Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Atwood's novel of speculation demands a contemplation of the present

Margaret Atwood is an entrepreneur of weird worlds. Her futuristic The Handmaid’s Tale was near revolutionary with its depiction of a society bent on controlling reproduction, i.e. women. Familiar? Atwood’s skill lies in her ability to tweak recognizable reality into something bizarre but frighteningly believable. She has her finger on the pulse of both the humorous and grotesque aspects of humanity. In The Year of the Flood, her most recent novel and an expansion of Oryx and Crake, the combination is almost unthinkably strange. The Year of the Flood unsettles the reader because the future Atwood conceives is based on her clever warping of the banality of today.
Although a number of characters from Oryx and Crake appear in The Year of the Flood, the second novel stands on its own, and stands out in memory. The abstract was too present in Oryx and Crake and while mystery has its benefits, Atwood’s glaring and grotesquely gaudy vision of the future in her latest novel forces the reader to pause and reconsider.
Atwood’s story brings the reader to the years before the flood, alternating with the stories of Ren and Toby in the years that follow the aerobic virus that kills everyone else. Before the Waterless Flood, the world is a disastrous complex of plastic surgery clinics, chain restaurants serving mystery meat called Secretburgers, and a prison system where the inmates fight for their lives, using the principles of Paintball as a template. Atwood delights in puns and many of the monikers of the institutions are amusing, such as Anoo Yoo Spas and the security force CorpSeCorps working for the Corporations who are now in control.
Amongst the jumbles of Pleeb gangs roaming the crumbling streets of unnamed cities, there are groups of idealists trying to make sense of the world. Toby and Ren, into whose heads Atwood grants access, are a part of God’s Gardeners for different reasons and spans of time. This fictitious religion is an impressive creation on Atwood’s part. The Gardener’s beliefs are built on the teachings of the Bible that emphasize the necessity of kindness to all living creatures. They are extreme vegetarians and pacifists, living on rooftops and cultivating gardens away from the stench and degradation of the world below. Every third chapter Atwood includes a brief sermon-like oration given by Adam One, who is the leader of the Gardeners, on each day of a feast for saints who include Rachel Carson and Terry Fox. Priests and churches have vanished but a sense of God and hope remains. Adam One’s interpretations of the Bible are so sincere they are laughable, a much needed release from the tension, and somehow encouraging.
Quality of life has reached an unfortunate low for humanity but it is women who get the short end of the stick. As always Atwood’s women are well crafted and possess an impressive resilience. Ren narrates with a fairly light voice, even as she is trapped inside a healing chamber in the sex club she works in as the world outside dies. She doesn’t possess Toby’s dry wit or careful calculations but her expectant nature is a relief amongst the detailed descriptions of the depths humanity has reached.
Apocalypse, as a premise, does not interest me though its popularity is evident in the size of the science fiction of the bookstore (Atwood is adamant that her imaginings of the future not be relegated to that category, she prefers “speculative fiction”). But there are authors who know how to make the effects more than a paranoid hypothetical. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an example of this success and so is The Year of the Flood.

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