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Atwood's latest story collection is prism-perfect

Margaret Atwood, clever as ever, seems to lose some of her edge and erudition in "Moral Disorder," her latest collection of short stories. But pierce the tender crust of these tales of domesticity, and Atwood's wily, witty and challenging ways are all here -- just simpler and less daunting to the masses.

It is a ploy that renders the 11 tightly-packed stories close to prism perfect -- in all that they say, and don't say.

It is Atwood using a small brush to paint a large picture. It is also, perhaps, Atwood looking, from a certain age, at her own mortality, her own choices in life. . .

"What if I missed a turn somewhere -- missed my own future?" her protagonist, Nell, asks in "The Other Place," a piece about Nell's first years on her own, wondering what the rest of her life will bring.

In it, a recurring dream of "the other place" -- wherein she has "missed the life that was supposed to be mine" -- brings her "nebulous dread."

"What if it's not in the past, this other place?" she thinks. "What if it's still in the future? After all?"

Nell, sometimes named, sometimes not, is the link in these 11 stories-as-novel. Five of them appeared previously in magazines in Canada (Atwood's home), Britain and the U.S. All of them deal with hearth and home, literally and figuratively, and take us through more than six decades of Nell's first seeking a life with "white frilly curtains," then settling down with a kind man called Tig -- and finding white frilly curtains "got dirty too quickly. . . and were hard to take down and put back up."

In the marvelous opening story, "The Bad News," Tig and Nell are aging. "These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet," she muses. "We live in the small window between them, the space we've only recently come to think of as still. . . " The bad news comes, each day, in the form of the morning newspaper and is alarming to Tig and Nell, especially Tig.

"Bad news burns him," Nell (as yet unnamed) says. "We don't like bad news, but we need it. We need to know about it in case it's coming our way."

Placing an aging Nell in the first story is a brilliant stroke, qualifying her for childhood in the next three. It also establishes the female as the stronger of the sexes, a theme familiar to Atwood readers.

There is a wonderful offering, "My Last Duchess," featuring the cerebral Nell, still in school and pondering a literary future. In it, Nell spends days trying to comprehend the "Last Duchess" of Robert Browning's celebrated poem.

She concludes that the Last Duchess as well as Shakespeare's Ophelia and others of their ilk were "unlucky pushovers." She calls then "girls" and says, "they were too trusting, they found themselves in the hands of the wrong men, they weren't up to things, they let themselves drift. They smiled too much. They were too eager to please. Then they got bumped off, one way or another. Nobody gave them any help."

By Atwood's title story, "Moral Disorder," Nell's life is our own -- and we move, with Nell, to a farm north of Toronto to live with Tig, then a married man with two young sons. Here we must deal with Tig's manipulative, devious ex-wife Oona -- who, it dawns on Nell, has set her up with Tig so Oona can get on with her own life.

All the smells, the sounds and difficult chores of a farm become Nell's. And when Oona sends the boys to stay, they come with instructions about their homework.

"So that's what I'm supposed to be," thinks Nell. "I'm the governess." Nell becomes much more. She marries Tig and grows into a full life on the farm, keeping her sense of humor with a dog named "Howl," learning to eat animals she loves.

In time, Tig and Nell leave the farm for the city (Toronto) where they "inherit" Lillie, a real estate agent and Holocaust survivor who "must have seen a lot of cellars and attics and human nature in her day."

Lillie brings more than a house to Nell's life -- and to Oona's. The orchestration here, of Lillie and Oona, is Atwood on a grand domestic scale.

Two masterful stories at the end of this collection take us into the last days of each of Nell's parents -- last days that bring back earlier days and, in her father's case, a true tale-within-a-tale, of a fated 1903 expedition into the Labrador wilds.

Old family photographs anchor "The Boys at the Lab," a poignant bedside narrative of Nell's mother, now blind and rapidly losing her memory -- facts that bring Nell up short, remembering a strong, pretty woman capable of rowing a family-filled boat and flirting with boys in the summertime.

Nell's mother also wrote -- in diaries that she later burned -- so Nell is left with the photographs, including those of two boys who interned one summer with her insect-studying father. "The fate of the boys is now up to me," realizes Nell whose mother, as a teenager, had a horse that ran away with her, leaving her "clinging to the reins and the pommel for dear life, her heart going a mile a minute with terrified joy."

That horse was named "Nell" -- a pure Atwood touch, serving up harsh reality with an ever-so-roguish wink.

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.


Moral Disorder and Other Stories

By Margaret Atwood

Doubleday, 225 pages, $23.95

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