Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Margaret Atwood, _The Year of the Flood_

I WOULD HAVE bet money that Margaret Atwood would be the first Canadian writer to get a Nobel Prize (I'm not counting Bellow, mind you).  Alice Munro is a tremendous writer--but the Swedes usually look past the short story writers and go for novelists with big ideas, e'g., Atwood. Three cheers for Munro, richly well-deserved, but I hope Atwood is still alive and eligible next time Canada's turn comes around.

As often happens here at LLL, I did not get around to the second volume in this trilogy until the third had already appeared.  I try to keep up, but... you know... it's hard.

I read this after having recently re-read Oryx and Crake (which I assigned in my "Modern Novel"course this past spring), so its nicely-tuned complementarity to the first installment especially struck me. Like its predecessor, it alternates between time-frames, the before and the after of a catastrophe that wipes out most of humankind and instantly deprives the survivors of all the technological infrastructure they had come to depend on. The key difference, of course, is that this time we know from the outset what the catastrophe was, but beyond that--

1. In Oryx and Crake, the pre-catastrophe episodes are ,mainly set in the privileged world of the "compounds," the corporate-owned city-states, where the livin' is easy, the bio-engineered fish are jumping', and the genetically-modified purple cotton is high. In The Year of the Flood, we are out in the "pleeblands" and the filthy, teeming, blaring, consumption-fuelled megalopolises where the 99% live, eating suspect food, swallowing suspect drugs, locked into the bottom-end of the chain of human predation... more or less where almost all of us will be in a generation if we don't wise up, one might say.

2. The narrative perspective in Oryx and Crake is consistently male, from the point of view of Jimmy/Snowman. In The Year of the Flood, our perspective is both dual and female, sometimes that of Brenda/Ren, formerly a sex worker in "Scales and Tails," sometimes that of Toby, one of the staff in the upscale "Anoo Yoo" beauty spa.

3. In Oryx and Crake we inhabit the gleamingly brilliant world of elite education and bio-tech labs, but Ren and Toby were, pre-catastrophe, part of "God's Gardeners," a fringe group glancingly alluded to in Oryx and Crake but here presented in its full weird glory, with its braiding of Thoreau, neo-Ludditism, belief in scriptural inerrancy, and whole-hearted embrace of Darwin. Inventing the Gardeners' hymns and Adam One's sermons was, I very much suspect, the most fun Atwood had in writing this novel.

Altogether, the book gives us a convincing and illuminating reverse angle shot not only on the fleetingly-glimpsed Jimmy/Snowman and Glenn/Crake of the earlier novel, but also on the whole world of Oryx and Crake, here both immediately recognizable and intriguingly different. As Dr. Johnson said of The Rape of the Lock, "In this work are exhibited in a very high degree the two most engaging powers of an author: new things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new. " 

And I don't even have to wait for the next one, having bought Maddaddam the month it came out.

How about you, Swedish Academy?  Have you been keeping up?

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