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Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Year of the Flood, second book in the MaddAddam Trilogy
Author: Margaret Atwood
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Release Date: September 22, 2009
Pages: 448

It’s lucky that we have another MaddAddam book to read, lucky because Atwood didn’t initially plan to write another book like Oryx and Crake, lucky that The Year of the Flood fleshes out her frightening dystopian world and gives us much more to hope for.

The Year of the Flood isn’t a sequel to Oryx and Crake.  It works as a companion book, following the timeline of events leading up to and around our experience with Jimmy and Glenn (a.k.a. Crake).  One of the biggest differences, aside from point of view, is the inclusion of religion in the text and the influential presence it has to the characters and their motivations.  God’s Gardeners is a religious group formed out of a mutual dislike of the direction science and society has taken.  Under their leader, Adam One, the Gardeners are strict vegetarians--when the situation allows this to be the healthiest outcome--and waste nothing.  Their reversion to crafting, cooking, and hand-sewing clothes or recyclables is in reaction to society’s heavy dependence on technology.  Coincidentally, it also becomes their saving grace when technology (more specifically, electricity) breaks down in the days, weeks, and months following the mysterious plague (this, too, is a technological terror) that wipes out most of civilization.  Unlike other dystopian books where this pre-modern state is adopted out of necessity, the Gardeners have chosen this way of life as part of their religious doctrine.  As a result, they’re tough survivors.

As the book opens, we’re given two narrators (three if we could Adam One’s proselytizing speeches; four if we count the religious songs of the Gardeners): Ren and Toby.  Both were once Gardeners, but now find themselves alone in the middle of a ravaged city, teetering on the edge of total destruction, with quickly depleting food supplies and no idea of knowing if they’re the only ones left alive.  Ren is trapped in an isolation suite above a dance studio--the kind of dancing done on the SeksMarket--with all the amenities of a small hotel at her disposal.  Toby has taken up shelter at a women’s day spa with lots of organic moisturizers that double as semi-nutritious snacks.  If the two are to survive another day, they need to venture outside to find other sources of calories, protein, and weapons to protect them from the vicious wolvogs (unnamed here, but prior knowledge having read Oryx and Crake helps) and scheming pigoons (explained finally as “pig balloons”).

Chapter by chapter, Atwood takes us into the past of these two women, showing us how they came to be members of God’s Gardeners and how that seems to have saved them from Certain Doom.  Delving into their past also reveals several cameos from both Jimmy and Crake.  The two storylines of each book are entangled with one another to the point where at times Jimmy is featured heavily in the narrative and plays an integral role to what happens to Ren and Toby.  Ren and Toby, though, are the stars.  I think it’s safe to say Atwood is infinitely better at writing female protagonists than she is at writing them male.  Seeing Jimmy and Crake through Ren and Toby’s eyes didn’t ingratiate them to me any more than Oryx and Crake did, it actually made me like Ren and Toby more.  They’re both so different, but sympathetic and relatable in ways Jimmy and Crake were not.

When I thought about Oryx and Crake in relation to this book, I decided it had the larger, consequential duty of introducing us to the “bad guy.”  The Year of the Flood has more of the everydayness that was missing from Jimmy’s daydreams and ruminations on the past that centered wholly on Crake and his love affair with Oryx.  The world and everything that happened around Jimmy came off as second fiddle, background information to his need to understand his friend and his crush.  That anything bad happened at all is as a result of those two being involved and Jimmy’s struggle to figure out what went wrong--not that anything necessarily had an impact on Jimmy as an innocent bystander, genuinely scared for his life and wondering if he, too, will deteriorate to his death.

The Gardener’s are presented as innocent victims, true victims, and Toby and Ren are wrapped up in Crake’s mess.  We learn about Crake’s manipulation of the Gardeners to serve his agenda by threat.  It doesn’t matter what order you read the books in, they’re both very complementary to each other and in fact, I recommend reading Oryx and Crake first.  That way you get all of the nitty gritty out of the way and can end with what I think is a much more beautiful and hopeful book.  It also fills in a lot of the expository gaps we would have gotten from Jimmy if he wasn’t so preoccupied with Crake and Oryx.

There are a few inconsistencies, though, for as much as I liked this book.  The Gardeners rarely shower and get clean clothes only once a week and yet are extremely germ-conscious, “worried about microbes” (p. 68).  I don’t know about you, but that makes little to no sense to me.  If they’re so concerned with germs, they’d wash more often.  Also, I’m not sure how Ren knew about the healing abilities of the Crakers purring.  I tried to re-read and see if I glazed over the part where Shackie told her about their weird habits, but I didn’t see a single thing where he explains past the point where they purr.  Neither one of those is particularly important to the book, but I did notice them.

Not that Jimmy is without feeling, but I think the perspective the women provide in The Year of the Flood is considerably more intricate and emotional than anything Jimmy (oh, poor Jimmy) could have given us.  Since Ren and Tony must deal with a lot (running away from their past, learning the tenets of the Gardeners, trying to survive the waterless flood), it serves their purpose to entwine their lives with that of religion, one thing people tend to turn to in times of crisis to cope and find answers to frustrating or hopeless situations.

 I do have some further questions about some of the terms used in the book.  I still can’t figure out the path Atwood took to come up with racial terms like “Tex-Mexicans” (this one is actually explained a little bit, but why not Arizona-Mexicans or California-Mexicans? or just, you know, Mexicans?), “Asian Fusions,” “Eurotrash,” or “Redfish.”  Sometimes I think both of these books need glossaries for the times when I don’t want to think about the implications of her futuristic vocabulary, but that’s no fault of hers.  I just wish I could figure out the wit behind Sea/H/Ear Candy.  Are they headphones, iPod clones? Video devices with sound?  I don’t have a clue. Maybe “see and hear” entertainment (hence, the candy--addicting, alluring, and probably not that healthy for you)?

Overall I think this is a book that can’t be read without Oryx and Crake and vice versa.  The experience is more well-rounded with both and I think serves the story better that way (although I think The Year of the Flood is more intelligent and wittier).  What’s missing from one book is sure to be found in the other.  Don’t miss out on The Year of the Flood!  I can’t say if we’re ever going to get a third, but if we do, it’s sure to add another dimension to an already dynamic pair of books. I’m hoping for, maybe, an Oryx-centric point of view.

*My special thanks to Book Obsessed for holding the contest that won me a copy of this book!


Lily Child said...

Oh. Man. What a great review! This makes me want to read Oryx and Crake all over again. I am VERY much looking forward to reading Year of Flood!!!

Erika said...

Thank you! I think you'll like this one. It's different, but works really well to offer what Oryx & Crake didn't and vice versa. :)

Anonymous said...

The sea/H/ear thing has been driving me crazy. It just doesn't make sense to me. Is it a pun? I get see and hear, it just doesn't have the finesse of all the other words she has created so I feel like I'm missing something. I find myself repeating it in my head on the subway trying to make it click. I find it very distracting.

Erika said...

@snapsland At first I thought it was "see and hear", but the 'h' doesn't make sense with the 'sea' part. I think you're right, though: it's some kind of pun I'm completely missing. My guess is that it's a visual/audio tool/toy like an iPod, but I'll always wonder about the cleverness behind the name. :)

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