[This is a journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
22 June 2015
First six sections – Egg to Zeb in the Dark
Is Atwood having more fun with this than in the first two novels in the trilogy? I think she might be – in this first third of the novel, she seems to be playing more games than usual. Her near-future critique of the trends she sees in our own time is as biting as ever, but the satire is less solemn than before. And the ways that stories are told seems to have become at least as important as the stories themselves.
So far this novel seems not as full of noise as the previous two. Plenty of stuff is going on, but most of it is happening in Zeb’s back-story, the one he’s telling Toby, and that she is re-telling the not-quite human ‘Crakers’. Meanwhile in the present, we have Toby in as big a role as she had in The Year of the Flood, the second novel. She has benefited from her time as one of the ‘Eves’ in the God’s Gardeners eco-group, and has managed to get Snowman and Amanda to safety. At the ‘MaddAddamites’ cobb house she is able, among other things, to tend to Snowman, unconscious with a fever from the infection in his injured foot. She makes sure there is care for Amanda, previously spirited and lively, but now a worn-out shell after the two repugnant (and dangerous) ‘Painballers’ have finished with her. Toby hasn’t managed to get rid of the Painballers – she didn’t kill them when she had the chance – but, as she tries to tell herself, nobody’s perfect.
The MaddAddamites are the scientists who had been involved in Crake’s genetic experiments before the plague known as the ‘Dry Flood’. They talk about the Crakers, how one of them was responsible for their non-aggressive nature, another for designing their colour-coded sexual behaviour… and so on. But these towering intellects are like everybody else really. There are jealousies, petty point-scoring, rivalries over sex and status – Atwood reminding us that these gods are nothing of the kind. (There’s been mention of the ‘Frankenfood’ that became the norm, a nod to the great grand-daddy of scientists playing God.)
But the main story is Toby’s, told from her point of view. The Crakers follow her and the others to the cobb house – there is nothing she can do to stop them – and she becomes a substitute Snowman for them. He had accidentally become their guru, and they want her to tell them his stories of how Crake, helped by Oryx, created the world as it is. One of the narrative modes of the novel is a parody of children’s Bible stories. Egg is a kind of prologue – ‘In the beginning, you lived inside the Egg’ – and it isn’t clear who is telling it. Atwood does that, choosing whichever style will move the story on. Later, it becomes Toby’s style as she tells the childlike Crakers the stories they already know – but they constantly interrupt her, or begin to sing in that way of theirs, and it becomes like those stand-up routines of the exasperated teacher trying not to be let herself be side-tracked.
Zeb and a handful of men – Atwood is still nagging away at how gender-roles are maintained – have been away for a long time foraging and looking for Adam One, the Gardeners’ leader. If anybody survived, it would be them, the group thinks, but so far they’ve only discovered one of them, recently murdered. Probably it was the Painballers who did it, and the disappearance of an animal suggests that they might be nearby, threatening something bad. But Zeb’s return opens up a new phase in the novel: he is part of the Crakers’ Snowman-generated mythology, and they want to know how he became the eater of bears. (What are ‘bears’? What does ‘killing’ mean?) Toby has made an attempt to crank up a viable narrative before Zeb arrives back, and now she can get it from the horse’s mouth. Because almost as soon as he is there, he ‘enfolds’ her and she can begin the relationship with him she has been dreaming of. Maybe.
Atwood tells Zeb’s story by way of at least two narrative threads. We are there in the room, witnesses to the post-apocalyptic, no-holds-barred language of their flirtation while Toby gets the story out of him. When it comes, it isn’t in his words presented verbatim but told like episodes from the kind of gritty, hardboiled third-person dystopian novel a fan of the genre would recognise. There are the near-future landscapes and technology, as though Atwood is daring the reader to disbelieve it: at one point we have learnt about the short-lived vogue for dystopian novels that she seems to be presenting here. People didn’t want the truth of what was happening, someone says, so they consumed fantasies of survival instead. I told you Atwood likes games.
We find out first about the ‘bear’ incident, as Zeb survives a kidnap attempt – don’t ask – and, along the way, how right Toby is to put her faith in his instincts. Then we move even further back in his story, to when he was the younger half-brother of Adam and son of the unspeakable ‘Rev’, leader of a cult designed only to make money. It gives Atwood the opportunity for the broadest satire yet, on the methods of such bullshit-peddlers and on the worship, literally, of oil. The Rev’s invention of biblical sources for his Church of PetrOleum, complete with chapter and verse and carefully contrived etymologies, is a satire in itself. There are even students sponsored to study for science degrees in order to disprove the science they learn. And the Rev ticks a long list of other boxes. Don’t hold out any hope for the future of parenting – he’s a sadist bordering on perversion – or for any good effects that might derive from online gaming. Human nature, especially the male human nature he represents, is a terrible thing in Atwood’s dystopic future.
And has Atwood read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Like Stieg Larssen, Atwood has an agenda to do with the sadistic exploitation of women for sex. And, come to think of it, she has a character like Lisbeth Salander in Zeb’s ability to hack into absolutely any computer system. The way he does this in order to disable his father’s scams is straight out of Larssen’s first Salander novel. It’s another trope – and what is it with computer hacking? How many novels rely on the reader’s suspension of disbelief, so that we simply accept the strange skill-set of a troubled character? I’m thinking of We Need to Talk about Kevin, another novel in which a messed-up child messes up a parent’s computer.
What have I missed? I’ve touched on the theme of religion and cults: there are still vestiges, not all of them bad, of the pseudo-religious mind-set of God’s Gardeners. There’s the Crakers’ childish desire for a creation myth, another trope in dystopian fiction. And I’ve probably said enough about the Rev, and the horrors of the Internet, especially in relation to sexual exploitation, a theme Atwood took up in The Year of the Flood. At one point Zeb trots out the old excuse, that to watch online porn is to exploit nobody, because the images are already out there, simply waiting to be seen. And I’ve been thinking of another antecedent for Atwood’s satirical style, Thomas Pynchon. There’s a kind of anarchic, surreal comedy in some of the satire – and, like Pynchon, Atwood loves to play with names. Everybody in this novel seems to have at least two.
But it’s time to read on.
Snowman’s Progress, Blacklight Headlamp, Bone Cave, Vector…
…which form the middle third of the novel. Even less happens than before in the present-day, cobb house timeline, but a whole lot is happening in Zeb’s life history. Or histories – Atwood continues to smear narrative layers on to it, as though reminding us that nothing is ever certain in Crake’s brave new world. And if it is certain, cover it up quick.
Days pass in the cobb house compound. Zeb goes out with his foragers, with ‘Swift Fox’ in tow. She’s the MaddAddamite that Toby obsesses over, because she’s so transparently set her sights on Zeb. Toby is sure – i.e. she isn’t sure – that she and Zeb must have had sex in the 24 hours or more they were out. Eventually, he guesses she is thinking this and offers to tell her. She says no, it’s ok. And… is that it? No, Amanda is pregnant and terribly depressed about it, after having seemed better recently. Is one of the Painballers the father? Or it could be one of the Craker men, who ‘swarmed’ all over her early on before Toby explained that this isn’t how you do it, even if one of their women ‘smells’ blue. You know what I’m saying, and so do the Crakers, in the end. Either way, Amanda doesn’t fancy bringing the child to term. Spawn of a Painballer? Or a big-headed Craker foetus with no obstetric expertise anywhere near? And… Toby, trying to commune with the spirit of Pilar, the earth-mother Eve who mentored her in the Gardener days, manages to hive a swarm of bees. And then she seeks assistance over Amanda’s pregnancy – Pilar had had the knowledge of the right herbal tinctures to bring on an abortion, and Toby wonders if some of it filtered through to her. She tries the Gardeners’ drug-assisted version of a Vulcan mind-meld, and we await results. A farrowing pig appears as she’s doing it – definitely real – but is that a sign? In the Gardener universe, nothing can ever be dismissed as a coincidence.
That’s about it in the present. Except a Craker child, given the name of Blackbeard by Crake in a moment of flippancy, regards Toby as some sort of oracle. She feeds versions of the truth to him to satisfy his curiosity, and even shows him what writing is. When, unconvinced, he checks with another non-Craker that marks on a piece of paper really do spell his name, suddenly it’s a miracle. She frets about whether she has just invented holy scripture in their infant culture. Her stories about Zeb are already embroidered, or simplified, or metaphor-strewn parables. It’s another trope. The 2013 winner of the Arthur C Clarke prize for British science fiction, Dark Eden, contains a different closed society in which a mythology is being invented before our eyes. And the original Star Trek series was full of episodes like it – I remember one studio-sized planet basing its code of ethics on a found book on Chicago gangsters. It was one of Gene Roddenberry’s lighter efforts, and I sometimes think Atwood is carrying on the tradition. (Do I really think that? I also remember thinking that her dystopic vision might be based on too much Paul Verhoeven. The Corps and pleeblands in this trilogy are straight out of RoboCop.)
The real meat of these middle sections – not that there is any real meat in Atwood’s future world – is all to do with Zeb’s back story. As before, there’s a game of narrative leapfrog as Toby catches up with what passes for the real story in time to relay it, with mythopoeic knobs on, to the impatient Crakers. We’ve already heard about his escape from the Rev when he was in his late teens, financed by the ‘0.09%’ he creams off one of his father’s secret accounts. And from then on it’s a mixture of cyberpunk and picaresque, leading eventually to his meeting with the young Crake. How many styles is Atwood going to pastiche before she’s finished?
I’ve been thinking. Here we have Atwood, the leading mainstream feminist author writing speculative fiction now that Doris Lessing has gone, and she’s filling her novel with the darkest, most male-orientated nightmare fantasies she can think of. The objectification of women has gone so far that they don’t have breast implants, but ‘bimplants’. Men visit ‘prostibots’, the Rev spends hours online on sadistic feelie sites where he could decapitate naked Anne Boleyns for spurious ‘educational’ reasons…. And so on. It’s satire, obviously – but we got an awful lot of this stuff in The Year of the Flood and I was beginning to wonder if she’s now simply wallowing in a dystopic cyberpunk trope-fest.
Well, yes and no. Yes, all the tropes are there. The Corps are internecine Mafias slugging it out for the dominance of whatever market they’re in. Zeb, the hacker supreme, lies low in a job created for him by Adam as a Corp IT drone, routinely repairing the company’s firewalls because if you don’t keep your defences up against the competition you’re dead. What he finds out about the company, HelthWyser (Atwood has invented so many of these spellchecker-mangling names I wouldn’t even try to list them) is all bad: Adam has him smuggle out pills designed to make random purchasers ill enough to require the company’s most exclusive and expensive drugs. They get away with it because, RoboCop-style, law and order are in the hands of the Corps too. (I keep mentioning RoboCop because it’s the one I encountered first. But a trope-hunting website includes the following in describing one type of dystopia: ‘The author is thinking “capitalism sucks!”, for instance, and everything wrong with the world turns out be clearly the fault of nasty Corrupt Corporate Executives and their nasty, greedy megacorporations.’ Link here.)
Atwood invents ever more tortuous plots In Zeb’s story, involving deeply embedded hacking routes, the careful covering of traces, disguises, new identities, secret meetings complete with passwords and… and what? She’s having a laugh. It’s a given that the cyber-world is as rotten as the ecological disaster occurring everywhere except the scrubbed and air-conditioned interiors of Corps workplaces and wherever the rich and privileged can be found. And as for the pleeblands and flooded coastal regions… let’s not even go there. Zeb only goes when he has to because, as I said, they’re the kind of places you get in the dystopic fiction that Atwood pastiches.
Because, I’ve decided, pastiche is exactly what she’s doing all along. And I don’t only mean in Zeb’s hardboiled back-story. The recounting of his gung-ho, macho history sends up one style while Toby’s story is just as tongue-in-cheek. Maybe more so. There are definite soap opera elements to the ongoing jealousy she feels about Swift Fox, and her rival’s name is an indication of how seriously Atwood expects us to take it. Then there are her efforts to turn Zeb’s story into myth, another pastiche. And there are straightforward comedy elements. We know about her patient rebukes to the Crakers for their incessant questioning and singing. She feels obliged to write an appalling diary full of dull factual detail when Zeb brings her exercise books and pens. And when Snowman, coming back to life at last, mutters ‘Oh, Fuck,’ the Crakers assume that Fuck is an invisible being he is appealing to. Toby, for reasons we can only guess at (i.e. she can’t see a way out of it) goes along with this idea. When the invisible Fuck is incorporated into her stories she has to pretend that Zeb isn’t laughing in the background, he’s coughing.
Don’t ask me what all this games-playing is for. But almost every serious point is presented in a way that immediately undermines it. The holistic world-view of God’s Gardeners, which Toby retains as much as she can, always seems faintly (or not so faintly) ridiculous. The prayers she remembers or invents sound as far-fetched as the Rev’s, however well-meaning…. So we’re left with a novel containing themes that are clearly of the most urgent concern for Atwood, yet presented in a way in which everything and everybody is vaguely absurd.
What hope can there be for the human race?
From Piglet to Book – to the end
For most of these final five sections things carry on very much as before. Then, suddenly – it’s been signalled for some time, but it feels sudden anyway – there’s a battle, the bad guys are ‘disposed of’ (Toby’s own embarrassed phrase), and history continues. The end. As in The Year of the Flood, the deaths of the villains take place offstage. As I commented when I read that novel, Atwood doesn’t do Hollywood blockbuster deaths. The two Painballers, injured in the battle, are taken to the beach well out of sight following an earnest attempt to argue the case for and against. Zeb tells not only the Crakers but also the squeamish reader that they are now floating out to sea. Except, now I think of it, Atwood is having her cake and eating it. The present-day narrative might be her idea of a riposte to the macho cyberpunk ethos of dog eat dog – but a large proportion of the novel, up to within a few dozen pages of the end, consists of Zeb’s back-story told in exactly that style. The Painballer executions are described, or not, from Toby’s sensitive, post-Gardener point of view. But the death of the Rev, by way of the very pills that Zeb smuggled out of HelthWyser – and administered by him – is not nearly so tasteful. He ends up – sensitive readers look away now – as bones floating in foaming raspberry froth.
What to say about Zeb’s hardboiled back-story? I couldn’t tell you what it’s for if you asked me, beyond the fact that it presents the reader with one of the best pastiches of the genre I’ve ever read (not that I’ve read many). Is that enough? Perhaps it is. And it tells us how Zeb morphs, over years, from the confused and resentful child he was into an adult capable of thoughtfulness and real leadership. I was sorry that Atwood felt it necessary to have him killed off, again off-stage, in the closing pages. But, if I’m honest, not that sorry.
It turns out that from the moment that Zeb makes contact with Adam about half-way through, his story is essentially scripted by his half-brother. Adam is the one who gets him the new identities and uses him in his undercover operations. And it’s Adam who leaves the pills in easy reach for the very purpose that Zeb finds for them, hoping that their father would drop by the high-class brothel that is a front for the incipient Gardeners. (Try to keep up.) Ok, Zeb turns out not to be the Rev’s son at all – Pilar, under cover in a high-status position at HelthWyser, gets his DNA tested for him – but, so? In this novel full of genetics and gene-mutations, it seems that closeness between humans isn’t always governed by biology. Who would have thought it? And, yes, redemption is possible. Not many pages after Toby has introduced the Crakers to the concept of spiritual resurrection – Snowman-the-Jimmy has let it slip that the bones they step over belong to Oryx and Crake and she has to come up with something – we have Zeb committing himself to a lifelong partnership with her. Not long before, he would have been almost as mystified by the idea as the Crakers.
Zeb’s story takes us up to the God’s Gardeners sections of The Year of the Flood. I can’t imagine what it might be like to read this without reading the earlier novels first. It’s so many years since I read them – and I’m probably typical – that even the detailed Previously-style summaries that preface this one aren’t much help. Real names and Gardeners-style aliases blend into, well, raspberry mush. I’ve already mentioned how Crake has no presence as a remembered character now, any more than the Adam we come to know (or half-know) through Zeb’s story bears no relation to Adam One in The Year of the Flood. I can’t help thinking that the second and third novels in the trilogy should have been published as one. In terms of plot, there’s only enough for one anyway. You could summarise MaddAddam, aside from Zeb’s story, in a paragraph.
Of course, it isn’t plot that drives the sections of this novel mainly centred on Toby and the others at the cobb house. I genuinely think – and I’ve been thinking about it a lot – that Atwood deliberately turns her back on plot, almost entirely. I haven’t been exaggerating how little there is, and this has placed it in stark contrast with the event-strewn macho style of Zeb’s story. As they go into battle, for instance, Atwood lets us know that Toby will be able to look back on it calmly ‘in later years’. It isn’t going to be too bad, it seems. And, despite the death of Snowman-the-Jimmy, it isn’t.
And she doesn’t only rely on a contrast of styles. Zeb’s story – which, with a few tweaks, would make an excellent dystopic novella in its own right – goes through the morphing process of becoming palatable for the childlike Crakers. Increasingly – Atwood is spelling it out in foot-high letters by now – Toby realises she is creating a new mythology for what will be humanity’s next phase. It’s why I’ve spent as long describing the storytelling aspects of this novel as anything else in it. Forgive me if this sounds obvious, but maybe that’s how it’s been striking me. It’s not the story, but how you tell it that matters in the end.
And what happens in the end? People get by, because they have to. The ‘Pigoons’, the genetically-modified pigs with an uncomfortably high proportion of human reasoning power, suddenly stop being a threat. They aren’t the pigs in Animal Farm, although I’m sure Atwood wants us to remember them, because they are looking for compromise and co-operation. A delegation arrives to say, basically, we can be friends now if you stop eating us. And it turns out – I’m not making this up – that a side-effect of Crake’s splice-happy methodology is rudimentary telepathic communication. With Blackbeard as the chief interpreter, The Crakers and Pigoons quickly learn to understand each other’s songs and grunts. It seems like a deliberate undermining of dystopia conventions: turn the implacably cunning enemies of the brave band of survivors into friends. Easy.
So the battle against the Painballers is won, at the secret laboratory where Crake developed his master-plan. (That’s where Snowman-the-Jimmy finds the bones. Readers with long memories will remember the incident from the first novel.) Later, Amanda and the two other women who had had sex with Crakers give birth. Previous worries that Amanda’s child might be that of a Painballer and that babies with Craker genes would be unable to pass through a human birth canal both turn out to be unfounded, although crude surgery is sometimes necessary. And suddenly, by way of the short final section entitled Book, years have passed. The book in question is Blackbeard’s, now the keeper of what is becoming a bible for a new version of humanity. He is a very quick learner: the Crakers might be childlike in some respects, with built-in limits to all sorts of dangerous human urges, but he at least is as bright as a button. Long before Book, just after the battle, Blackbeard takes over the storytelling ritual from Toby because she is too upset by Snowman-the-Jimmy’s death. As I said, Atwood is using foot-high letters.
Is that it? It might be, in fact. Zeb and Toby, presented as middle-aged throughout the novel, outlive their usefulness for Atwood and she kills them off. So it goes. She doesn’t use Vonnegut’s throwaway phrase because she doesn’t need to. I told you I wasn’t sorry about Zeb’s death – offstage, inevitably, as he deals with the only threat there seems to be in the indeterminate number of years following the battle – and Toby’s death soon after is just as low-key. The world is going to have to be newly made by the fertile generations of humans and Crakers, and they are getting on with it. And Toby has shown Blackbeard how to make writing implements once the supply of pens runs out forever… which, I suppose, is her symbolic legacy in this story-bound world. And… what? We don’t know. Atwood ends it there, with Blackbeard finishing off his ‘story of Toby’. So I will too.
What do I really think? After Oryx and Crake I was intrigued as to what might happen next. Properly focused, one sequel should have been enough. I genuinely believe that she’s deliberately going against conventional plot-driven narratives, and that has something to do with the relaxed pace. Bit by bit, she adds to her creation of a brilliantly realised dystopic future, but… I can’t think that a great deal has been added cumulatively in two novels that couldn’t have been achieved in one.
It makes me wonder what audience Atwood is writing for. The cyberpunk crew won’t be interested in all that God’s Gardeners stuff, especially (but not only) in The Year of the Flood. But only a reader interested in cyberpunk will get much out of Zeb’s story in MaddAddam… which leaves serious readers who really don’t have a problem with genre and narrative games, and who might even enjoy them. How many readers like that are their going to be? I’d count myself among them, but even I was often bored.