Moral Disorder and Birds of America

I had not yet decided whether to write two separate papers on Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America and Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder or to try to link them in some way. I thought I’d like to link them if I could, but wanted that link to surface naturally in my reading and thinking about each short story collection. I recognized early on that each collection had a center point that connected each story to the other. Moore’s stories all mentioned birds in some way. Atwood’s stories all focus on the same primary character. This wasn’t enough though. I kept reading and noting particularities of style. It was “Moral Disorder”, the title story of Atwood’s collection that offered to me the basis for the comparison I’ll make here.

In general, I found Moore and Atwood to differ greatly in style. And, Ibelieve that can be best discussed through two stories in particular: Moore’s “Real Estate” and “Moral Disorder”. Both stories explore the relationship of a couple who move into new homes. Both are fixer-uppers. Both stories are concerned with the relationship between life and death, about the struggles of romantic love, and about the idea of “home”. The particularities of style between the two writers make for a remarkable contrast between them.

The openings of each story beg comparison. “There’s never been such a lovely spring, Nell thought…” (116) begins Atwood’s story. Moore begins, “It must be, Ruth thought, that she was going to die in the spring” (178). And though Atwood acknowledges the violence in nature throughout, hers is primarily a story about the human push toward creating and sustaining life. Moore’s story, however, is about a woman who has lost her desire to sustain her own life and who in despair and desperation, takes the life of another.

Moore relies heavily on our thinking brain, employing irony, satire, and insight. She elaborates on and explains much of what the characters do and say and this is easily seen in taking a close look at the dialogue. Atwood relies on subtext rather than insight, and engages our seeing brain through metaphor and imagery. She does not process those sights for the reader.

Nature imagery appears in both stories. Moore’s main character Ruth is primarily concerned with ridding her house of its various infestations. She has no sense of green, growing things. She can’t even tell the difference between a violet and a weed. She’s dealing with “crows the size of suitcases”( Moore 193), “carpenter ants—like shiny pieces of a child’s game” (193), squirrels and raccoons in the attic. She hires an exterminator and a landscaper, she buys a gun to shoot crows and still the “geese, the crows, the squirrels, the raccoons, the bats, the ants, the kids: Ruth now went to the firing range with Carla as often as she could” (Moore 206). Moore gives us plenty of insight into how Ruth is processing all this: “What she was feeling was too strange, too contrary, too isolated for mere emotion. It had to be a premonition…a premonition of death” (177), and “she never knew anymore what was a good life and what was bad, what was desirable matter and what was antimatter, what was the thing itself and what was the death of the thing” (201). Throughout Moore’s story we are given insight after insight, showing us the depth of Ruth’s suffering and her suffering over her suffering: “Every house is a grave, thought Ruth” (191).

Atwood relies on what we see and reveals only the simplest thoughts and emotions directly to us. She writes that Nell thought this or Nell wanted that, but not too often and without the depth and elaboration Moore uses. Primarily, she relies on subtext, as in this description which comes right after the morning call of peacocks on her farm being described as “like babies being murdered” (124):

“Nell planted everything she could think of. Tomatoes,

peas, spinach, carrots, turnips, beets, winter and summer

squash, cucumbers, succhinis, onions, potatoes. She

wanted generosity, abundance, an overflowing of fecundity,

as in Renaissance paintings of fruitful goddesses—Demeter,

Pomona—in flowing robes with one breast bare and glowing

edibles tumbling out of their baskets” (125).

We are not given insight into the inner working of Nell’s mind aside from the most basic emotions, but we know that there is some deeper dissatisfaction in all the life-tending she does on the farm for her live in “spouse” and his sons. She wants something that she is not getting, but we don’t hear her think about it like we do with Ruth. This is also revealed in the subtext of dialogue, as in her response to her partner’s “He’s in love with you,” in reference to the pet lamb they have to kill. She says: “I’m glad somebody is” (306). It is through subtext that Atwood reveals the desires of her main character. What is not explained for the reader but is suggested through imagery, what is not spoken between characters. It isn’t until the last page of the story that Nell’s need is revealed. We know she needs something, like the peacock needs his mate, the hen needs to horde all those eggs. Nell wants to produce offspring and doesn’t feel supported in that. “You don’t want me to have any babies” (140), she says to Tig, her spouse, on the last page of the story. We still don’t hear her think about it. We just hear her finally articulate it.

If it was a baby that Moore’s Ruth had wanted we would have been told right away, along with why she wanted the child and what was in her way. Let’s look at two exchanges between the female main characters and their respective spouses:

“ ‘A move…yes. A move will be good. We’ve soiled the nest,

in many respects.” her husband had said, in the circuitous

syntax and ponderous Lousiana drawl, that, like so much else

about him, had once madder her misty with desire and now

drove her nuts with scorn”(Moore 183).

“ ‘There’s a hundred acres,’ said Tig.

‘The house is kind of dark,’ said Nell. ‘It’s not very

cheerful.’

‘We’ll clean the windows,’ said Tig…

Nell didn’t say it wasn’t the windows, not the wallpaper.

But paint would help” (Atwood 117).

Atwood writes of one conversation between Nell and Tig: “There was more to this conversation, but it wasn’t voiced” (130). This is the case throughout the story and this subtext—what is not revealed—is what shows us the depth of Nell’s desire. She becomes “overrun with vegetables” and still the desire remains (132).

Moore splits open Ruth’s mind for us, revealing what she thinks, what she wants, and even the how and why of it to show us just how dark her spirit has become in remaining in a loveless marriage for so long, in surviving cancer only to not live.

Moore engages our thinking minds with irony and satire. Ruth, pondering her daughter’s dance lessons thinks “she wasn’t supposed to have taken them seriously! They had been intended as middle-class irony and window dressing—you weren’t actually supposed to become a dancer” (Moore 188). In this way the author is poking fun of the pointless life Ruth leads and then adds to this by naming her daughter “Mitzy”. Child or dog? We see this tendency to poke fun at her mundane, meaningless life again and again, as when Ruth’s friend Carla is working on “both her inner thighs and her inner child” (Moore 180). This technique invites the reader to also pick apart Ruth’s life and try to understand what great tragedy of circumstance or character brought her to the point in the end where without hesitance she shoots a man who breaks into their home and demands at gunpoint that she and her husband sing for him, and that this makes her realize what’s been true all along: she wants to die.

Atwood engages our seeing brain, not exposing the inner working of her character’s mind, but showing us all the magnificent detail of her farm life, all it’s life and violence. We see the peacock whose mate gets eaten by a weasel and who then in rage kills several hens and tries to attack his own reflection in a window. She shows us Nell cleaning, doing laundry, tending her garden, making ice cream and cheese. She shows us how she nursed the lamb that eventually has to be slaughtered because the animal loved her too much and kept attacking Tig. We see how she enters the slaughterhouse and describes “a menstrual smell.” We know she is having a crisis of womanhood. We can guess at why, but we do not, even in the end, when it’s revealed in dialogue, get to hear Nell think about it.

Both authors explore the relationship between life and death, love and hate in stories that tap into the symbolism of spring. Both stories show the power of a woman’s desire to love and be loved. They are so different though in style and tone. Moore uses irony, exposing the absurdity of a cancer survivor’s living as a dead person in her “grave” house. Atwood uses imagery and metaphor to show Nell’s desire to create and sustain life, to reproduce, to immerse herself in the things in nature that grow and love.

So, what does this all matter from the perspective of writing itself? It matters that these peculiarities of style were with some variation, consistent throughout the entirety of both collections. I could make these same comparisons of style between any two stories in the collection. Moore uses insight and irony. Her characters are joyless. She italicizes. Atwood reveals through subtext, imagery and metaphor. She gets crafty with punctuation, ending statements with questions, for instance. It just happens that these two stories had a couple of other parallels that made them, in my view, the best candidates for that discussion. This makes me wonder how I would characterize my own style and to what degree I’ve even developed that style. Also, I have a book-length collection of stories with a thread that I think is too bare and perhaps visible only to me. I’m thinking, after reading these two collections, that there is a stronger thread there to emphasize. I’m also thinking about whether it might be useful to do an informal evaluation characterizing the style of my novel from chapter to chapter, just to see what I can see. Is it consistent with my other work? What are my tics and tendencies?

 

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