I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood last night. This novel is a sequel to Oryx & Crake, which came out in 2003. Oryx & Crake establishes and develops a near-future North American dystopia that is frighteningly plausible because it is so firmly rooted in the present. In a lecture at MIT shortly after the novel was published, Atwood describes the big scrapbooks of cuttings she compioled in order to ground the novel’s scientific and technological details in present knowledge and practice. She mostly concerns herself with genetics and economics in the first book, the technology of gene splicing and cloning leading to an economy based on the production of new organisms, which are given names like “rakunk,” a pet-like hybrid of raccoons and skunks, in Wikipedia’s phrase, and “pigoon,” a huge, balloon-like pig used to grow extra copies of human organs for transplantation. The names sound as if they come direct from the marketing departments of the industrial-scientific complex — cute and sinister simultaneously. Scientists and their families live in corporate “compounds,” gated and heavily guarded communities with their own stores, medical services, and social activities; the rest of humanity lives in the “pleeblands,” definitely ungated communities of varying degrees of squalor.
Pornography is ubiquitous and prostitution is legal or semi-legal in Atwood’s ugly future; the presence of porn and prostitution allows Atwood to develop themes surrounding the roles of women in culture and society, but her feminism is subtle and sophisticated, especially in The Year of the Flood. For Atwood, a feminist perspective is not an add-on, but a fundamental assumption about the world. It’s in her artistic DNA and is particularly striking in the way she develops the female characters in this second novel. The Year of the Flood is not a sequel in the sense that it’s action follows that of Oryx & Crake; the action of the two stories take place during the same time frame, though in proximate locales separated by the infrastructureal and technological occasioned by a world-wide plague. Several of the characters believe — at least for part of the narrative — that they are the only survivors on the planet.
Atwood is a realist in the tradition of 19th novelists like George Elliot and Thomas Hardy; modernist stylistic innovations have affected her work very little. Atwood’s novels tend to focus on characters and situations and social / political contexts, which is quite enough to fully engage her imagination — and ours. [Useful hints and gists regarding realism from this Washington St. Univ. American Lit. website.] Atwood’s realism can have a satirical edge — she is tough on scientists despite coming from a family of scientists — but her main interest is in the way characters react to circumstances both personal and political. In both of these novels, all the central characters must come to terms with the end of Western, scientific, capitalist civilization as currently constituted; the various ways in which the characters react to the cataclysm in which they are caught up is the main subject of both books. These are novels about human agency.
Human agency, of course, cuts both ways. It does not imply human morality, a point that Oryx & Crake makes very powerfully. The Year of the Flood is concerned with how we poor humans might learn to join our human agency to morality, which is also human and therefore frail. To this end, Atwood invents a Luddite / Green religion that names itself The Gardeners. The Gardeners accept science, including evolution, but they believe that God doesn’t want people messing around with the genomes of his creations, so they have withdrawn from the mainstream of society, living in abandoned buildings in the pleeblands, where they grow rooftop gardens and create caches of food called Ararats in preparation for what their founder Adam One calls “the waterless flood.” (The leaders of the group all take then name Adam or Eve, affixing a number that represents the order seniority.) They conceive of themselves as preparing for a new Eden when the old society is swept away, which in fact it is, the waterless flood being a bioengineered plague developed by a renegade scientist working under the umbrella of one of the corporations. The Gardeners are vegetarians and don’t believe in writing things down. Their children use slates in school, which can be wiped clean. The Gardeners’ scriptures consist of orally transmitted stories and hymns and they have many saints: St. Farley Mowat, St. Dian Fossey, St. Peter Matthiessen, St. David Suzuki, and so on.
The action of both novels spans the period before and after the release of the plague. In the pre-plague chapters of both stories, Atwood focuses on the causes — cultural, technological, and economic — that lead inevitably toward catastrophe. Both novels move around in time, shifting back and forth between the pre-plague and post-plague worlds and, interestingly, it is only after the plague that her protagonists come into their own. This is particularly true of Toby in the second novel. Because Oryx & Crake is organized around the character of Jimmy / Snowman (his before and after the plague names), it moves easily back and forth in time and holds together structurally. The Year of the Flood presents more problems in this regard. In the second novel, Atwood introduces a number of characters and presents them at different points along the same arc of time that is covered by Oryx & Crake. Initially, this is somewhat confusing and until Toby and Ren are brought together in a Gardeners community, the story seems diffuse. For a reader of the first novel, it’s clear that Atwood is constructing a machine that will bring these characters together with Snowman by tale’s end. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Toby’s chapters are narrated in the third person and Ren’s in the first person. I found all this authorial maneuvering somewhat offputting, but about a third of the way through the novel, the pieces fall together and the parts work more effectively together.
Why, though, have Ren narrate her own story while the rest of the book is written in the neutral voice of a mostly objective narrator? There are enough loose ends left untied at the end of The Year of the Flood to make me suspect there will be a third novel in the series, perhaps in Ren’s voice. That story will almost certainly move forward in time as the survivors begin to create a new life for themselves. And Ren and Jimmy will almost certainly wind up together. After all, they are both incurable romantics — and they dated in high school. It will be interesting, if I am right, to see how Atwood constructs her new society — how she balances the good and evil powers of human agency.