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The illuminator

Moral Disorder and Other Stories Margaret Atwood Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 230 pp., $23.95

September 24, 2006|Jane Ciabattari | Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire" and a contributor to Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.

MARGARET ATWOOD has been laboring in the "wordmines," as she puts it, for 45 years, beginning with a 1961 poetry collection, "Double Persephone." She has put together a prodigious, often brilliant and always provocative set of some 40 books.

Atwood cannot be pinned down to a single genre or style. She writes poetry, essays, novels, short stories, satire, realism, surrealism and literary science fiction. Her first novel, "The Edible Woman," published in 1969, was a self-described "anti-comedy" with a plot that hinged on a young woman's anorexic response to the rules of engagement and marriage. Her next, the groundbreaking 1973 novel "Surfacing," a disturbing, psychologically dense mystery about a young woman's quest for her missing father, was so loaded with symbols that it spawned a cottage industry of academic papers and books exploring its myriad themes, colonialism as well as eco-feminism. But what makes "Surfacing" one of the best novels of the last century is the narrative intelligence and the precision and clarity of the Canadian author's prose. These qualities also characterize much of her later work.

Atwood has had the intellectual bravado to project scientific findings forward in a series of audacious novels, beginning in 1986 with "The Handmaid's Tale," a dystopian tale about a culture run by religious fundamentalists who deprive women of most liberties and focus on their childbearing abilities. Her 2003 novel, "Oryx and Crake," posits a mutant landscape inhabited by the last Homo sapiens on Earth. (The book's website suggests a reading list that includes Janine M. Benyus' "Biomimicry" and Clive Ponting's "A Green History of the World.")

Another strand of Atwood's work is psychologically dense, metafiction, like her 2000 Booker Prize-winning novel, "The Blind Assassin," which folds together three plot lines, one within the next.

Now Atwood graces us with a new short-story collection, "Moral Disorder," her first in 15 years. Together these 11 autobiographical stories create an elegant, nearly seamless narrative about a woman whose lifetime stretches from the 1930s to the present. The collection is a treat for fans and a worthy introduction for those who have not yet had the pleasure of her company. The collection is framed by two stories from the point of view of a woman in her 60s. In between, Atwood circles back to the woman's childhood and knits up the teenage years, postgraduate city life, love and child-rearing time on a farm.

The narrator in the opening story, "The Bed News," wakes to hear her longtime companion, Tig, carrying "bad news" up the stairs to their bedroom. The leader of the "interim governing council" has been killed. They are living in a time of uncertainty in the external world, in their bodies: "These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet. We live in the small window between them, the space we've recently come to think of as still.... " Every day there is bad news -- assassinations, explosions, oil spills, genocides, famines. The usual 21st century news of the day.

Then comes the imaginative shift that signals Atwood's capacity to surprise. The narrator refers to a time when she and Tig took a trip to a place called Glanum in the south of France. "I haven't thought about it in years, but I find myself there now, back then, in Glanum, before it was destroyed in the third century, before it was only a few ruins you pay to get into." Indeed, she and Tig are transported by those few words -- "there now, back then" -- to Glanum, a place on the verge of extinction. She is having breakfast in the morning room, with a mural of the nymph Pomona and the Zephyrs. He brings her the bad news: "The barbarians are invading. They've crossed the Rhine." It is a beautiful day in Glanum. "Gossip and rumour," she muses. "Portents, forebodings; birds in flight, sheep's entrails. You never know if the news is true until it pounces.... Until you're howling in darkness, wandering the empty rooms, in your white dress."

She wants to believe they will get through it, that they are not in danger yet. That there is time. That's all there is to the story. Simple. But the effect is strong.

In "The Art of Cooking and Sewing," the narrator is 11 and hovers anxiously over her mother pregnant in some potentially dangerous way. The girl spends her time knitting a layette for the coming baby. The story has echoes of "Surfacing." Readers of that early novel have been in these woods before, seen this lake, imagined a body floating there. The dramatic payoff comes as the girl sets the boundaries that define her independence from her mother.

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