The Year of the Flood: Hope and Forgiveness in a Ruined World

An Appreciation of Margaret Atwood's Second Installment of the MaddAddam Trilogy

 

In anticipation of Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming new novel, The Heart Goes Last, which will be published on September 29, Fiction Unbound continues to look back with awe-filled wonder on the author’s post-apocalyptic MaddAddam trilogy: Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013). 

WARNING: This appreciation contains spoilers!

 

 

Few times has the Fundamental Truth of an author’s disturbing vision left me so stunned and shaken that I needed a week or so to recover before I could  pick up the sequel. I am talking, of course, about Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, the first novel of the trilogy. I won’t dwell on that work because Mark Springer and Christie Lips wrote so eloquently last week about Atwood’s future world where the worst of current corporate abuses are magnified to the furthest degree, where the rich get everything and shut out the abused lower classes. The greedy and blind have used up the world’s resources, and the only way to save it is to wipe the slate clean and start over. By the end of the book I felt as if she'd ripped off my blinders and popped out my earplugs, and forced me to acknowledge what is going on in the real world that could lead to this future horror.

I am the mother of a teenaged boy of an age with Jimmy and Crake (the focus of Oryx and Crake) who, like Crake, has a higher-than-average geek quotient and a strong artistic side. The book forced me to wonder if I am like the novel's parents, blind to my child’s online and other escapades. Does he loll around getting high and surfing child porn sites, completely unimpressed by the toxic violence and abuse? (I don’t think so. He’s a sensitive guy with a powerful sense of justice.)

Let’s just say that it was with some trepidation that I opened The Year of the Flood looking for hope and redemption, and I’m glad to say, I found them. For example, near the end of the story, Ren tells us to have hope:

When it gets dark, we choose some big-enough trees and string up the hammocks and climb in. But it’s hard for me to sleep. Then I hear singing. It’s beautiful, but it’s not like normal singing — it’s clear, like glass, but with layers. It’s like bells.

The singing fades away, and I think maybe I was imagining things. And then I think, it must have been the blue people: that must be how they sing. I picture Amanda among them: they’re feeding her, taking care of her, purring to heal her and comfort her.

It’s make-believe. Wishful thinking, I know I shouldn’t do it: I should face reality. But reality has too much darkness in it. Too many crows.
The Adams and the Eves used to say, We are what we eat, but I prefer to say, We are what we wish. Because if you can’t wish, why bother?

In another moment of peril, Toby tells herself (and us) to find hope in the beauty of the world and to be merciful:

Everything in the forest is watching. They’re waiting for blood, they can smell it, they can hear it running through my veins, katoush. Above her head, clustering in the treetops, the crows are treacherous: Hawhawhaw! They want her eyes, those crows.

Yet each flower, each twig, each pebble, shines as though illuminated from within, as once before, on her first day in the Garden. It’s the stress, it’s the adrenalin, it’s a chemical effect: she knows this well enough. But why is it built in? she thinks. Why are we designed to see the world as supremely beautiful just as we’re about to be snuffed? Do rabbits feel the same as the fox teeth bite down on their necks? Is it mercy?
One of the many genetically altered creatures of the pre- and post-flood world. Illustration: Jason Courtney. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

One of the many genetically altered creatures of the pre- and post-flood world. Illustration: Jason CourtneyCC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Here Toby knows, like Ren, that reality is harsh, but it is as if the women cannot help but appreciate the beauty of nature reclaiming the world around them.

Ren pushes herself, and us, to forgive. At first she sturggles to forgive Amanda for Jimmy (and herself for being jealous of them):

When any of the Adams or the Eves tells you to do a Meditation, you don’t say no. Toby climbs out of her hammock, and I stand watch in case of surprises while she goes into the Lotus: she’s quite flexible for someone her age. But when it’s my turn, although I bend myself into the shape just like rubber, I can’t do the Meditation properly. I can’t manage the first three parts: the Apology, the Gratitude, the Forgiveness — and especially not the Forgiveness, because I don’t know who I need to forgive. Adam One would say I’m too fearful and angry.

So I think about Amanda, and everything she did for me, and how I never did anything for her. Instead I allowed myself to feel jealous of her about Jimmy, though Jimmy was in no way her fault. Which wasn’t fair. I have to find her, and get her away from whatever may be happening to her. Though maybe she’s already hanging in a tree with parts of her cut out, like Oates.

But I don’t want to picture that, so instead I imagine myself walking towards her because that’s what I’ll have to do.

Soon Ren masters forgiveness, showing us the way:

Jimmy says to her: “I knew you’d come back,” he says, this time to me. “I knew it. Don’t turn into an owl.”

“I’m not an owl,” I say. “You’re out of your mind. I’m Ren — remember? I just want you to know that you broke my heart; but anyway, I’m happy you’re still alive.” Now that I’ve said it, something heavy and smothering lifts away from me, and I truly do feel happy.

Despite the hope Atwood holds out, she is a master of examining current problems and magnifying them to over-the-top extremes as powerful warnings to readers. One such plague in the pre-flood world is corporate-mechanized food production. Among many other abominations, Atwood envisions chicken meat that can be freeze-dried grown by transgenetic organisms. It is a staple that is so stable it can still be gleaned by hungry human survivors post-flood.

Illustration of Chicken McNuggets bought at McDonald's in Yogyakarta, 2013. CC attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Illustration of Chicken McNuggets bought at McDonald's in Yogyakarta, 2013. CC attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

These gross distortions force the reader to sit up, take notice and realize that if our world’s corporate lawlessness, retreating into gated communities, mechanized food production and DNA-alternation continues…Why, yes, this is the world we will have all too soon. I was reminded that my mother used to take my son to McDonald’s to eat French fries and play on the virus-ridden Playland. Harmless (probably), I thought, until in a fit of lactation starvation I bit into a leftover Chicken McNugget. It was like a chicken-flavored sponge, complete with little air holes. My husband and I bounced it on the driveway, and then he jammed it onto my antenna like an Industrial Age Jolly Roger challenging the natural world. There it sat – even crows stayed away – for six months, after which time I realized that it could not decompose, and we pried it off and threw it away. We warned my mother not to feed her grandson at Mickey D’s anymore.

(Ms. Atwood, did you have a Chicken McNugget experience?)

Fortunately after being stunned by the similarity of our own world to the over-the-top Chickienob world of The Year of the Flood, Atwood forces the reader to ask herself, "Okay, so what can I do to prevent this future from coming about?" And that is the kind of questioning that excellent writing strives to achieve.  

The Craft of Atwood's Writing

Atwood has justifiably won many awards for her writing, and the Unbound Writers appreciate good writing technique as much as the ripping yarn itself. One thing I’ve noticed is that Atwood begins novels with the key characters fighting for their lives in a dangerous world we are barely introduced to. We have just enough information to understand what’s going on, and then she slows the narrative down to give us a breather and to provide the background depth necessary to examine the motivations of the protagonists and understand the screwed up world to which she has condemned them. Afterwards, she returns us to action interspersed with more backstory. Great model, use it.

She also treats us to strange but fascinating details, what fellow Unbound Writer Theodore McCombs calls "spirograph details." These tantalizing, unforgettable tidbits are not integral to the plot, but reveal much and grab you by their specificity, sensual precision and sheer oddity. For example, when Toby goes into hiding, she has hair implants that come from genetically-altered sheep. Instead of just telling us how she looks now, Atwood tells us the strange effect the hair has on cats:

Still, her new look wasn’t bad. The hair was a nice change, though the family cats were taking an interest in it, probably because of the faint lamb-like smell. When she woke up in the morning she was likely to find one of them sitting on her pillow, licking her hair and purring.

*Evil Stepmother / Orphan / Perfect Father Trope Deduction Rating: The Year of the Flood receives an Unbound number of deductions

As promised in an earlier blog post, I now review all books with an eye toward discouraging the (over)use of the orphan trope in speculative fiction. This is a shorthand wherein writers thrust orphaned protagonists into plot and personality struggles they could not have gotten into (not without a lot of backstory, anyway) if they hadn’t been orphans. As a reminder, the flipside of this is that I award plus points for strong mother figures who are positive influences and are excellent role models.

Under these rules I have to award Atwood an indefinite number of negative points for the offhand, terrifying abuse of orphans in criminal rings and sex slavery rampant in the novel’s Pleeblands. I’ll allow some plus points in that actual mothers do exist in the novel, but they are mostly abandoners or poor role models who spur their children into childhood depressions or rebellions. While some of God’s Gardeners do have normal families, their kids aren’t the most important ones to the story.

Here are some examples of less than idealized mothers and fathers:

  •  Zeb is a much better stepfather to Ren than Lucerne is a mother, but Lucerne runs away from Zeb in a jealous fit and subjects Ren to a return to “the good life” of gated communities and isolation (where she gets her heart broken by Jimmy who has not yet learned his life lessons.) It’s kind of a role reversal: the natural mother is the evil stepmother figure while the stepfather is the cool, fun, good paternal influence. Negative points, though I like Zeb a lot.
  • Amanda is a street-wise orphan rescued by Ren and adopted by the Gardeners.
  •  Jimmy’s mom rebelled against corporate corruption and abandoned him at an early age, but his father doesn’t fit the “fun-dad-a la Disney” trope. (Think Finding Nemo.) Jimmy’s dad works too much and toes the corporate line. Jimmy is a near-orphan, a parent-abandoned child.
  • Toby, who would be a good, solid mother, we suspect, can’t have children due to selling her eggs for cash and getting an infection.
  •  Oryx is a kind of spiritual mother to the Crakers. But a child-porn-mistress-teacher-goddess? I can’t process the ramifications, yet she cares intensely about the Crakers.
  • Lastly, consider Crake as parent. He is god-the-father and the physical mother of the Crakers in the sense that he oversees the production of both halves of their genes and perfects them according to his evil-genius vision, and then he dies, orphaning an entire tribe of innocents and evicting them from paradise. Crake’s one redeeming parental act is to entrust the Crakers to Snowman-the-Jimmy as protector and prophet. Do we award triple negative trope points? Or do we allow one plus point for Crake recognizing that Jimmy, despite his flaws or because of them, will be a far better caretaker/parent than Crake could ever have been?

Net orphan trope score: The plus points can’t possibly outweigh the innumerable negative points, but little in Atwood’s pre- and post-flood world is untarnished. Nevertheless, she leaves us with hope and the possibility of forgiveness and redemption in a world where the greatest mother of them all, Mother Nature, is quickly reclaiming all that an ungrateful humanity abused. 

Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last, to be released on September 29.

Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last, to be released on September 29.

You bet I’m reading the final installment, MaddAddam, with gusto, and anxiously awaiting Atwood’s next release, The Heart Goes Last.

Come back for next week’s appreciation of Atwood’s MaddAddam, and the Unbound Writers’ group review of The Heart Goes Last.