
“Moral Disorder” is not a standard choice (most people know her for “The edible woman” or “The handmaid’s tale”), but I was in a mood for short stories. As it turned out, they are loosely connected ones; the effect is somewhere between a novel and a collection.
The book is a beautiful, melancholy portrait of ordinary family relationships from the point of view of a woman protagonist at different stages of her life3. Nothing unconventional really happens - it’s more about all the internal what-ifs and should-Is, and the painful attempts to make sense of the world. The power of the book comes from how persuasively and vividly these ordinary situations are painted, and indeed it makes you believe that a good writer doesn’t need exceptional characters or plots to create an exceptional work.
A device Atwood employs in a number of the stories is parallel. The seemingly arbitrary contexts of some of the stories (“The bad news”, “My last duchess”, “White horse”, “The Labrador fiasco”) complement and amplify the main line, and I’ve found that thinking about these similarities helps you appreciate better what’s going on. In particular, “My last duchess” is also a great reflection on how literature matters and enters in our personal lives.
Another prevailing theme is coping with old age’s assault on mind and body, whether your own or those of your family. Here I found the descriptions especially convincing and distressing4. You can feel clearly how something precious is irreversibly destroyed by dementia, how the afflicted are “in a different world”, how both their memories and their selves are beyond the reach of anybody.
There were numerous times when I realized “Oh, I’ve totally felt/thought that way, too” while reading the collection. It does put your life in perspective, and it can remind you of some important things you’ve been short-sightedly ignoring. In the end, you (or at least I did) come out with the sentiment that even the most ordinary, boring and trivial moments of a life are infinitely important, beautiful, worthwhile, precious.
Or rather speculative fiction, as she prefers to call it to emphasize how much it is a possible tomorrow ↩
Thank you Stephen Burt for choosing “Oryx and Crake” as one of the books in that science fiction class ↩
Except the last story - it is autobiographical ↩
good old Margaret sure likes to freak people out about the inevitable perils of the future, on the global and personal scale. It seems that many of her works are anti-utopian cautionary tales ↩