Adventures in Reading

“The Bad News” by Margaret Atwood
“You can’t lead if no one will follow. People throw up their hands, then sit on them. They just want to get on with their lives” from Margaret Atwood’s “The Bad News.”

Before I begin my post about Marget Atwood’s “The Bad News” I must confess that I’m really struggling with this post. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the story, I thought it was sensational, but I think looking at one short story (and not in a research paper capacity) might be trickier than I originally thought. For the past few days I’ve been trying to sit down and start writing this and nothing. Perhaps writer’s block has joined company with my reader’s block? However, I like to think it has more to do with a wonderful quote I found recently by Flannery O’Connor, but of course have subsequently lost. In short, the multi-layered short story should be too difficult to easily summarize.

Margaret Atwood is perhaps better known for her novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale or (one of my favorites) The Penelopiad. Most recently though she has put out a collection of short stories entitled Moral Disorder and “The Bad News” is the first story within the collection. For those who find short stories problematic, Moral Disorder might be a nice collection to start with as all of the stories follow a central character.

“The Bad News” unfolds in a domestic setting between an older couple starting their day. The husband, Tig, introduces the bad news to his wife, the narrator, soon after she wakes: “They just killed the leader of the interim governing council” (1). The bad news of the morning unfolds from this starting point to embrace the bad news of physical and mental aging, the difficulties of living with someone (even after a long time), the threat of losing a partner, to the bad news that always peppers the head lines.

Juxtaposing these serious issues is an offhanded humor that is delivered perfectly by our cranky narrator. A humorous anecdote about a crazy cat later becomes a poignant metaphor. The concluding pages of the story the reader is actually transported back in time as the narrator recreates this handful of moments before the third century. Atwood supplies the reader with an amusing twist as our narrator takes us quickly through the morning of a retired Roman soldier’s wife.

I probably read “The Bad News” five times if not more and with each reading my eyes would widen with a newly discovered connections. After seeing a photograph of bad news in the newspaper the narrator remarks “In pictures like these there are always empty shoes. It’s the shoes that get to me. Sad, that innocent daily task — putting your shoes on your feet, in the firm belief that you’ll be going somewhere” (5) and later the narrator wonderfully remarks, while remarking on the couple’s “okayness,” “We have all of our shoes” (6).

I mentioned that the stories in Moral Disorder all connect through the main character (or so says the book jacket), but “The Bad News” is a phenomenal story on its own. The story is tightly woven and complex and Atwood serves the reader with a variety of emotions. In retrospect, I’m further amazed that the timing of the actual story unfolds over a few minutes: the narrator wakes up, goes downstairs, and has a brief exchange with Tig. A great story and overall Moral Disorder looks to be a promising collection.

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