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BOOK REVIEW

Rich portraits deepen superb collection of short stories

Moral Disorder and Other Stories, By Margaret Atwood, Nan A. Talese, 225 pp., $23.95

In the interest of full disclosure, I should stipulate that I've never read a Margaret Atwood book that I didn't at least admire; a few of them I absolutely cherish. But for readers familiar only with Atwood's works of speculative fiction such as "The Handmaid's Tale" or "Oryx and Crake" -- those who may think of her primarily as a social critic whose vivid and disturbing dystopias are themselves the leading characters -- ``Moral Disorder" will come as a revelation. In this superb new collection of short stories, she displays the same intellectual fearlessness and wit of her other books, but this time tempered with a compassion and richness of portraiture that will surprise even her most avid fans.

All of these apparently autobiographical stories are told from the perspective of an author and editor named Nell and feature a recurring cast of characters: her lover and lifelong partner, Tig; his ex-wife, Oona; Nell's sometimes troubled younger sister, Lizzie; and her parents, both self-sufficient adventurers, as comfortable in the deep woods as in their urban home.

``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 only recently come to think of as still . . . " Nell says in the darkly comic opening story, `` The Bad News," as she reflects on the newspaper headlines, hoping that the dissolution of civilization won't precede her own. ``This has become my picture of my future self: wandering the house in the darkness, in my white nightdress, howling for what I can't quite remember I've lost."

Helping her aging parents remember what they've lost is what Nell does in ``The Labrador Fiasco" and ``The Boys at the Lab." Both are tender, heartbreaking accounts of how Nell uses stories to guide her mother and father back through the dense brush of fractured memory to who they used to be.

``The Art of Cooking and Serving" embarks on the chronological journey through Nell's life that makes up the rest of the book. We meet her as an 11-year-old, spending her summer on a remote, primitive island somewhere in northern Canada. Nell's young voice is angry, perplexed, and not the least bit cloying, as in this description of her dozing, pregnant mother: ``She'd taken to wearing an old smock she'd put away in a trunk, long ago; I remembered using it for dressing up at Halloween once, when I was being a fat lady with a purse. It made her look poor."

Following Nell through her adolescence and adulthood in the subsequent stories is like staying up all night every decade or so with an old friend. Each intense encounter builds on a shared and cumulative history between character and reader, and Atwood's magic is such that we not only sense Nell's psychological development over the course of these stories, but we mature ourselves as a consequence of reading them.

``But what else could I do with all that?" Nell wonders at the end of ``The Entities." ``All that anxiety and anger, those dubious good intentions, those tangled lives, that blood. I can tell about it or I can bury it. In the end, we'll all become stories."

Just as Nell's stories helped her parents return to the people they used to be, the stories Atwood tells in ``Moral Disorder" help us become the people we should be.

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