This review contains some spoilers for the other two books in the trilogy, so skip this if you haven’t read those. My review for Oryx and Crake is here, and my review for The Year of the Flood is here.
I read MaddAddam, the third and final book in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy of the same name, in an indulgent fervor. I neglected my own writing regime to read it, read it past my bedtime. I went camping this past weekend, and instead of hiking or moving around in some semblance of an athletic and rugged way, I set up my tent and curled up on top of my sleeping bag to read more MaddAddam. I consumed the book, swallowed it whole. It’s hard to tell if I liked it or not—I am pretty sure I did—but I can say with certainty that I was engaged with it.
Ok, so the book itself: unlike Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, where much of the action and plot really takes place in the book’s narrative past through the use of flashbacks, the action in MaddAddam is pretty evenly split between the book’s diegetic present and past. There’s even, at the end, a bit of diegetic future thrown in. In my review of The Year of the Flood I discussed how the first two books of this trilogy were mirror images—structurally similar but inverted in terms of their themes and respective focus. I wondered if MaddAddam would follow suit or attempt to unify the other two books. MaddAddam, I think, establishes itself firmly as a concluding volume through its attempt to unify the other two books in the series. MaddAddam picks up right where The Year of the Flood leaves off and carries the narrative thread of what happens to Toby and Ren and Jimmy in the book’s present in the lonely aftermath of Crake’s Waterless Flood. At the end of the previous book, the Crakers—Crake’s genetically engineered ‘perfect’ humans, part of whose perfection seems to be an utterly guileless nature—set free a pair of vicious criminals into the woods. Much of the plot of MaddAddam is driven by this pair of murderer/rapist/all around evil guys as they skulk around the protagonists’ homestead, pick off the wildlife, and engage in a lot of psychological warfare. The book’s resolution, such as it is, comes as a result of a climactic standoff between the protagonists, the MaddAddamites, and the criminals in the Paradice Dome where the Crakers were engineered. Intercut with this is the story of Zeb, a MaddAddamite and former God’s Gardener who ends up as Toby’s lover, was Ren’s stepfather, and knew Crake when Crake was a boy. The origins of the God’s Gardeners cult is revealed through Zeb’s back story, and through him we get deeper insights into the ever-enigmatic mad scientist Crake.
That’s the plot, but as with all of Atwood’s work the plot plays second fiddle to its themes. One of those themes is the power of narrative. This theme has been a unifying point through all three books, though how it’s been perceived and presented has varied from character to character. While the other two books in the trilogy are fairly straightforward in terms of how they’re told, this one is more complicated. In Oryx and Crake and in The Year of the Flood the story is revealed through one or two people’s viewpoints, and those viewpoints are static inasmuch that we know it’s Jimmy or Toby or Ren thinking these thoughts, having these memories, experiencing this or that thing. MaddAddam confuses things: Toby is the protagonist, for the most part, but what we, the readers, actually get is a mix of Toby’s thoughts, Toby’s experiences, Toby’s retellings of other people’s stories and, eventually, other people retelling Toby’s story. What we find out about Zeb’s history is both in and not in his voice—the stories start from Toby’s perspective as the pair lay together in the dark, and eventually Zeb’s voice appears to take over. Occasionally the stride of his voice is broken when Toby interrupts. Then, Toby takes his stories and translates them into myth and legend for the Crakers. Toby herself becomes both the teller of tales to the Crakers and a tale to be told by the Crakers by the end of the book. While Jeanette Winterson in Weight dealt with how we use narrative to construct ourselves Atwood here is highlighting the power of shared narratives to construct a community. It’s a theme that richly permeates the book, start to finish, in both subtle and obvious ways. It’s a theme that builds on pieces from the other two books. It’s masterfully done, especially given that there is so much potential for an approach to narrative this way to be confusing but the book remains clear throughout.
So, that’s one theme I saw coming long before I cracked open the book. Way back in Oryx and Crake I picked up on the idea that Atwood was writing these books to show us how redemptive and damning narrative can be, that we can change our trajectories by changing the kinds of stories we tell ourselves. That’s what speculative fiction is all about. But there was something else which crystallized in MaddAddam a theme, or rather an open question, which I did not see coming. Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t; I don’t know. The question is this: what is it that makes us worth saving? This questions starts about humanhood—what makes us human? Are the Crakers, with their genetic modifications and guileless, deeply innocent frame to the world, are they human? What does it mean if they aren’t? What does it mean if they are? While these questions have been lurking along the outskirts of the text in both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood they come to the forefront when Toby and Ren bring a very sick Jimmy to the MaddAddamite compound and the Crakers insist on following. The MaddAddamites propose scientific delineations: are the Crakers capable of abstract thought, can they produce viable offspring with a normal human, etc.
The question of humanhood turns into a question of personhood over the course of the book. The Pigoons, huge pigs engineered to grow replacement organs for the human elite including human neocortex brain tissue, end up in an alliance with the MaddAddamites. The Pigoons have been around since the very start of the series—Jimmy’s father used to work on them in one of the science Corps—and hints have been dropped along the way that they have developed sentience. But, still, the moment where one of the young Crakers literally communicates with a Pigoon and serves as a translator between the Pigoons and the MaddAddamites is a moment of profound strangeness not least because it shakes what we construct as personhood at its foundations. And in that moment, we gain great insight into Crake’s plan, his vision, his reasons for spreading a swift and deadly plague across the world. If the natural world demands we adapt or die, then the only way destructive humanity as it exists to adapt is to die, for us to replace ourselves with more harmonious creatures, for us to make space for something to be a person besides ourselves. The moment this happens is wrapped up in a swiftly moving plot, with little textual time to chew over it or ponder it. I wanted the book to slow down a second, to unpack it, but it pushed on ahead.
I rate this book 4 stars because it’s close to perfect but not quite. A side plot of the book, the search for Adam One of the God’s Gardeners cult, fizzles and dies without the emotional resonance it needed. I could have done without some of Toby’s repetitive insecurities about her relationship with Zeb—while realistic I feel they defanged her character somewhat, which was a pity since she’s such a tough, strong, fallible and emotionally truthful character. And, as I said, the pacing of the plot sometimes ran roughshod over the thematic developments. In spite of all that, MaddAddam is a wonderful and rich book in its own right, peculiar and heavy, and a masterful end to a trilogy. In terms of its ability to deepen and provide closure to a very good series of books it reminds me of Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass*.
*If you haven’t read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy you really, really should.