Two women, trapped in different ways, navigate the end of the world in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’

September 25, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 25, 2015

In 2004, the acclaimed Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake, the dour story of a love triangle. The narrative begins in a dystopian future North America and ends after a pandemic has wiped out most of civilization, or what passed for it. In 2009, Atwood’s The Year of the Flood came out. I started reading it in March and completed it, after several interruptions (and one boneheaded accident), in August.

The book turns out to be another science fictional outing and is, in fact, the middle leg of what has dubbed the MaddAddam trilogy. Where Oryx and Crake, from what I recall, was told exclusively from the narrator’s point of view, the 2009 book is more ambitious: It alternates between two characters. Atwood also tacks between the past, in the same dystopian society depicted in Oryx and Crake, and the post-apocalyptic landscape inhabited by the previous book’s lonesome narrator. (Yes, there are a handful of human survivors — just why that is Atwood reveals in the course of time.)

One of the protagonists here is Toby, whose parents died while she was a college student (long before the plague), leaving her essentially alone and without resources. After some misadventures that will haunt her, Toby winds up becoming a teacher in a Christian sect of nature-loving hippies who call themselves the God’s Gardeners. There, one of her students is Ren, the book’s other protagonist, whose mother later takes her away from the sect and back to what the Gardeners call the External World.

When the Waterless Flood hits, perhaps a decade after the characters first meet, both women survive but are somewhat the worse for wear. Toby has holed up in the spa where she was working while hiding under an assumed identity; she fears she may be losing her mind, and her will to live is slowly seeping away. Ren is locked in a quarantine facility at Scales and Tails, the SeksMart brothel where she worked just before the plague arose — after a client bit through the protective membrane she was wearing, corporate protocols required her to wait until her STD panel came up clean.

On the bright side, the quarantine facility’s machines automatically feed Ren and let her attempt to contact possible rescuers in the outside world. On the down side, Ren has no idea how long the machines will remain powered and continue to have food to give her. Oh, and also there doesn’t seem to be anybody left to rescue her.

Might circumstances conspire to bring Toby and Ren together? It seems unlikely, as neither even knows that the other is still alive.

While Toby has freedom of movement, unlike Ren, the older woman feels hemmed in by the dangerous genetically bred animals that roam the grounds around her spa and by her own pessimism.

She sidesteps carefully down the stairs, using her mop handle for balance. She keeps expecting — still — that the elevator doors will open, the lights blink on, the air conditioning begins to breathe, and someone — who? — will step out.

She goes down the long hall, walking softly on the increasingly spongy carpet, past the line of mirrors. There’s no shortage of mirrors in the Spa: the ladies needed to be reminded by harsh light of how bad they looked, and then by soft light of how good they might yet appear with a little costly help. But after her first few weeks alone she’d covered the mirrors with pink towels to avoid being startled by her own shape as it flitted from one frame to the next.

“Who lives here?” she says out loud. Not me, she thinks. This thing I’m doing can hardly be called living. Instead I’m lying dormant, like a bacterium in a glacier. Getting time over with. That’s all.

She spends the rest of the morning sitting in a kind of stupor. Once, this would have been meditation, but she can hardly call it that now. Paralyzing rage can still take hold of her, it seems: impossible to know when it will strike. It begins as disbelief and ends in sorrow, but in between those two phases her whole body shakes with anger. Anger at whom, at what? Why has she been saved alive? Out of the countless millions. Why not someone younger, someone with more optimism and fresher cells? She ought to trust that she’s here for a reason — to bear witness, to transmit a message, to salvage at least something from the general wreck. She ought to trust, but she can’t.

The Year of the Flood extends the world that Atwood created in Oryx and Crake; the detailed society she chronicles feels very real, although I found some of the names (SeksMart; CorpSeCorps; liobams, which are genetically engineered lion-lamb hybrids) grating. This world is thoroughly awful, as human and corporate rapacity and carelessness have caused many animals to go extinct. And yet the people in Atwood’s realm can still find occasional moments of love, tenderness and joy.

I am not much enamored of organized religion, but I found the God’s Gardeners somewhat comforting in a book filled with appalling things. Some of their beliefs and practices are loopy, sure, but the Gardeners tend to be more humane — more compassionate — than the minatory world around them. The group is also quite practical at times. (Another way of putting that is that the Gardeners can be hypocritical when it’s convenient.)

Each chapter begins with a short sermon from the sect’s leader, Adam One, as well as one of the hymns sung at a Gardeners meeting. For example:

Oh let me not be proud

Oh let me not be proud, dear Lord,
Nor rank myself above
The other Primates, through whose genes
We grew into your Love.

A million million years, Your Days,
Your methods past discerning,
Yet through Your blend of DNAs
Came passion, mind, and learning.

We cannot always trace Your path
Through Monkey and Gorilla,
Yet all are sheltered underneath
Your Heavenly Umbrella…

I’m not much for poetry, either, but Atwood’s compositions held a certain charm for me.

The Year of the Flood is quite a daunting book, however, because a sense of doom hangs over the proceedings. Most of the Gardeners, we presume, will die; our two plague survivors, Toby and Ren, seem more likely to die alone than not. Atwood winds up weaving the different threads together in unexpected fashion, giving the story closure that seemed to me a bit too perfect.

On the other hand, the last chapter concludes on an eerie note. A handful of people huddle around a fire at dusk. Some are wounded; all are physically and emotionally spent. As they share a meagre soup, a group of the genetically engineered blue-skinned post-humans who were introduced in Oryx and Crake approach, their torches flickering, their voices joined in song…

Atwood is a writer who weaves complicated and fascinating narratives. I’ve consumed a number of Atwood novels over the years, including perhaps her seminal work, The Handmaid’s Tale; I rather wish that I had started writing down my thoughts about her other books before now. Two years ago, Atwood published MaddAddam, the third book in this series, and yes, I absolutely intend to acquire and to read it.

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