The Year of the Flood: Anyone Feel Like a Secret Burger Today?

I was first introduced to Margaret Atwood via Alias Grace in university and then attempted to work through her oeuvre by starting at the beginning - Surfacing and The Edible Woman. While much to do is made about debuts these days, reading late Atwood is a lesson in hard battles won stringing words together on a page.

Perhaps it's just that Atwood has hit her stride. Her wry, understated style takes to dystopian fiction like a plague to a vulnerable human population. She kills in form, she kills in her clean, sterilized prose and she kills in her dark, glittering humour. In short, she takes no prisoners.

The Year of the Flood isn't Atwood's first dystopian work - it's set in the same near-future as 2004's Oryx and Crakeand features a couple of the same characters/groups, including Jimmy and Glenn, whose experiments in the Biotech Compounds unleash a deadly plague upon a chaotic humanity (the corporations control security and their workers live in gated compounds. Everyone else lives in the crime-ridden 'pleeblands' outside).

TYOFT focuses on a back-to-the-earth-style cult that briefly appeared in Oryx and Crake - God's Gardeners.The novel is divided into sections that are titled after various celebratory days in their religion that serve to either mirror or subvert the plot.

For example, in the section 'Predator Day', two members of the cult find themselves pursued by non-Gardeners (and uncomfortably, find themselves taking on the role of predators, as well). Each section opens with a prayer by God's Gardeners leader Adam One and a hymn. The story is then told alternatively by two of God's Gardeners, Ren and Toby, and incorporates both flashbacks to happier days and post-plague turmoil. The shifting viewpoints and short chapters sounds overwhelming but in Atwood's skilled hands it's a masterful and thrilling ride through a fascinatingly horrific future.

Atwood's prose is so wonderfully keen here - her razor sharp prose and black humour shines brilliantly in this dark cautionary tale. When Toby kills a man (mostly out of self defence) with a poisoned drink, she thinks:
He wouldn't have lived, Toby tells herself, not with a leg as bad as that. Attempting to treat it would have been a waste of maggots. Still, she's just committed a murder. Or an act of mercy: at least he didn't die thirsty.
I know that TYOTF is supposed to be a commentary on Earth's impending environmental catastrophe. Indeed, the Gardener's epitomize the locovore/organic/recycle-everything movement. While Atwood trumpets their piety and resourcefulness, she also doesn't miss an opportunity to undercut their high-mindedness. The Gardeners are eventually forced to eat meat, to kill other humans and to jeopardize their own. As Toby remembers:
The Human moral keyboard is limited, Adam One used to say: there's nothing you can play on that hasn't been played before. And, my dear Friends, I am sorry to say this, but it has its lower notes.
In the end, the Gardeners reveal themselves to be extremists. For example, Adam One says:
We should not have allowed Melissa to lag so far behind us. Via the conduit of a wild dog pack. She has now made the ultimate Gift to her fellow Creatures, and has become part of God's great dance of proteins.
Passages such as the above made it hard for me to take the Gardeners' message seriously. Even some aspects of Atwood's future seemed over the top - meat cultured on stretchy racks? Secret Burgers made of ground everything (including people)? Oil made from human bodies??

Although Atwood takes everything to the extreme, it still works as a rendering of a plausible future (no flying cars to be had here). Painball, a game where criminals are pitted against each other in a horrific version of Paintball and that is filmed and broadcast for the enjoyment of the general public, is a reflection of our obsession with filmed 'reality'. Eternal youth is such a cultural obsession that the corporations have constructed elaborate, heavily guarded spas dedicated to this pursuit.

In the end, The Year of the Flood is both a warning against cultural excess and the head-in the sand thinking of the Green movement. I found that I didn't become invested in its characters but I was held captive by Atwood's plausible vision of our collective tomorrow.

The Year of the Flood/ Margaret Atwood / McClelland and Stewart / HC, 2009

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avisannschild said...

Aaah, what happened to the end of your review?

B.Kienapple said...

Avis, thank you kindly! Fixed! Not quite sure what happened there...

Embedded Librarian said...

this is a very thoughtful review and analysis. great job! i just finished YOTF, my third Atwood book. i didn't feel like i understood it very well but i LOVED attending the DC YOTF event at George Washington University, which made me appreciate the book more. and based on your first two paragraphs, your prose is better here than hers is (Sorry, Madge!) in several places of the book. i'm a Cat's Eye girl myself. peace.

B.Kienapple said...

Hi EL, thank you very much! I really appreciate you stopping by. I haven't read Cat's Eye yet but I'll add it to my Christmas vacation TBR pile!

avisannschild said...

I second the recommendation for Cat's Eye. Have you read The Robber Bride? I must say I'm a fan of Atwood's middle years as a writer: Surfacing was unreadable (although I liked The Edible Woman and I'm not as keen on the books she's written in this decade. My faves are definitely The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye and The Robber Bride.

avisannschild said...

Sorry, I forgot to close my parentheses!

B.Kienapple said...

Haven't really read ANY middle Atwood except for Alias Grace. And it was odd to read it because it felt so different from early Atwood and her late dystopian fiction. And I agree, Surfacing was god awful (and I thought The Edible Woman was as well. As you said - unreadable). Maybe I should do an Atwood marathon (again, over Christmas) and do a life's work post. I've got my work cut out for me!


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