The way we live now
Futuristic tale offers ironic insights but also disappoints a bit
What’s your favorite Margaret Atwood book? Ask seven of your reader friends, and chances are you’ll get seven different answers. Not surprising, when you consider that Atwood’s oeuvre to date comprises 21 books of fiction, 13 of poetry, 13 of nonfiction, and six children’s books. In a career that spans nearly five decades, Atwood has garnered such awards as the Booker Prize, the Canadian Governor General’s Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. For variety, abundance, and literary merit, Atwood is unmatched among contemporary writers.
“The Year of the Flood’’ starts off at a pitch of sensory intensity that hooks the reader immediately. It’s just after a catastrophe called the Waterless Flood has devastated the earth, sometime in the near future noted only as “Year Twenty-Five.’’ Toby, one of two women who at first appear to be the only survivors, is watching the sunrise from her rooftop refuge. “As the first heat hits, mist rises from among the swath of trees between her and the derelict city. The air smells faintly of burning, a smell of caramel and tar and rancid barbecues, and the ashy but greasy smell of a garbage-dump fire after it’s been raining. The abandoned towers in the distance are like the coral of an ancient reef - bleached and colourless, devoid of life. . . . The sun brightens in the east, reddening the blue-grey haze that marks the distant ocean. The vultures roosting on hydro poles fan out their wings to dry them, opening themselves like black umbrellas.’’
If “The Year of the Flood’’ had continued at this level of sensory immersion, the post-apocalyptic world Atwood creates could have been as vividly and deeply experienced as the battle scenes in “War and Peace.’’ But Atwood has a different agenda. The novel is divided into 14 sections, each introduced by a hymn from a religious cult called God’s Gardeners and a sermon by the sect’s leader, Adam One. The hymns read like secular versions of actual religious songs - a kind of High Doggerel - and the sermons ape with stunning accuracy the ponderous, snooze-inducing rhetoric of actual sermons. This reader’s temptation - as strong as in real life - to skip both hymns and sermons testifies to Atwood’s skill as a parodist. Within its sections the novel alternates point of view between two survivors - Toby, a middle-aged herbal healer, and Ren, a young erotic dancer. Each of the women’s stories shuttles between past (pre-Flood) and present (post-Flood).
This complicated structure refracts an imagined world through multiple lenses, allowing Atwood to cast a cold eye on the world we live in now. But it hijacks the novel. Narrative momentum is continually derailed. Atwood’s dystopia is home to plenty of dramatic action; but often we don’t get to stay with an event long enough to experience it.
Atwood’s two marvelous heroines overcome misfortunes not so far from those that women suffer in today’s world - repression by the culture and by religion, sexual exploitation, hunger, physical violence, rape - but the novel’s structure truncates their reactions. At first isolated, the two women eventually join forces and set out to rescue other scattered survivors, impeded by a sociopathic villain called Blanco the Bloat. Toby brings to this endeavor the wisdom of experience and the perspective of age, while Ren contributes the energy, optimism, and passion of youth. Their gutsy female intelligence gleams through tribulation: “she had to make a decision: did she want to live, or did she want to die? If die, there were quicker ways. If live, she had to live differently.’’ Their ingenuity and resourcefulness are beautiful to see. “Toby had seen a flash of light: was that glass? But Blanco was almost upon her: there was nothing between them but the hives. She pushed the hives over - three of them. She was veiled, Blanco was not. The bees poured out, whining with anger, and went for him like arrows.’’ Two such characters - strong and perceptive and surprising - need more room than this novel’s structure allows.
In inventing this world of the future, Atwood stays close enough to reality to create a devastating send-up of the world we live in now. The Waterless Flood turns out to be a lethal virus, eerily resembling swine flu. But it is spread by means of a sex-enhancing drug. God’s Gardeners, while offering the only real hope for recreating a livable world, retain the blindered, repressive worldview of a present-day cult.
As a longtime Atwood fan, I wish I could say that this novel combined the humor of “The Edible Woman,’’ the narrative momentum of “Lady Oracle,’’ and the psychological acuity of “Life Before Man’’ - along with the fully realized sensory worlds of all of these novels - with the invention of “The Handmaid’s Tale.’’ (Now you know my own personal favorites.) Instead, it stands as an indictment of 21st century life on earth and as a testament to Atwood’s range, to her artist’s need to push the boundaries of past achievements.
Ann Harleman is the author of two story collections, “Happiness’’ and “Thoreau’s Laundry,’’ and two novels, “Bitter Lake’’ and “The Year She Disappeared.’’