Monday, January 4, 2010

The N-Spot: Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

I’ll confess up front that I don’t often have the opportunity to read contemporary fiction; or in any case, I’m always a few years behind. Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, for example, was the only book I read in 2009 that was actually published in 2009 (and I should say that I finished the novel about an hour after midnight on New Year’s Eve—or Day, rather, at that point—as I sipped the dregs of my celebratory champagne). The novel was the latest on my kick of trying to work through everything she’s written, a little mission that began nearly two years ago, when I decided to include her novels The Edible Woman and The Robber Bride in my senior honors thesis on fairytale revisions by recent women (some might say ‘feminist’) writers. I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale for about the eleventh time that summer, and quickly devoured the two aforementioned novels for academic appropriation, and then moved on to Cat’s Eye, Oryx and Crake, Bluebeard’s Egg (short stories), some poetry (Selected Poems and Morning in the Burned House), and, most recently, Alias Grace, which I had the wonderful opportunity to teach in an honors seminar I was TA-ing for. When The Year of the Flood was released in September, I was at the exact point in the semester where I began to be overwhelmed by everything; if nothing else, my first semester in graduate school stripped me of my pleasure reading time. The book sat on my shelf for nearly three months, a shiny, brand-spankin’-new hardcover copy (and you should know by now that I almost never buy books new—it’s just not in the grad student budget, despite the fact that I have to purchase about a million per semester now)—and more importantly, signed by Atwood, who had stopped in Harvard Square to give a reading on her book tour. She sang, she danced, she enticed me by reading bits and pieces from the novel…but still I had to wait.

And then winter break. My reading list is hemorrhaging books—everything that’s been shoved to the side over the past four months, but I made certain to crack into Atwood’s before the opportunity escaped me. I posted thoughts on the novel as I worked through it, which you can find on my review of it, but here are some more overarching musings about the novel.

First, if you’re not familiar with Atwood’s oeuvre, The Year of the Flood is a ‘sidequel’ or a ‘simul-narrative’ to her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake—both are what Atwood terms ‘speculative’ novels that imagine potential dystopic outcomes for life on our world. The narrative transpires, if I make an educated guess, about fifty years from the present, as an allusion to American slavery places it about two centuries prior. Natural resources are more or less annihilated, with the ozone considerably damaged; innumerable species have fallen to extinction; the U.S. has been commandeered by corrupt corporations that find allies in ‘pleebland’ gangs to maintain order over the masses. Top scientists are creating frightening gene splices: pigs with human brain tissue; chickens that consist entirely of edible parts; mammals with extra organs available for harvesting. In Oryx and Crake, we come into this strange (but perhaps too easily imaginable) new world through Jimmy—known by his alias ‘Snowman’—a survivor of a global pandemic that nearly wipes out the human race. No worries, this is no spoiler—we’re alerted to this little detail on the first pages of O&C. Is Snowman the last man alive? The earlier novel withholds many of these bits of information, and what becomes compelling is not only the possibility of Snowman’s survival and his future, but his past—what brought him to this point, and the little glimpses into the appalling world I just described. Snowman is a disaffected and perhaps (to his mind) undeserving survivor. He and the two other figures at the center of that novel—Oryx and Crake—are the very highest of the elite, and thus the reader’s view of the world is from a vantage point both wider-reaching, for they have the power to access otherwise silenced knowledge, and more insular, for they’re kept in a privileged, somewhat Stepford Wives-ian, bubble of existence.

Cut to The Year of the Flood. If its companion novel features a male, privileged eye to this dystopia, YOTF grants us the position of the people who fall through the cracks, and both protagonists are women, to boot (which, I’ll freely admit, I think Atwood writes better than she does male characters). Interestingly, each protagonist begins the novel in a state of isolation not unlike Snowman’s—are they the last alive, they wonder?—but as the narrative progresses, we realize their pasts are intertwined; both were members of a sort of eco-religion/pseudo-cult called the God’s Gardeners. Thus, the third ‘narrator’ (though he’s more of a disembodied, Wizard of Oz sort of voice) is the leader of this group, Adam One. Toby, we find, was another leader-figure in the organization. Saved from the grips of a murderous rapist by the Gardeners, Toby is the eloquent, razor-sharp, and hardened narrator Atwood has perfected at this point in her career—she’s reminiscent of Tony from The Robber Bride or perhaps the older Elaine Risley of Cat’s Eye—but a distinctive voice among a truly strong group of female narrators throughout Atwood’s fiction. She’s the voice of reason and of doubt—she has a wealth of experience at hand, but there’s a compelling vulnerability beneath her cold cocoon. Her pupils may mockingly refer to her as the ‘Dry Witch,’ but Toby’s is a wonderfully evocative voice throughout the novel—particularly in terms of her relation to the Gardeners, whose doctrine becomes more and more convincing the farther into this wasteland we travel. But Toby’s wavering faith in their doctrine mirrored my own—of course we hope to hold onto something solid when we’re going under, but Toby recognizes the vast limitations in both the group and in her standing within it.

Ren, on the other hand, is of the more fragile type—most strongly reminiscent of young Elaine in Cat’s Eye, if I were forced to make the comparison. She’s a member of the Gardeners as a child, and we grow up with her in a way that we don’t with Toby—as such, I found myself (at times) more emotionally drawn to Ren than I was to Toby (but I’m also not the sort of reader that sees that emotional umbilical cord as integral to a character’s strength). Ren is a stripper at the time of the pandemic—what is called in this novel the Waterless Flood by the Gardeners, and thus, the title of the novel—though we’re not really given to know how she moved from sheltered religious girl to sex worker until nearly the end of the novel. I love that Atwood handled sex work with such grace; for so many people, even or perhaps especially writers, it becomes a repulsive or tragic potentiality for female characters. If you know me, you know my views on sex work, and I think Atwood granted dignity and humanity—not to mention, treated it for what it is, a job (and not some sort of martyring)—to Ren’s position at the aptly named Scales & Tails club. Perhaps I should backtrack a bit. I couldn’t help but think of Cat’s Eye as I read the novel, particularly Ren’s sections. Though the novel is in the world of Oryx and Crake, the affective quality of it takes me back to Cat’s Eye, which is perhaps her most emotionally moving novel for me. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed YOTF more than I did O&C—both are absolutely wonderful novels, and each has powerful justification for its approach to the apocalypse—O&C makes sense as a jaded, detached sort of narrative for me. It’s just that I’m more personally drawn to this sort of Atwoodian narrative, where the characters’ interiors take precedence over the trajectory of the plot. If the earlier novel was more in the Orwellian strain of dystopic narratives, this one takes me back to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is of course a terrifying dystopic vision, but is also the tale of the human condition under those pressures. That was an insular, almost asphyxiating, narrative—likewise, the scope of YOTF is grand, but we’re offered a view of it by two women who wield a specifically tailored sort of tunnel vision to their experiences. And I love Atwood’s ability to balance private experience with a colossal plot.

This is becoming far too long, not to mention I feel like I might move into spoilers if I talk much longer. Perhaps I should direct you to my goodreads review pages for both O&C and YOTF. But in short, this is a real achievement for Atwood. The prose is lucid and witty, cutting like paper—bad metaphor, I know, but I suppose what I want to impart with it is that the writing pierces unexpectedly. It may not be identifiable at first, but you find yourself haunted by it. Every character is beautifully drawn—I could read a novel from the perspective of each of them. Pilar, the beekeeper, was particularly fascinating to me, but I’d read a narrative behind Bernice’s eyes, or Zeb’s, or even Ren’s awful mother, Lucerne. This can be a stand-alone novel, but I strongly recommend reading Oryx and Crake first, simply because so much of this novel will resonate more strongly having that one under your belt. It was astonishing seeing Atwood tie the threads of the two together—moments in that novel that seemed so trivial at the time (Red’s diary, for example) become pivotal for this one. I can’t praise this one enough—I wouldn’t call it her masterwork (perhaps only because I couldn’t choose among my favorites of her novels), but it’s a novel that I already want to reopen and immerse myself in again. That’s a rare feat for a jaded reader like me.

And here are some reviews from real people...quite exciting, actually, to see people like Frederic Jameson, Jeanette Winterson, and Ursula LeGuin reviewing this novel:

Jameson's review



No comments:

Post a Comment