First, Margaret Atwood has long been one of my most beloved writers. She also dabbles in poetry, and a touch of the lyrical is always present in her novels. Her writing has grown in richness (aged like wine and other ripe metaphors come to mind now) over the years, and I find that her work in recent years is her best. Maturity suits her well.
Atwood’s most famous work is The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985. That novel is a dystopian fantasy that envisions society regressed to a state of fundamentalist patriarchy. That vision is vivid and thoroughly disturbing. But is it relevant as a vision of the future? It is closer to being historical than futuristic. The ‘reality’ in Handmaid’s Tale is all too close to the factual reality of women throughout history, as well as many women in certain societies today. And although in the 1980s there was indeed strong anti-feminist backlash, we hope are moving away from patriarchal social structures. It seems unlikely that a radical backslide in women’s liberties would occur in the West, and the those societies (we know who they are) that are still fundamentally patriarchal don’t have far to backslide. That is, Handmaid’s Tale is scary enough, but not there-go-we scary scary. It is a dystopia grown from historical reality, but maybe that is exactly what renders it a ‘safe’ dystopia.
Oryx And Crake, published in 2003 is also a dystopian fantasy. But it is in no way a ‘safe’ fantasy. It is really not so much a fantasy as a slight exaggeration of our current reality. Forget church and state. In this world it’s corporation and state, and there’s no separation of the two. Massive corporations, refferred to as The Corporations use a privatized army (CorpSeCorps) to rule an America not dissimilar to the one we aleady know. Wealthy elites exist in self-sufficient gated communities and have no contact with the so-called Pleeblands, rife with crime and disease, that form an extreme consumer culture. Children grow up without ever seeing the world outside these luxe compounds. Bioengineering runs rampart. Human organs are harvested from gene-spliced Pigoons (pig + baboon). Chicken nuggets come from headless, wingless, legless no-longer chickens. And so forth. Until, inevitably something goes wrong and this sick civilization is wiped out by a plague.
Atwood’s new novel, The Year Of the Flood returns to the same world, but from a different perspective. In Oryx and Crake the final plummet of humanity is seen from almost within. Using, in an uncharacteristic choice, a male protagonist Atwood follows the architect of the plague from troubled childhood to mad scientist glory through the eyes of this closest friend. All this taking place within the elitest of elite communities. In Year Of the Flood, Atwood returns to the female perspective she’s always felt comfortable with, and takes the story outside, into the Pleeblands. The main characters are members of a hippyish cult called God’s Gardners, who use a combination of scripture and survivalist skills to take a stand against wanton, destructive consumerism. Inevitably, no amount of good intention can forestall the Flood of the title. I have to say that Year Of the Flood is less riveting than Oryx and Crake was. That’s partly because this world is now familiar. A big part of the pleasure of Oryx And Crake was figuring out what exactly everything was. That’s lacking here. Because the Gardeners are Luddites, there’s far less fascinating scientific detail and because they are Christians after all there’s a lot more preaching and moralizing. Writing again in the voice of a woman, Atwood shows her usual feminist bent. She always had a bit of an agenda in that department, returning again and again to themes of female victimhood and exploring both the strength and the poison of inter-female relationships. In Oryx And Crake, writing through the eyes of a boy she was more dispassionate, and more brutal a narrator, especially regarding the ordeals of the girl Oryx. She seems to believe that to be a woman is to be a victim, of one thing or another, almost by definition. Using a male voice, she showed it in a non-grandstanding way, matter-of-factly, without sentimentality. In the new novel, terrible things happen, even to the strongest women. For Atwood to bring readers into the mind of a strong female character, then allowing that character to suffer horrific abuse, while at the same time never describing or even specifying what happens (not that we can’t imagine it) and coming back to the girl afterwards as she lies bleeding (literally and/or metaphorically), and then making a coy promise of a happy ending; well, it feels a tad bit manipulative. If, as an author, you feel compelled to have your heroine repeatedly degraded in various ways, which is not by the way strictly necessary to prove your point about human nature, oh it’s vile isn’t it, then at least have the ovaries to write about it directly and truthfully, not averting your gaze modestly whenever you cause something undeservedly bad to happen to our girl. Atwood shrinks from describing the violence she herself constantly wallops her characters with, offscreen as it were. Which is maybe hypocritical of her? That aside, The Year of the Flood is still a highly recommended book. It’s a fully realized and realistic world, full of details, scary, believable, or rather scarily believable. Oh, and you don’t have to read the two books in order. In fact, I recommend reading Year of the Flood first, then moving on to Oryx and Crake. It’s more suspenseful that way.