Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood – A Review
Rating – 4/5
Please read Part I here
Three of the stories titled Monopoly, Moral Disorder and White Horse account the tale of Nell’s adult life with her partner Tig and their hilarious farm experiences. Monopoly deals with the personal life of Nell entwined with that of her boyfriend Tig, his wife Oona who was Nell’s client, and their two sons. Although in love with Tig and being an integral part of his life, she still finds herself an outsider and an uninvited guest in the life of his family. Nell’s relationship with Tig’s family is shown through her progress in creating a multi-colored bed cover for her seedy bed in the study room of the farm house – a bedspread made of three colored strips of wool which will all be joined together at the end to form a single unit. Although successful in completing the bed spread beautifully, a city bred cat of the boys rolls over on the sheet filling it with thorns and prickles. Atwood uses it as an indication of the smooth yet precarious ride that Nell will have with Tig’s family.
My favorite vignette in this entire collection is Moral Disorder, a hilarious account of Nell and Tig’s struggle to have a successful farm life like regular country folks although they are completely ill equipped for this task. Most of the mirth in this story is added through the couple’s interaction with animals. Hens and lamb raised with love in the farm coming back in their edible form, a lamb that feels threatened by the masculinity of Tig and sees him as a competitor for Nell’s affection, homemade beer cans exploding in the basement transforming it into an active minefield – there is no end to humor in this story. This clearly highlights the naivety of the couple in adapting and accepting the intricacies of farm life where birth and death are two sides of the coin. Only when the old dies the young can be ushered in to the world.
White Horse is all about the struggles of people and animals suffering from mistreatment. This is showcased through a white horse named Gladys rescued by Nell’s friend and “gifted” to Nell for keeping in their ranch. To this is added Howl, a dog rescued by Nell and Tig, who was subjected to severe mistreatment. Nell and Gladys slowly bond overcoming their reservations about each other till the point Nell even begins to think of Gladys as her own. Another instance of mistreatment is that of Nell’s sister who suffers through her choice in men. Shunning her effort in finding her perfect man she approaches a therapist who sends her to a shrink who diagnoses her with schizophrenia. Nell’s sister also struggles to readjust to the normal world after they find out that the shrink was a fraud.
The Entities is a story of darkness in the present and the past and of looking beyond that. The main character in the story is Maggie, Nell’s realtor, who is also a concentration camp survivor. After losing her child to the war, she finds her husband and starts their life again and tries to find happiness in small things like finding a house for a family. The story also details the deteriorating health of Oona and her struggle to have a pleasant life even with her dark sickness engulfing her. After witnessing Oona’s death, Maggie’s health slowly declines till she also passes away. The home is sold to two gay men with the information that the dining area contains a passage for entities to come and go.
Concluding the collection with stories of old-age and reminiscing about past The Labrador Fiasco and Boys at the Lab narrates Nell’s experiences with her parents during their age of senescence. Narrated through various altering time periods and incidents, both the stories progressively showcase the deterioration of each parent. In these stories Atwood has incorporated her love for Canadian history and wilderness as well as few of her experiences with her entomologist father. The Labrador Fiasco is around the book The Lure of the Labrador Wild which narrates a failed expedition by Wallace and Hubbard to penetrate the Labrador Wilds. Nell’s father’s deteriorating health condition is dealt in parallel with the progress of the mission as the adventurers make mistake after mistake making it completely doomed. Just as the fate of Hubbard and Wallace are sealed with poor weather and lack of food, Nell’s father’s fate also seems bleak with multiple strokes leading to a loss of memory. The story of The Lure of the Labrador Wild is not completely revealed and only some parts of the book are discussed in short; yet the book sounds a very interesting read with the way Atwood has incorporated it into the tale.
Similarly Boys at the Lab narrates the story of the deteriorating health of Nell’s mother. She visits her mother often and assesses her memory by narrating different stories of Nell’s childhood. Yet, her mother shows interest towards those stories in her life before her marriage. To her surprise Nell realizes that she is a total stranger to her mother’s childhood and has always known her mother as “mother” and not as the young woman who once might have been full of love and life. Boys at the Lab is specifically centered on their experiences at her father’s Lab in remote Quebec ruminating about four boys who provided assistance to her father. This story was an emotional one throwing into the light the relationship between a mother and daughter. How many of us try to see our mothers or fathers as anyone beyond a mother or father till it is too late?
These stories with just a handful of characters explore the role of women in different stages of life. The protagonist herself transforms from a daughter to a sister to an “adulterer” and finally embracing the role of a wife and mother. Many of the roles are acceptable to society but others rebel against the accepted norms of society. Nell as a career woman who is single and not focusing on relationships or getting married makes the society raise their eyebrows. Also, Nell’s role as a third woman in the marriage of Tig is something unacceptable to society and even her parents. As these stories have all of Atwood’s trademark elements they are like hidden gems for her fans. Although each of the vignette revolves around a perfectly ordinary happening or event, Atwood’s writing has elevated it and given it an extraordinary status. I believe these stories will be well appreciated by hard-core Atwood fans who are at home with her writing and presentation.