Moral Disorder and Other Stories

By MARGARET ATWOOD

One of the silliest ideas about the uses of fiction is that it should offer lessons in how one should live. But sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, Margaret Atwood manages to cram so much spiky wisdom into her work that sometimes they do seem like a primer in the lives of intellectual women of the 20th century. The stories in Moral Disorder do not quite add up to a novel, nor are they explicitly linked. Some are told in first person; others in third. But taken together, they may comprise the life of one woman, with a husband named Tig and a difficult younger sister, offered up in slices from different decades. The collection begins with a couple in late middle age, juxtaposing the cozy breakfast table togetherness with the daily ritual of absorbing the bad news from the world. Atwood’s woman — called Nell in some of the stories — grows up with conventional expectations in the ’50s, genuinely fascinated with homemaking manuals and knitting a layette set for her much younger sister, for whom she will serve as a nearly surrogate parent. During the ’60s and ’70s, she is in turn an unmarried scholar, a step-parent, and a second wife living on a rural farm. Atwood’s particular genius has always been a lack of squeamishness at showing how women can sabotage each other. This comes out especially well in a section on the “dumb bunnies” of classic literature, told from the viewpoint of a high school girl, and the character of Oona, the purportedly feminist, extremely high maintenance first wife of Nell’s husband for whom Nell does several extraordinary favors. Atwood, of course, belongs nowhere near the self-help section, but her characters wrestle with the big problems of daily life with an intellectual intensity that feels nearly instructive. -