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Change, the only constant

Margaret Atwood is at her best in these dark, witty stories, observes Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta.

india Updated: Nov 13, 2006 19:51 IST

Moral Disorder and Other Stories
: Margaret Atwood
Publisher:Doubleday – Nan A. Talese
Price: Rs 935, 227 pp

Three Times shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Margaret Atwood finally won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, a superb novel about sisters and storytelling. One of the most important writers of our time, Atwood’s dystopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Cake, were set in fictional worlds that have gone wrong because of wanton human recklessness. Moral Disorder is set in a more recognisable world, between the 1940s and the present day. Among other things, the stories trace the many ways in which that world has changed. They also warn us about the ways in which it will continue to change.

Eleven interconnected stories, dark and witty but also capable of sudden rushes of feeling, take us through more than six decades of the fictional narrator’s life as well as the lives of her parents, siblings, daughter, lovers, colleagues, stepchildren, animals and houses: from the time she was 11 years old in The Art of Cooking and Serving, knitting a layette for her soon-to-be-born baby sister, through the years of her sister’s growing schizophrenia and then the problems of her aging parents, to a post-9/11 world in which the narrator’s partner is walking up the stairs to tell her that yet another leader of yet another interim governing council in some other part of the world has been killed.

Two words recur in The Bad News, the first story: “not yet”. “We’re lucky,” says Tig, and the narrator knows what he means: “He means the two of us, sitting here in the kitchen, still. Neither of us gone. Not yet.” And the story segues into an imagined scene in a third-century Roman settle ment, with a third century Tig waiting to announce the bad news to a third century narrator. The barbarians are coming, but the third century narrator is busy enjoying the beautiful day. The words ‘not yet’ recur in the final lines: “They won’t get here for a long time. Not in our lifetime, perhaps. Glanum is in no danger, not yet.”

Sentences vault from past to future, from natural to supernatural, in the way that only Atwood can make them. A baby sister grows up to confront unseen demons in her mind until she learns to control them with pharmaceuticals; an ageing father must make his lonely way through the wilderness of dementia; a first wife, bored with her marriage, sets out to choose a second wife for her husband. Creative work also takes shape: a book is edited, novels are read and taught, supernatural “entities” move between the spaces disturbing their lives. Amid all this, stories are told and retold as Nell, the narrator, makes use of the abundant material of her life: “What else could I do with all that?... All that anxiety and anger, those dubious good intentions, those tangled lives, that blood. 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.”

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is a civil servant based in Mumbai

First Published: Nov 13, 2006 19:08 IST