The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

17 December 2009
Chapters 1-30
Just over a third of the way through – and we’re in Oryx and Crake country again. We’ve been given enough information for us to assume it’s the identical future: the same GM or ‘spliced‘ creatures, the same corporations and universities – but we’re following other lives. Two lives, mainly, along two separate timelines. Toby, as far as she can tell, is another sole survivor (like Snowman in Oryx) of the awful virus that has killed off everybody else. Early on her story, told in the third person and in the present tense, contains appalling events reported in that flat dystopian style that seems to tell us to, well, just get over it. She’s seen a lot of death and, well, she has got over it. This is in ‘Year 25’, but new readers don‘t know when Year Zero was. (Do old readers? I can’t remember from the earlier novel.) Anyway, a lot of the book after the opening few chapters consists of flashbacks to a time before the catastrophe, before things got quite so bad. They were awful, sure, but not routinely apocalyptic.

In the other timeline Ren, a girl, tells her own story. She starts off in Year 10, when the ’Dry Flood’ of the plague hasn’t happened yet. Like Toby, whom she mentions from time to time as one of the women she has dealings with, she’s an accidental member of a pseudo-religious eco-sect called God’s Gardeners. These greener-than-greens predict the cataclysm, but not that they will all die with the rest…. Some chapters consist of the sermons of their leader, Adam One, often framed by the awful doggerel of hymns that combine the simplicities of Old Testament myths, the science of genetics and evangelical vegetarianism. Atwood is fond of sects, as we know from The Handmaid’s Tale.

But is it any good? The world before the Flood feels like something you’d find in a Paul Verhoven movie. As in RoboCop, a corporation is now in charge of law and order, and Atwood’s satire of corporate cynicism is so close to Verhoven’s I wonder whether she’s a fan. Life at the bottom of the heap is like the mutants’ underground world on Mars in Total Recall: sex, drugs, crime – all with an ugly veneer of slimeball glamour. But in a way those are just surface features: science fiction futures seem to fall into types, and this is the really nasty urban squalor type. What sets Atwood apart, as in Oryx and Crake, is the seriousness of her disquiet about the state of the planet. Even as she satirises the sect – and she must have had a lot of fun writing those hymns, paeans to the sanctity of eco-science – we know these idiots are actually right.

And in 30 chapters… not much has happened. The world of the Gardeners stretches over a few blocks of the wrong end of town, and we find out about the everyday viciousness of the corporations largely through their dealings with the more banal viciousness of the lowlifes Toby and Ren have to meet. Toby’s pre-Gardener life, in particular, makes the nitty-gritty seem routine: she’s about to be sexually drained dry and probably killed by her psychopathic boss when Adam One and his cronies rescue her. Lucky her. Before that: how her parents end up dead (GM poisons for mum, bankruptcy and suicide for dad); a series of jobs, each worse than the last; her good fortune in having a dad who would bury a rifle once the Corps (pronounced corpse) outlaw firearms. Ren: she works in the sex industry, as routine a lifestyle choice for a young girl as it is in Oryx and Crake. I can’t remember how she ends up with the Gardeners….

A lot of the narrative is centred on Gardener life, as told by Ren. Atwood has made an effort to make the personalities real, with back stories we sometimes hear about and sometimes not. The main point is they all have feet of clay, even if we don’t always know the details. Adam One is secretive about his past; Zeb – aka Adam Seven – seems to run some semi-criminal sideline as a fixer; The Knob – aka Adam Something-or-other – is arrested for the skunk trade he’s been carrying on…. The Corps find out about him because his wife tells them, having been made jealous by stories of his infidelities and about the way he gropes the girls. We‘ve been allowed to think of her as a moron up to now, but she was just semi-catatonic on the skunk he gave her. (Zeb’s woman is another jealous Eve, and I’m beginning to wonder how long he’s going to be safe.) Their ideals might be beyond criticism, but they themselves aren’t. The tawdry soap details are like those you find in Shameless, another bleak urban satire.

Anything else? Themes, I suppose – current concerns, in addition to GM and the state of the planet…. Drugs, the sexualisation of girls, the rise of surveillance, the growing gap between people at the top and bottom of society, the wholesale offloading by governments on to profit-making companies of what were once seen as central state concerns, even social services. Phew. And there are bits of plot as well. One of the Eves – the beehives and mushroom specialist that Toby works with – has some business with a character from the right side of the tracks. (Barriers of class and wealth are another of the tropes of this sort of future.) We recognise him: he’s the genius from Oryx and Crake who will later let loose the virus that will kill nearly everyone. So what’s he doing consulting one of the Gardeners’ most trusted members?

And… Time passes for Ren. The downfall of the Knob takes place in Year 12, as does (I think) the mysterious meeting with the boy genius. And there’s one chapter in which she’s in Year 25 as well – but it’s only short and I wondered at first whether it might be a misprint. I don’t really think so. Time to read on – see if she meets Toby. Or Snowman.

23 December
Chapters 31-50
Nearly two thirds. I mentioned plot near the end of what I wrote last time… but sometimes I think plot is quite low on Atwood’s list of priorities. Stuff happens, but slowly, and it’s the other things Atwood reveals on the way that are what this book is really about. Multiple timelines don’t get in the way of a kind of collage effect. We don’t bat an eyelid when a character in one timeline hears of a newly spliced species which we’ve already encountered in a feral state in a later one (The pigoons and rakunks are doing just this in Year 25.) But that’s not the main point. Atwood likes exploring characters and how they interact, and if she feels like it she can sit back and let nothing happen for pages.

Adam One’s sermons are an example. Every few chapters we get one of these, and one of the awful hymns that go with them. It gives Atwood a lot of pages to explore the complexities of the Gardeners’ creed. She’s spent a lot of time, like Pilar the bees and potions woman, mixing ingredients. And she’s come up with a belief system that attempts to bring together opposites: state of the art scientific understanding, certainties from the Old Testament (the ‘human words of God’) and a dedication to the principle of the sanctity of all life. Outside the sermons she can have fun when characters with less commitment than Adam One wrestle – or don’t wrestle – with the inconsistencies. Zeb, Adam Seven – seems to lead his own life, far more comfortable in the world of bikers and urban survival techniques than in the Eden the Gardeners have failed to create.

Because, let’s face it, if there’s one thing we know about Edens it’s that they’re never what they’re cracked up to be. (Dickens gives that name to the hell on earth in the United States where the younger Martin Chuzzlewit comes close to death.) This Eden is exactly as rife with everyday venality and jealousies as any other human group. It’s no surprise at all that the Knob’s demise comes about through his wife’s jealousy – or that she hears about his bad behaviour through girly tittle-tattle, with Ren and Amanda – the teenage girl equivalent of Zeb – at the centre of it.

But… the cult’s failures don’t somehow entirely encapsulate it. Atwood shows them with all their human frailties, but there appears to be a genuine effort amongst them to – what? – to live right. The world of the mid-21st Century (if that’s where we are) is a projection of the worst features of our own time, and these people don’t want anything more to do with it than necessary. And, as I said before, they’re right about the coming apocalypse. (Of course, I might be wrong about Adam One: his preachiness might be a cover for something more sinister: he always seems to know more than the other characters can account for – indeed, feeds the cult’s members only as much information as he thinks is necessary. Not so different from the Corporations.) And we know from the start that its attempt to escape from the world ends in ultimate failure: they all die as well.

The character Atwood seems to admire most is Pilar. She’s an old-fashioned wise woman, mixing (and there’s that word again) an almost pre-Christian understanding of the ways of nature with the subtleties of modern science. She’s as manipulative as Adam One, but using biology rather than propaganda. Toby is her apprentice, and Atwood makes it explicit that her survival in Year 25 owes as much to her guru’s teachings as to her father’s rifle. And maybe that’s it. Religion on its own isn’t enough; survivalism on its own isn’t enough….

There’s another thing. Atwood seems to have approved a full-scale recording of the hymns. You can find a link to this via her official website, you can hear the songs on the audiobook I’m listening to. They sound as awful as they read on the page (I’ve looked inside the book as well). So what’s going on? And why does Atwood think it’s all right to be photographed with her curly grey hair looking like a fright-wig on the back of the hardback edition? Does she think that, somehow, she’s become an Old Testament (or pre-Christian) prophetess and can therefore look like a lunatic? And is this an example of the appalling 21st Century phenomenon, the author who takes herself far too seriously?

But anyway. Despite what I said about nothing much happening, there are a few things that have taken place. Ren’s mother – Zeb’s lover – decides she’s had enough of him and quits the cult. She takes Ren with her, and their re-entry into Corp-land is implausibly straightforward. So we get a lot of descriptions from the other side – and guess what? Ren makes friends with the boy who will be Snowman, and the boy who will be Crake. I don’t see what this adds to anything, really. Ok, it’s a different perspective on things that happen in the earlier novel, but so what? The girly stuff with Amanda in Gardener-world is much more convincing – Atwood always was good on the workings of groups of girls. (And does this mean that I got it wrong about Ren when we first met her in the novel? She works as an erotic dancer when the plague hits, not before her mother joins God’s Gardeners. What year was that? That’s the problem with audiobooks – it isn’t easy to check.)

Other stuff. There’s Toby and the growing respect she’s getting in the sect: she even gets Eve status – it’s a hierarchical group, despite what they all pretend – and takes over from Pilar when she euthanases herself because of cancer. There’s the psycho who still stalks her, when he’s not enduring ‘Painball’, an audience-grabbing tv alternative to jail or the death sentence. (Another dystopia trope to add to the list. It must be hard writing this stuff and staying ahead of the game… but Rollerball was about 35 years ago.) He, or somebody, sets the Corps on to the Gardeners and they end up having to move out quick; good job there are other branches who can look after Toby, the ostensible target. She gets a new face and hair, and a job in the pampering clinic in whose empty spaces we first meet her in Year 25.

But, as I’ve said, it seems to be the world she’s creating that matters to Atwood more than anything else. And the fact that all human structures are as fallible as one another. Adam sets himself up as a sort of God – and so, explicitly, does the boy who will be Crake. I can’t remember exactly who says it, but somebody does. Maybe it’s Ren speaking to her boyfriend, the one who will be Snowman. And, oh yeh, that reminds me: In Year 25, after being threatened by pigoons in a very similar way to Snowman in the earlier novel, Toby sees the human splices created by Crake. Led by guess who, now grown up and looking for a way out – which is where we left him at the end of Oryx and Crake.

Time to read on, because it seems to be drifting a bit. Aside from God’s Gardeners, how much does this novel add to Oryx and Crake?

30 December
Chapter 51 to the end
If Atwood really is a Verhoven fan – and I’m only pretending to think she might be – she cuts out the worst of his excesses. We rarely see violence actually taking place: it’s either reported second- or third-hand, or we are merely shown the consequences. The worst of these are the dead bodies – and the worst of these is the naked, hanging corpse of Oates. (Tell you about him later.) The other thing we don’t get, therefore, is what we absolutely always get in action movies: the psycho villain’s set piece death. Atwood is willing to give us our death, sure, but Blanco – the sicko who’s been pursuing Toby for years – dies quietly, offstage in a back room, from the poison she has just given him. Is it more real than, say, the death of the corporation boss in Total Recall or that of the militia leader in Avatar? The question doesn’t arise: the rhetoric’s different, that‘s all.

The rhetoric is – what? – if not feminist exactly, at least it’s anti-machismo. You boys want a gory come-uppance for the bad guys? Well, tough, because Atwood’s not writing for you boys. It’s no accident that both Toby and Ren work in the kind of women-only jobs that are available in our crappy century: Ren in a club where lap-dancing has evolved into something approaching 3-D Sensurround porn, and Toby in a spa where pampering has evolved into routine cosmetic surgery. Women in this world are even more oppressed than they are in our own – so it‘s no surprise that the leader of the cult is an Adam, not an Eve, it‘s no surprise that Zeb is the teacher of survival skills, that it‘s Toby‘s dad who buries the lifesaving rifle. Some of this last section is about redressing the balance: Toby’s survival is down to the teachings of Pilar, and she’s very ready to serve Blanco one of the fatal potions she’s learnt about. But… Ren is hopeless – and Amanda, the feisty one, only survives because she’s rescued, If we’re looking for a post-macho society we haven’t found it yet. I’ll come back to this.

I’ve been going on in earlier diary entries about how slowly the plot moves. Atwood makes up for it in this final third of the novel – but I began to wish she’d stuck to her usual state of near-motionlessness. Basically, in an authorial move that does away with credibility (because presumably, Atwood has bigger fish to fry than narrative plausibility), all the main characters have survived. So in chapters after chapter of this section we get meetings: Ren rescued by Amanda, back from her art projects in the Midwest; these two meeting the three spotty adolescents from the Gardeners, now grown up; all these getting mixed up with Blanco and his pals – who seem to be as sick as he is; Ren being saved by Toby after Ren inexplicably manages to escape; these two catching up with the two ex-spotties who haven’t had their throats cut like poor little Oates; all of these finally banding together with the ‘Mad Adams’ Crake had forced to work on his projects; and Snowman, and Zeb, and… others from the cooler fringes of the Gardeners. And, in the Adam One chapters, we find out the uncool Gardeners have survived as well – although by the time of his final sermon Adam One seems almost to have given up hope and sounds ready to do a Rev Jim Jones.

It’s preposterous to have so many hordes of survivors, and it gets in the way. The only characters I’m glad to see are Zeb and Amanda – and we hardly see Amanda before she’s hauled off by the psychos to be their sex toy (she’s a shadow of her former self when she’s rescued near the end); and Zeb is only there long enough to bring out the first proper smile Ren has ever seen on Toby’s face. Otherwise… so what? Atwood has done a lot of hard work in this novel, but she hasn’t made us interested in the characters. I kept wondering when she was going to have either Toby or Ren get killed and I was waiting with a kind of detached interest. They don’t die, in fact, just trudge around, surviving, in a world which I found harder and harder either to visualise or to believe in. Stuff happens to them, but all the characters are just pieces on a board by now and it feels like Atwood is going through the motions.

What I’m wondering is what is gained after, say, the first third of this novel. By Chapter 30 the horrors of the post-apocalyptic world (and the pre-apocalyptic world, for that matter) are in place, the strength of women is not in doubt, the crapness of men is firmly established…. Nope, this novel is not for me. It isn’t about the survival of the human spirit, although I’m sure plenty of people would be willing to make a case for it being exactly that. And ok, a case could also be made that this book gives us the female perspective to correct the male-centred Oryx and Crake. But I’m not buying that one either, because whatever the women do seems in response to the consequences of entirely male drives.

Male drives. We get a re-run of the new humans’ mating etiquette – if it’s blue, shag it – and the arguments Blanco’s cronies have over who’ll get to use Amanda first, whilst not at all implausible – we know enough history for their behaviour to sound gruesomely familiar – reduces these characters to off-the-shelf types. In this universe, the only viable option for women is to just say no – which is what Ren does to the ex-spotty. In fact in this universe there doesn’t seem to be any sensible alternative to chastity, unless you’re genetically modified for colour coded mating rituals.

In other words, absolutely nothing is resolved. And as though to confirm this we get an open ending that reprises Oryx and Crake: people – we don‘t know who – are approaching. This time they‘re singing, so maybe it‘s the Gardeners, But it might not be them, so… so, no doubt, Atwood’s already beginning to think about where she might take the third novel. Whose point of view this time? The bees’? Or will she finally do something to dismantle the hegemony of men which she has allowed to prevail throughout two long novels?

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2 Responses to The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

  1. Vanessa says:

    This made no sense

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