Thursday, August 29, 2013

Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam: A Masterly Conclusion to her Trilogy

Margaret Atwood's new novel MaddAddam has just been published (Photo by Chris Young)
You may remember that Oryx and Crake, the first novel in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, is narrated by Snowman, a survivor – he thinks he may be the only human survivor – of the gruesome plague that has recently swept the Earth, leaving it deserted and ruined, inhabited by giant pigoons and wolvogs.

Snowman, who in the pre-Flood days was named Jimmy, tells the stories of Oryx, his great love, and Crake, his best friend. He interacts with the Children of Crake, bio-engineered, peaceable humanoids who lead simplified lives, don’t eat meat and have never felt greed (or clothing). He also recounts the events leading up to the pandemic, when the world was ruled by corporations and the population was divided into the privileged elite, corporate employees (and managers and scientists) who lived in strong-walled Compounds, and everyone else, the inhabitants of the pleeblands, the slums and suburbs outside the Compounds. The Corporate Security Corps, or CorpSeCorps, was the all-purpose police force, army and intelligence service. 

In a storytelling coup, The Year of the Flood, the second book in the trilogy, takes place over roughly the same period of time – some scenes overlap -- and ends in the same spot at more or less the same moment, with a confrontation involving Snowman, the Crakers, several surviving humans and a pair of evil, violent Painballers. This second volume follows the stories of a group known as God’s Gardeners – pacifists, environmentalists and vegans who practice a strange hodgepodge of religious, historical and mythical beliefs, mind their rooftop gardens and try to stay out of trouble – mostly through the point of view of Adam One, the group’s founder, and Toby, one of the senior Gardeners. As well, in the quarantine room of the Scales and Tails strip club, we see former dancer Ren, who has locked the plague out, and herself in, and is waiting to be rescued by her friend Amanda. 

Sorry to recap at such length, but while the third book in the trilogy, the just-published MaddAddam (McClelland & Stewart), can be read on its own, it does help to know what came before. Atwood, in fact, provides short introductory pieces at the beginning of the novel recounting the two previous stories. 

We begin MaddAddam where the first two books ended, or at least with an account of that fateful day. A pair of accounts, really: “About the events of that evening – the events that set human malice loose in the world again – Toby later made two stories. The first story was the one she told out loud, to the children of Crake; it had a happy outcome, or as happy as she could manage. The second, for herself alone, was not so cheerful. It was partly about her own idiocy, her failure to pay attention, but also it was about speed. Everything had happened so quickly.” 

Those events are important for several reasons. The Painballers escape, for one thing. Pregnancies result, for another. Snowman has a gangrenous foot and is practically in a coma. But Toby keeps things together and the expedition returns to their cobb house, in what used to be a park. Food must be gathered, grown and scavenged. Administrative matters must be dealt with. Toby keeps an eye out for Zeb, her secret lover, who has been out scouting with some of the other Gardener men. And the Crakers must be told stories, a duty that falls to Toby while Snowman is ill.

Much of the book is told in these stories, with the Crakers’ small rituals, incessant questions and singing interruptions. But a lot is also told by Zeb to Toby: his eventful childhood and awful parents, his wandering years in pleeblands all over the Americas (including the tale of how he ate a bear), his fraught relationship with his half-brother Adam, who is now missing, and for whom Zeb has been searching since the Waterless Flood.

I must also mention Blackbeard, the young Child of Crake who follows Toby around, filling her ears with questions, whom she eventually teaches to read and write, and who plays a vital role in the Gardeners’ eventual uneasy alliance with the Pigoons and the battle against the Painballers. His voice is perfectly rendered and his character is perfectly loveable. Taking Toby’s place as journal-keeper once, he writes: “I am Blackbeard, and this is my voice that I am writing down to help Toby. If you look at this writing I have made, you can hear me … talking to you, inside your head. That is what writing is.”

Through it all, we have the lively imagination of Margaret Atwood. There is nothing in the MaddAddam world, however caricatured and exaggerated, that is implausible. Pigoons, swine with genetically altered human brain parts? Painball arenas in which convicts kill one another for the entertainment of the masses? Kudzu that threatens to choke out all other vegetation on the continent? Corporate security forces taking over from government troops and police? We’re just a step or two away from all of these. Atwood weaves all this phantasmagoria together brilliantly, creating characters that convince and telling stories that amuse and provoke in equal measure. It’s a masterly performance from one of the consistently best writers of the past 50 years. 

-- Jack Kirchhoff is an arts journalist in Toronto.

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