Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Margaret Atwood: Moral Disorder

Initially, Margaret Atwood's smoothly mysterious anthology Moral Disorder seems like a collection of otherwise-unrelated short tales of transformation. In the first story, "The Bad News," an unnamed first-person character and a man named Tig process a generic run of modern bad news; midway through, their perspectives change, and they're Roman citizens, discussing the barbarians crossing the Rhine. "The Headless Horseman"—the book's strongest standalone installment—is packed with changes: make-believe games turn a father into a bear and a sister into a monster, relationships mature, children grow up, medication radically alters a personality. In other early installments, pregnancy turns a vital woman into a blank specter and her daughter into a studied servant, while other unnamed women age, recreate themselves, and move through relationships and homes. In all these installments, Atwood pictures her characters' surroundings in detail, but only introduces them in relation to each other, as archetypes occupying minutely detailed worlds rather than strong individuals. The effect is often haunting, but more illustrative than personal, and each installment seems to peter out in mid-thought.

But then, midway through, the book itself transforms. The sixth story shifts into third-person, giving its predecessors' nameless protagonists a single shared identity. As it becomes clear that all the episodes have been about a girl named Nell progressing through various stages of life, the book takes on a more novelistic cohesion, and develops a less ethereal tone. Paradoxically, Nell's personality clarifies as the perspective moves outside her head. But that has a great deal to do with Atwood's style: as usual, she writes dryly and sparingly about emotions and causes, focusing instead on the nitty-gritty of actions and results. Observed from a distance, Nell and Tig settle down on a farm, help raise his kids, deal with his increasingly erratic wife, and watch her parents age and fade; in the process a stronger sense of self emerges from Nell's behavior than from her musings. Along the way, Moral Disorder becomes less about individual, momentary transformations, and more about the biggest ones life has to offer. And in the process, the book changes yet again. It's tempting to approach the first half as a puzzle to be decoded: What are these vignettes saying about life, and how do they relate? But by the end, they've accumulated a simple, easy gravity and a compulsion of their own.

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