MORAL DISORDER by Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart), 240 pages, $32.99 cloth. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Two pages into moral disorder I had to put it down. I'd been sitting back waiting for powerful writing to wash over me.
Stupid me. Margaret Atwood just will not let her readers be lazy. These are engaging stories in the true sense of the word. You need to sit up - no, actually lean into them - and think.
A lot has been made of the fact that they're more personal than her other fiction, possibly even autobiographical (exactly the kind of commentary Atwood loathes), but these stories matter most because they're so good.
They are connected via their protagonist, Nell. We go to school with her, get inside her long-term relationship with Tig, go live on a farm, watch her parents get older.
The first story, in which an aging couple notice that the world around them is changing in a way they can't control, sets the stage for what amounts to a trip through the life cycle. Reminiscent of Cat's Eye's early tone, both The Art Of Cooking And Serving and The Headless Horseman convey just how un-sugary-and-spicy - even monstrous - little girls can be.
The title story is a subtle take on what happens when two city slickers turn to subsistence farming. Another two stories achingly portray Nell's mother and father in decline.
Of them all, my favourite is The Last Duchess, which starts out as a tribute to a superb high school English teacher but turns into a sly commentary on sexual politics.
All 10 tales - three were published previously - typify Atwood's fiction. They're mordantly witty, occasionally tragic, always poetic.
There isn't another writer on the planet who can be so tough and so tender at the same time.
INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF AUTHORS Readings, interviews, discussions, award presentations and special events. October 18-28 at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West). $15, McClelland & Stewart and Giller Prize readings $25, director's circle package for two to M&S, Giller and Governor General's finalist readings $250 (includes books), Young IFOA stu free. Pen Canada Benefit October 20 (Convocation Hall, $20-$175, 416-978-8849, www.uofttix.ca). 416-973-4000, www.readings.org.