Moral Disorder and other stories
by Margaret Atwood
New York: Doubleday, 2006, 225pp., $23.95 hardcover
The Thirteenth Tale
by Diane Setterfield
New York: Atria Books, 2006, 406pp., $26.00, hardcover
The Other Side of You
by Salley Vickers
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 262pp., $24.00, hardcover
By Trish Crapo
I admit I’m a hard sell when it comes to short stories. Too often they strike me as truncated—slivers of a narrative, when I want the whole thing. Characters flit in and out of some so quickly, it’s hard to care about them. Yet, when a short story is really working, it can do something to you that a novel, that “big, baggy monster” (to paraphrase Henry James), can never do. It can grab you and transport you to another world in so few pages, it takes your breath away.
Margaret Atwood’s new collection, Moral Disorder and other stories grabbed me that way. The clarity of voice in Atwood’s work has always been the source of her power, and the unnamed first-person narrator of Atwood’s first five stories has a scrappy sense of humor and an unpretentious instinct for survival that yank you into her life from the first paragraph.
“The Headless Horseman” takes place on a car ride as the narrator and her much younger sister return home. On the drive, the sisters piece together the story of a lopsided papier-mâché head the narrator made as part of a Halloween costume when she was thirteen and her sister was two.
“Do you remember the head?” I ask my sister. We’re in her rackety car, driving over to see our mother, who is now very old, and bedridden, and blind.
My sister doesn’t ask, “What head?” She knows what head. “It looked like a pimp,” she says. “With that greaser hair.”
As is so often the case with siblings, the story means different things to each of them. The narrator found the head hilarious and badly made; her sister was genuinely frightened by it. The journey through their childhood ends at their mother’s house, where the narrator thinks:
Now we’re at the door. The persistence of material objects is becoming an amazement to me. It’s the same door—the one I used to go in through, out through, year after year, in my daily clothing or in various outfits and disguises, not thinking at all that I would one day be standing in front of this very same door with my grey-haired little sister. But all doors used regularly are doors to the afterlife.
It’s this facility Atwood has of arriving at doors to the afterlife by way of simple language that makes her work so stunning.
Later in the collection, Atwood shifts to third-person, and reveals the main character’s name as Nell. While these stories are interesting because of what they add to the tale of Nell and the people close to her, I felt cheated, denied access to the voice I’d been counting on to guide me.
The last two stories recount, in first person, a woman’s experience with her aging parents. They are among the strongest in the book, more introspective in tone. But I felt distracted, trying to determine whether it was Nell I was listening to. It didn’t quite seem so and, adding to my confusion, one of these stories includes a horse named Nell. This wouldn’t have mattered in most collections, but in Moral Disorder, I had come to expect a connection.
In the collection’s last story, “The Boys at the Lab,” a daughter tries to jog her bedridden mother’s memory using photos from an old album. “Do you remember Cam and Ray?” she asks. When her mother admits she does not, the narrator thinks, “The fate of the boys is now up to me.” Cam and Ray belong to the mother’s memory, yet it’s essential that the daughter keep them alive. They jump to life through her words, affirming not only the power of stories but their necessity as well. We need to make sense of experience, even if we have to invent in order to do it. We need stories in order to remember who we are.
The dark mood of Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale begins on the book jacket, with its stacks of ill-lit books and raised gold lettering, and continues inside with the marbleized fly-leaves. This luxuriously Gothic tale begins in November and takes place almost entirely in one velvet-draped room in a large, dark manse on the English moors, where Vida Winter, a popular but intensely private writer, has finally decided to tell the truth about her life.
Ill and dying, Vida chooses amateur biographer Margaret Lea, writing to her at the cluttered antique bookshop Margaret runs with her father. After reading the old-fashioned letter, Margaret lowers it, “spellbound”:
There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.
In Vida’s library, Margaret finds herself drawn into a complicated tale, trying to make sense of such alluring clues as a five-note snatch of music she hears in the garden at night, a pair of eccentric twins, a devastating fire, and a baby left on a doorstep in an odd canvas bag along with an anagrammed spoon and a page torn from Jane Eyre. Complicating everything is Vida’s impulse to mask the truth. And yet, she knows she must tell her story before she dies—for herself and, increasingly, for Margaret, who also has a secret. As the novel progresses, the older woman’s story becomes a darkened window in which Margaret begins to see herself.
It surprised me to realize that most of the action of The Thirteenth Tale takes place in retrospect—yet Setterfield creates much delicious tension. This is a book to curl up with on a windy night, a hot toddy or a glass of brandy in hand.
Like The Thirteenth Tale, Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You takes place primarily in one room—the office of psychiatrist Dr. David McBride. Yet like Setterfield, Vickers transports the reader through time into the hearts and psyches of her two principal characters. To everyone around him, McBride appears competent, respectable and respected, satisfactorily married. He sees patients at two small mental hospitals, plays squash with a colleague, and attends dinner parties with his wife, Olivia, an attractive, spoiled woman who runs a dress shop. But an early loss haunts McBride. In fact, he admits it is responsible for his specific interest within his profession: “the denizens of that hinterland where life and death are sister and brother, the suicidally disposed.”
“It is said that the dead tell no tales, but I wonder,” McBride muses.
Certainly the dead play as large a part in this novel as the living. The reader is caught up in a web of interconnected stories: McBride’s buried one; the one his new patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank, finally reveals in a marathon seven-hour session; that of the Italian painter Caravaggio; and those he depicts in his paintings. Each story informs every other, but more than that, each pulls the others along, like those long skeins of bright scarves magicians pull from their pockets.
“It is said that when we touch pitch we are defiled,” McBride says.
But when we touch, or are touched by, another’s story, that also affects our being, and more radically. I can still recall the almost visceral sensation with which I intuited something large and cold roll away inside my patient, as she embarked on the tale that, for so many years, I was to learn, she had had shored up inside her.
Elizabeth Cruikshank is a woman “torn between her perceived duty and her unperceived heart.” She reveals to McBride her intense, single-afternoon encounter with a man, Thomas, whom she doesn’t see again for “fifteen years, eight months and three days.” And something large and cold begins to roll away inside him, too.
I felt grateful that Vickers avoided the pitfalls of the situation—a lesser writer might have had the psychiatrist and his patient fall in love, thereby resolving each other’s loss. And there is definitely the charge of love in their interaction—although Vickers’ sense of love is complex. Early on, McBride reflects that the fact that there had been no lovemaking in his patient’s first encounter with Thomas “was, I understood, immaterial. The most passionate sexual encounters originate in the mind.” Words possess passion enough to change people. The truth of his patient’s story unlocks the truth in his, freeing both to be themselves. You can’t hope for more from a story than that.