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September 17, 2013

After Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, I was expecting an action-packed end to Margaret Atwood’s end-of-the-world trilogy, but I should have known better. This novel is not trying to do what Philip Pullman’s third novel failed to do well—tying together the threads of all the different plots and sub-plots. It is rooted in the present, as we’ve come to know it in the previous two novels. It is narrated by a character we’ve come to know well. And in order to tell a story that matters to the whole world, it is a story about making oral and written history; as Andrew Sean Greer points out in his NYTimes review, “gradually, we realize that this is how we ourselves understand our own world.”

One of the foremost pleasures of this novel is the delicious morsels of satire scattered generously throughout. Here is one of my favorites:
“Bearlift was a scam, or partly a scam. It didn’t take anyone with half a brain too long to figure that one out. Unlike many scams it was well meaning, but it was a scam nonetheless. It lived off the good intentions of city types with disposable emotions who liked to think they were saving something—some rag from their primordial authentic ancestral past; a tiny shred of their collective soul dressed up in a cute bear suit. The concept was simple: the polar bears are starving because the ice is almost gone and they can’t catch seals any more, so let’s feed them our leftovers until they learn to adapt….
I remember adapt….It was another way of saying tough luck. To people you weren’t going to help out.
….feeding trash to the bears didn’t help them adapt, it just taught them that food falls out of the sky. They’d start slavering every time they heard the sound of a ‘thopter. They had their very own cargo cult.”

The satire gets less delicious as it hits closer to wherever you call home, however. This one hit me squarely where I live:
“The least said the better online, even if you thought your space was secure. The net had always been just that—a net, full of holes, all the better to trap you with; and it still was, despite the fixes they claimed to be adding constantly, with the impenetrable algorithms and the passwords and thumb scans.
But what else did they expect? With code serfs like him in charge of the security keys, of course the thing was going to leak. The pay was too low, so the temptation to pilfer, snoop, snitch, and sell for high rewards was great. But the penalties were getting more extreme, which was a counterbalance of sorts. Online thieves were increasingly professional….Few were hacking for the pure lulz of it any more, or even to register protests, as they had in the golden years of legend that middle-aged guys wearing retro Anonymous masks got all nostalgic about in the dim, cobwebby, irrelevant corners of the web.
What good would registering a protest do you any more? The Corps were moving to set up their own private secret-service outfits and seize control of the artillery; not a month passed without the arrival of some new weapons law pretending to safeguard the public. Old-style demonstration politics were dead. You culd get back at individual targets such as the Rev using underhanded means, but any kind of public action involving crowds and sign-waving and then storefront smashing would be shot off at the knees. Increasingly, everyone knew that.”

The genius of the novel lies in the plausibility of the timeline, the way some of these things have already begun to happen, and how terrifyingly close the end of the line of dominoes could be.

There’s so much of the kind of satire in this book that can really make you think, especially if you’ve just watched John Green explain the American healthcare system:
“They’re using their vitamin supplement pills and over-the-counter painkillers as vectors for diseases—ones for which they control the drug treatments. Whatever’s in the white ones is in actual deployment. Random distribution, so no one will suspect a specific location of being ground zero. They make money all ways: on the vitamins, then on the drugs, and finally on the hospitalization when the illness takes firm hold. As it does, because the treatment drugs are loaded too.”

It would take so little for our world to become like the world of MaddAddam. So very little. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, it could happen so suddenly that something like the sight of an ordinary dishtowel could trigger a memory of the time before the end of the world. This is why Toby, the protagonist of MaddAddam, thinks “she needs to post a Boil Water advisory….Seeing water actually coming out of a tap, some people might get carried away.”

The world goes on, though. A few people survive, and in this novel they begin interbreeding with the “Crakers” from Oryx and Crake. After telling them stories out loud for the length of the novel, Toby finally teaches one of the young Crakers to write, and he says, “Oh Toby, when you are too tired to do it, next time I will write the story. I will be your helper.”

The inevitable omissions and misunderstandings about what is clearly destined to become an origin story for the Crakers’ Brave New World are apparent in the tale from its beginnings; the Crakers revere Crake as the Creator and Oryx as the mother of all beasts, both natural and bio-engineered. The stories Toby tells are always punctuated with interruptions from and qualifications to her Craker audience:
“After Zeb came back from the high and tall mountains with snow on top, and after he had taken off the skin of the bear and put it on himself, he said Thank You to the bear. To the spirit of the bear.
Because the bear didn’t eat him, but allowed him to eat it instead, and also because it gave him its fur skin to put on.
A spirit is the part of you that doesn’t die when your body dies.
Dies is…it’s what the fish do when they are caught and then cooked.
No, it is not only fish that die. People do it as well.
Yes. Everyone.
Yes, you as well. Sometime. Not yet. Not for a long time.
I don’t know why. Crake made it that way.
Because if nothing ever died, but everything had more and more babies, the world would get too full and there wouldn’t be any room.
No, you will not be cooked on a fire when you die.
Because you are not a fish.
No, the bear was not a fish either. And it died in a bear way. Not in a fish way. So it was not cooked on a fire.
Yes, maybe Zeb said Thank You to Oryx too. As well as to the bear.
Because Oryx let Zeb eat one of her children. Oryx knows that some of her Children eat other ones; that is the way they are made. The ones with sharp teeth. So she knew that Zeb could eat one of her Children too, because he was very hungry.”

The occasional additions to the way we humans might have intended to tell the tale are amusing, like the character called Fuck:
“But Fuck kept him company and gave him advice. Fuck lived in the air and flew around like a bird, which was how he could be with Zeb one minute, and then with Crake, and then also with Snowman-the-Jimmy. He could be in many places at once. If you were in trouble and you called to him—Oh Fuck!—he would always be there, just when you needed him. And as soon as you said his name, you would feel better.”

Toby simplifies some things as she shapes her story to her Craker audience, but the simplification augments the truth, which is that if humans keep going on the way we’re going, the end is near. Once you’ve read Atwood’s character telling the tale, you won’t be able to pass it on without the occasional pun or joke, either.  In the end is the beginning, as you can see from reversing the title.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2013 9:27 pm

    I kind of got swept up in the love story. The satire didn’t make a big impression on me, it’s so over the top and bleak. I love how she wraps it up though. I thought the ending was so beautiful and hopeful and lovely.

    • September 18, 2013 8:45 am

      The plot is bleak, but the satire is almost entirely based on exaggeration, so I found it laugh-out-loud funny. “Cargo cult” indeed!
      The ending is hopeful, and that is a good trick.

  2. September 17, 2013 10:21 pm

    This is on my list. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Atwood. I’m hoping this will be more in the former camp.

    • September 18, 2013 6:00 am

      I have more of a dislike-dislike intensely relationship with her and just can’t get past what feels like preaching to me.

      • September 18, 2013 8:47 am

        As you know, I think The Handmaid’s Tale is an important book, and these three are important in the same way. edj3, I am a fan of preaching when it’s done well. Aren’t you the one who goes to church? 😉

        • September 18, 2013 8:20 pm

          And I despised The Handmaid’s Tale. Preaching when it’s done well? Sure, when someone is interested in hearing the sermon.

        • September 19, 2013 8:44 pm

          I agree with that, but my favorite is Cat’s Eye. I’ve been less enthralled with her more recent work. I haven’t read any of the trilogy and have been meaning to, but other things keep intervening. I have another friend who is not a particular Atwood fan and whose taste in books I often agree with who has been begging me to read Oryx and Crake.

  3. September 18, 2013 10:05 am

    I really enjoyed the wrap-up plot-wise with the story elements and I admire the details in the writing that I picked up because I re-read the first two volumes before launching into Maddaddam (which I’m not sure I would have noticed if I hadn’t re-read…it’s been ages, after all). The ideas about language, how we bestow importance on certain words (and neglect others) for instance, really intrigue me, and those passages, where the Crakers misconstrued the characters’ calls for help from F*** (not sure if your spam filter will kick my comment if I add the ‘uck’) were so funny that I had to read them aloud in almost every instance.

    • September 18, 2013 11:05 am

      I love the active voice in your comment–how we bestow and the Crakers misconstrue–because it’s a response to the way this author is playing with ideas about language and meaning.
      You and Marie both mention re-reading the first two (, and I have to say I think you’re right; I’m going to have to do it so I can see the story as a whole.
      Oh, fuck! I have no idea about my own spam filter. Let’s see.

      • September 18, 2013 11:15 am

        Given that you really enjoy her writing in general, I would guess that you will enjoy a re-read, but I can see where a lot of readers simply want to finish the story and see what happens, because after all this time we’re curious about the events and a good story is a good story. I mention a couple of the details that I noticed in my post, which I know I wouldn’t have noticed without re-reading, but I left out a good number because I wanted to write it without spoilers. Still, you know, the details matter in the hands of a good writer, and it’s a pleasure to suss them out in her work when one is an admirer.

  4. September 18, 2013 11:46 am

    I read ‘Oryx and Crake’ for one of my book groups a couple of years ago but haven’t yet got round to ‘The Year of the Flood’. However, having heard Atwood talk about ‘MaddAddam’ on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Start the Week’ this Monday I shall definitely be getting round to all three of them in sequence. She was particularly interesting on why the book takes the form it does and if you want to her what she had to say you can get the programme as a podcast from either the BBC website or I-Tunes.

    • September 19, 2013 3:11 pm

      Thanks! I will have to make time to listen to that.

  5. September 18, 2013 12:09 pm

    I am so looking forward to reading this and you have made me even more excited about it! It is on the top of my pile, just need to finish a book or two to make room for it.

    • September 19, 2013 3:12 pm

      I hope you like it as much as I did. When I like something, my tendency is to quote too much and discuss too little, and I think you can see that I did that here!

  6. September 21, 2013 9:36 am

    I’m a huge Atwood fan but don’t tend to read the dystopian ones – well apart from The Handmaid’s Tale which I thought outstanding and an important book, but it stopped me from sleeping well for weeks afterwards. It’s that very quality she has of creating these terrifying worlds that feel so horribly possible… Amazing author, but not comfortable. And anyway, who says literature should be comfortable? I just can’t always deal with that much discomfort in my wimpish way.

    • September 22, 2013 11:58 am

      Certainly it’s not me ever saying literature should be comfortable!
      It does sound like you’re not the kind of reader she is trying to warn; I think she’s trying to make people who haven’t considered the dangers wake up to some of them.

  7. March 3, 2015 10:08 am

    Great great review and I do think Atwood is amazing with her word play and expression. I know I both ‘get’ and want to ignore the message. Bury my head in the sand, I will!

    • March 3, 2015 10:27 am

      Well, as the Lorax says, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”


  1. MaddAddam | Care's Online Book Club

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