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Moral Disorder is a 2006 short story collection written by Margaret Atwood, but with the title pinched from her husband Graeme Gibson, after he decided to give up writing as a profession and let her have the title he was working on at the time. In a way, calling it a short story collection doesn't really do it justice- somehow this makes it sound a bit mundane, which it's anything but.
I have to be straight with you from the start here- while this is a clever, intellectual piece of writing, I personally didn't actually enjoy it, mainly because the last two books I read by Atwood were of the exact same vein i.e. a first person female narrator reflects on elements of her own life and laments the onset of old age. This is understandable, given that Atwood was herself 66 at the time of writing the book, but it does make for tedious reading when you've already read what is essentially the same material tweaked here and there several times already. If I were to take this further, I could even go so far as to say that it's about time she went the way of her husband and retired from writing herself. However, this might be a bit unfair, since Oryx and Crake, written three years after Moral Disorder, was an excellent book.
So, what can I tell you about the plot? Well, like I said, all 11 stories are interlinked, in that they all focus on the life of a woman named Nell, with the exception of the last one, which is autobiographical. Interestingly enough, I didn't realise this last story was any different until I read an online review, as the entire thing seems autobiographical to me.
Nell, whose name we don't discover until roughly halfway through the book, talks about various stages of her life, beginning with the birth of her baby sister, and how she laboriously knitted a set of clothing for her before she was born, only to then be given too much responsibility for her upbringing, while her mother is too ill with an underactive thyroid to be of much use.
This sister appears again later, once when they are on their way to visit their now elderly mother, who is blind, and the sister enigmatically calls every driver who frustrates her 'Fred,' and again when she comes to live on Nell and her husband's farm and is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Other recurring characters include the mother and Tig, Nell's husband. The first short story is quietly observant of the way their marriage functions, and the habits the two have which the other has to learn to respect as they grow old together.
Every story is set in Toronto, which is where Atwood herself is based. However, it's not just this that makes me think the story is yet another autobiographical tale, in the style of The Blind Assassin and Cat's Eye (which are also apparently not autobiographical, but resemble each other too closely not to be, in my view). Nell's mother is described as being in the exact same condition as Atwood's own mother in the last story; the character of the sister is basically identical to that of the sister in The Blind Assassin, and the protagonist herself seems to be identical to that of other two books I've mentioned, except that different periods of her life are described each time. When Atwood herself was asked if this was autobiographical, however, she replied: 'There has to be some blood in the cookie to make the Gingerbread Person come alive.'
The reason I'm so focused on this aspect of the book is that Atwood doesn't come across as particularly adventurous or effective when it comes to characterisation, since the same basic figures are used consistently and repetitively by her. Her talent lies instead in making cleverly sharp and frequently accurate observations which we can all relate to.
I wonder whether this repetition would actually affect your enjoyment of Moral Disorder if it were the first thing you'd read by her. I suspect it wouldn't have too much effect. Nevertheless, I somehow find Atwood's writing to be generally quite dry and lacking in any kind of engaging content. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what the missing ingredient is in her writing- probably plot. When she writes these wishy-washy life analysis stories it's almost like reading a piece of very dull non-fiction.
What sets Oryx and Crake apart from anything else I've read by her is the engaging plot, and this is something that is distinctly lacking in Moral Disorder. The overall effect of several related but essentially independent short stories is one of wooden disconnectedness, helped along by her objective style of writing. It lives up to its title, in that the whole thing is disordered, but while Atwood might have intended this, I think it weakens the overall structure and prevents the reader from getting involved. So, sorry folks, but I'm not going to recommend this. Definitely give Oryx and Crake a read though.