Moral Disorder is a collection of linked short stories which trace the life of the central character from her 1940s childhood through to the present day. The story contained in the chapbook is titled “The Art of Cooking and Serving” and, though I understand it’s not the opening story of the collection, it is chronologically the first. In it, the narrator recounts the story of her eleventh summer which she spent waiting anxiously for the birth of her sister. She explains:
I was knitting this layette because my mother was expecting. I avoided the word pregnant, as did others: pregnant was a blunt, bulgy, pendulous word, it weighed you down to think about it, whereas expecting suggested a dog with its ears pricked, listening briskly and with happy anticipation to an approaching footstep. My mother was old for such a thing: I’d gathered this by eavesdropping while she talked with her friends in the city, and from the worried wrinkles on the foreheads of the friends, and from their compressed lips and tiny shakes of the head, and from their Oh dear tone, and from my mother saying she would just have to make the best of it. I gathered that something might be wrong with the baby because of my mother’s age; but wrong how, exactly? I listened as much as I could, but I couldn’t make it out, and there was no one I could ask.
Later she continues:
The danger that loomed was so vague, and therefore so large—how could I even prepare for it? At the back of my mind, my feat of knitting was a sort of charm, like the fairy-tale suits of nettles mute princesses were supposed to make for their swan-shaped brothers, to turn them back into human beings. If I could only complete the full set of baby garments, the baby that was supposed to fit inside them would be conjured into the world, and thus out of my mother. Once outside, where I could see it—once it had a face—it could be dealt with. As it was, the thing was a menace.
As the story unfolds, we see the narrator growing up under pressure, her relationship with her mother shifting, and the contours of her future relationship with her sister being determined. Everything that is to come is tantalizingly hinted at in two perfect final paragraphs. I’d like to quote them to illustrate my point but I don’t want to spoil the end of the story for anyone so I’ll resist.
A new book by Margaret Atwood is always an exciting prospect to me. That it is a collection of short stories, and a collection of linked stories at that—perhaps my favourite literary form—makes it still more exciting. Needless to say, the marvellous sample story with its tantalizing ending has ratcheted up my anticipation even further. Happily, I need wait no longer, nor need most of you, at least not much longer. Moral Disorder went on sale in Canada today and in the UK yesterday, and it’s due to be released in the US on September 19th. I’m off to track down a copy. I promise a full report once I’ve read it.