Thursday, September 19, 2013

Margaret Atwood's THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD

Not so much a sequel as a side-quel to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood is one of those books that kind of makes me incoherent when someone asks me whether I liked it or not. Kind of like the first book did.

I can understand certain conceits and compulsions in post-apocalyptic fiction. One is telling the story, generally, of the survivors, so the focus is going to be on those survivors, on their lives before Disaster X, on how they survived it and what they do afterwards. And there aren't a lot of ways to do this; most post-apocalyptic fiction goes one of two ways: it either focuses on a group who knew each other before and survived and continue to survive by sticking together, or it tells individual, disparate stories up until the different characters meet and band together -- if they band together -- either during or after Disaster X. To do anything else risks my eye-rolling at its implausibility.

Guess which route Margaret Atwood has taken here?

Well, I've done a lot of eye-rolling.

For the MaddAddam books, Atwood has chosen to go a third way, that of improbably Dickensian coincidence, which, when coupled with overlapping love triangles, makes for a lot of narrative annoyance for this reader. For all The Year of the Flood's leaping about in time, a device that propelled me through Oryx and Crake very satisfyingly as narrative questions kept getting posed and answered all the time, slowly and judiciously, its cleverness is overshadowed by what felt to me like a rookie-caliber blunder, as far as maintaining my willing suspension of disbelief goes.

The Year of the Flood's characters come together -- indeed mostly start out together -- years before the human-engineered pandemic plague created by Crake in the first novel. They are all God's Gardeners, a hippie-ish eco-Catholic cult of sorts*, heavy on the homegrown/DIY ethos, vegan, venerating their own calendar of saints that includes figures like Dian Fossey and Stephen Jay Gould and Euell Gibbons who taught the sort of whole earth/we're all one doctrine that shames bathing and washing too often (waste of water), throwing things away (waste of everything), stepping on beetles, etc. Their leader, Adam One, warns of a coming "Waterless Flood" that will wipe out all human life, waterless because God promised Noah he'd not do that kind of thing again but may have crossed His fingers a bit, and the need to prepare and preserve against it. So, as a group of survivors go, so far, so plausible.

But of course God's Gardeners have enemies, both of the big, soulless corporate and of the nasty, brutish and personal sort, and the group's downfall predates the actual Waterless Flood (the plague) by a good span of time, so everybody gets separated and winds up having to weather the waterless tides as best they can. Which they all do. And this is not much of a spoiler, because all of this novel's jumping around in narrative time pretty much gives that away early on.

So far this stretches but does not break the bounds of plausibility, for me. But then, and again, this is not much of a spoiler, they all find each other again! Amid giant world-wide catastrophe, amid forces that have already pulled them all pretty far apart (one character winds up half a continent away with the plague hits, but still, yep, winds up back in everybody's orbit), and despite the fact that pretty much all of their preparations** were for naught and a bunch of chance miracles were what actually saved them (eye rolling), the heavy hand of fate shoves them all back together again. And again. And again.

But at least Atwood didn't pull a Stephen King and send her characters a bunch of dream prompts and whatnot to make them dance to her tune. For which I am grateful.

But you know what? I read this pretty much compulsively and non-stop, mostly in one long go, despite the eye-rolling. This is mostly because of the world-building, which is still top-notch. Atwood's double-dystopia, as I discussed when I read Oryx and Crake, is as plausible and chilling as her plot is ridiculous, a fascinating wasteland of abandoned Idiocracy-flavored  franchise business complexes, decaying gated communities and fabulous gene-engineered mutant animals and plants. Bunnies that glow green. Half-lion, half-lamb hybrids. Big, beautiful moths developed to eat kudzu but fonder of garden vegetables. Vicious, intelligent pigs. Sheep that grow long, flowing manes of lush human hair in a rainbow of vibrant colors. And somewhere, only hinted at in this novel, there are still the Crakers, the gentle, sexy, pellet-pooping human replacement species created in the previous novel. Atwood has one hell of an imagination, and she let it run wild. But only on the world building.

The final volume of this trilogy, MaddAddam, has just been released. I was really looking forward to it, even though I'd yet to read this second volume until just now. But now? My eagerness is diminished. I'm sure I'll get hold of it and read it sometime, because even with the stale soap opera taste (overlapping love triangles, eww!) The Year of the Flood left in my mouth, it was still loads better than most of the dreck out there, and that's a rarity.

But for now, other volumes beckon. And other tasks. It's autumn, and I've quite a harvest to preserve; I've discovered canning. And I do prefer my food to actually be food. I'd make an okay God's Gardener, actually. I'd just be one of those who tapped my foot through all the rituals and prayers and hymn singing. And I'd probably miss showering kind of a lot.

*Which, ware hokiness (oh, the hymns!) and ware preachiness as well. These are exactly the kind of super-earnest passive-aggressive college hippies you thought you left behind in college. The ones who are basically right about a lot of things, and whose practices you are probably actually following more than not, but who just won't shut up about them. The ones who want to lecture you about the importance of recycling even as you're trundling your recycling container to the curb for pickup. Because really, if you actually cared about the earth, you'd put all those cans and bottles and pieces of junk mail on a trailer and hitch it to your bamboo-built bicycle and pedal the eight miles to the recycling center yourself, and then stay to lecture the staff there about how they really should be using wind and solar power to process the stuff, dude.

**Yes, they made Mormon hoard-type stashes of food and scattered them around in places, but really, they hid them so well that nobody else found them? Nobody? Or are we really just supposed to believe that our little band really were the only survivors in the whole wide world after the plague, which Crake hid in a sex pill? Because only this tiny, tiny band of eco-hippie cultists would eschew a sex pill. Riiiiiiiiiight.

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