Times of Her Life
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 225 pp. $23.95
A young writer, like a young woman, has a narrow strip of experience from which to contemplate an unknown future, empty and waiting for its form. An older writer, reminded of mortality by aging knees and dying parents, has the consolation of seeing everything in rich detail, meaningful and apparently pointless together. M oral Disorder is about a whole life, the life of Nell, married to Tig, or Gilbert. It is told in segments, stories concentrating on particular gritty or glittering episodes or problems. It covers every decade from the 1930s to the present. Margaret Atwood balances the apparently random -- disorderly -- events and memories against the sense we all have that a life as a whole has its own shape, possibly a destiny.
Moral Disorder is a perfect title -- apparently one from a novel abandoned by Atwood's husband, which fits. And the work, with its isolated tales, some in the first person, some in the third, is a perfect shape for contemplating life and death. It is like our memories: There are things that persist in refusing to be forgotten, are as clear as the day they happened, whereas all sorts of more apparently significant things vanish into dust or persist only in old newspapers and fashion magazines. A life, unlike a biography, does not unfold in a neat progression. Nor is it entirely incoherent. Each of these stories coheres round a defined patch of Nell's life, and each has its own cluster of brilliantly described and unforgettable things, which are as important as the people.
In "The Art of Cooking and Serving," the 11-year-old Nell is knitting a layette for an unborn sister -- the garments' slight lopsidedness and lumpiness unforgettable -- and reading a book of household advice that gives her a vision of a perfect life ahead, with table centerpieces and housemaids in daytime dress or dressed with black stockings and organdy collar and cuffs for afternoon tea and dinner. In "The Other Place," the young graduate is living in a bedsit with a gilt mirror and a horrible green satin bedspread. In "Monopoly" and in "Moral Disorder" itself, Nell is living with a married man (knitting again) in a ramshackle farm and attached, as one is at that age, to the Earth, which is madly overloaded with too much flesh, feathers, fur, vegetables, pots, pans and rapidly changing seasons. Only Atwood could have written the fat white horse called Gladys and the intransigent lamb (and the abattoir where he ends) with such grim and delicious comedy. Atwood remarks dryly that at that stage, Nell "still thought life on a farm represented some superior form of authenticity."
Houses, too, mark the shape of a life, not least as containers for the memorable things. Tig's ex-wife, Oona -- a 1970s cookery and good-life guru in a caftan, author of Femagician's Box of Tricks -- falls on bad times and needs a manageable house, which Nell, her supplanter, provides. It is discovered by Lillie, a concentration camp survivor turned real estate agent, incurably imaginative about what can be done to hideous or uncomfortable houses. In this house, Oona dies in the kitchen, her son bleeds on the floor breaking in to help her, and Nell calls in a "feng shui friend, who found her an expert in crystals and purification." The "crystal person, whose name was Susan" discovers a "channel where the entities come and go" that has to be purified. The house is sold to two gay men, who mistake the entities for "aunties" and find it all funny. Nell thinks about the "entities," which can be seen as shorthand for the things and memories from which Atwood has movingly and artfully constructed her book.
"All that anxiety and anger, those dubious good intentions, those tangled lives, that blood," she writes. "I can tell about it or I can bury it. In the end, we'll all become stories. Or else we'll become entities. Maybe it's the same."
I understood only slowly how integral to the whole book was the contrast between blood, pain, sickness and death and those visions of a planned future purveyed by household advice, television images, children's stories. The child Nell had a book in which the ideal home with the ideal mother had white frilly curtains that haunt her as something that must be in the future until they are tried and found impractical. Nell, in a lopsided, ungainly and morally disordered way, does attach herself to the human community of men, women, children and work. But she has a recurrent dream, all her life, of the "other place," a place still haunted by the gilt mirror and the "green satin bedspread, which has taken on a life of its own and is able to morph into cushions, or sofas, or armchairs, or even -- once -- a hammock." In this dream, like the hero of Henry James's chilling "The Beast in the Jungle," whose doom is to be the only human to whom nothing happens, she understands: "I'll have to be all by myself, forever. I've missed the life that was supposed to be mine." And she is aware, in a room she hasn't yet entered, of an imprisoned child.
"We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on," says Prospero, "And our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep." Moral Disorder is cunningly constructed of the vagaries of memory and is rounded by Alzheimer's and forgetting. Nell, Tig and Nell's sister test themselves for failing memory as they ruefully allow for failing knees. There is a moving, evocative story of Nell's father, after a stroke, inhabiting a story Nell reads to him, of three explorers disastrously astray in Labrador. There is a plain and very sad tale of Nell's mother, reduced to immobility, her memories slipping away, though living on, briefly, in a different form, in Nell's own memories. The mother dreams a repeating dream of being lost, and no one, no thing, being there, only the empty sky and a logjam she tries to climb. This tale, like all these tales, is both grim and delightful, because it is triumphantly understood and excellently written. ·
A.S. Byatt is a writer of novels and stories. Her latest book is "Little Black Book Of Stories."