Book Review: MADDADDAM

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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*.

4/5 stars

*If you haven’t read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy you really, really should.

Book Review: THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD

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WARNING: Review contains spoilers about the plot of Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MaddAddam trilogy.

Do you ever have the experience of reading a book and liking it and not actually remembering all that much about it? Where you’ve read it, perhaps, too quickly and when it’s done you’re left with the stark knowledge that you like it—maybe even loved it—but that knowledge is not tied to anything specific? I am pretty sure that’s what happened to me the first time I read Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, which made rereading it a peculiar experience. Actually, this happens to me a lot which is one reason I tend to reread books so often.

Back to the book. The Year of the Flood is the second book in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy but I would not call it a sequel. The events in The Year of the Flood happen, for the most part, concurrently with the events of Oryx and Crake. Sometimes it’s the same events happening as in Oryx and Crake but from a very different perspective. The last third or so of The Year of the Flood dovetails with the end of Oryx and Crake in such a way that The Year of the Flood picks up the tail end of Jimmy’s narrative in Oryx and Crake and extends it a little further—but just a little further, and like the ending of Oryx and Crake, the book ends with an abrupt cliffhanger. Really I think the best description of The Year of the Flood is a companion piece to Oryx and Crake. I wonder about the effect of order since in terms of plot one does not really precede the other. I wonder what it would be like to read The Year of the Flood first and then read Oryx and Crake.

As much as it is a companion piece, The Year of the Flood is an inversion of Oryx and Crake; where Oryx and Crake was a story of the privileged, the masculine, of reductive science The Year of the Flood is a book about the feminine, the marginalized and victimized and of spiritualism. The Year of the Flood follows two viewpoint characters: Toby, a woman with a vicious and lengthy streak of bad luck matched only by her inherent talent to survive, and Ren, a girl whose naivete and frivolity masks an impressive adaptability. The connection between Toby and Ren is that, for a time, both were members of a religious cult named God’s Gardeners. God’s Gardeners is a pacifist and technophobic ecoreligious group preparing for the apocalypse—the Waterless Flood—which they are sure the increasingly morally bankrupt scientific ventures of the ruling corporations are sure to bring about. And we know from having read Oryx and Crake that God’s Gardners’ prediction is true: Crake unleashes a virulent and deadly virus that elminates the vast majority of the world’s population, completely and utterly destroying civilization as we know it. God’s Gardeners, in a move that strikes the readers as prescient given we already know what will happen but a move that seems bizarre to those in the books before it happens, build secret Ararats, caches of foodstuffs and necessaries to get them through the Waterless Flood in one piece. The preach, they build gardens and keep bees, they sequester themselves from the rest of the pleebland mobs and gangs. They harbor runaway scientists from the Corporation Compounds who have had pangs of conscience. God’s Gardeners become a sort of character in itself; each section of the book is preceded by a sermon spoken by Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners, and each of his sermons is immediately followed by a Gardener Hymn*.

Over the course of the book God’s Gardeners has many faces—harmless, heroic, broken, trapped. We see the functioning of the Gardeners at their prime both through the eyes of Toby, who ascends through the cult’s ranks and becomes a leader within it, though begrudgingly, and through the eyes of Ren, who is raised among the Gardeners during her adolescence. There are other things, too, that we get this multifaceted view of: Jimmy, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake flits in and out of Ren’s life**. We see the things Crake did when Jimmy wasn’t around. We see a whole other side of the world than the side Jimmy showed us, namely the poor and broken places, the dregs of this world. The places the Corporations have written off, and the people the Corporations have written off. And, likewise, we see Toby through her own eyes and through the eyes of Ren at multiple points in time. And Ren through her own eyes and through the eyes of Toby at multiple points in time. Oryx and Crake dealt a lot in fixedness—one narrator, one linear story, one set of values. The Year of the Flood deals in multiplicities, in complexities—multiple interacting narrators, a crowd of stories, a pantheon of value sets which change from person to person and within a single person over time. Oryx and Crake seems to focus on the absolutes of identity where The Year of the Flood explores the relational interdependencies that shape us all.

I find it hard to rate this book by itself, especially given that so much of my experience of it and thinking about it is tied to Oryx and Crake. I am now leaning towards rating them of a piece together, which after I read MaddAddam may be revised. But for now, I give it four stars for its depth, for its crystalline characterization and for the scope of its examination of how actions can be spiritual without faith behind them.

4/5 stars

*The book states these are from the Oral Gardener Hymnal, but considering that the point is made more than once that the members of God’s Gardeners are wary of writing and refuse to leave written records I can’t help but wonder who compiled the hymnal. Perhaps this is something Atwood will address in MaddAddam. More likely this is proof of my nerdy fanboy ovethinking it mind.

**At first this bothered me; it seemed too pat and too convenient for Jimmy to keep popping up over and over again. But then I remembered how sequestered the characters in these books are—the Corporations lock you in, track your movements. Geographic mobility is long gone. And in a world like that you may indeed run into your high school sweetheart over and over and over and over. That utter lack of escape from your past sure sounds like hell.

Book Review: ORYX AND CRAKE

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Since MaddAddam, the concluding book in the trilogy which begins with Oryx and Crake, just came out it seemed like an ideal time to reread the other two books in the trilogy. I am really excited to see what Margaret Atwood does with MaddAddam given that Oryx and Crake and its follow-up, The Year of the Flood are so different in focus. Or, that’s how I remember them; I’m just about to crack The Year of the Flood back open, so we’ll see if that opinion still stands when I’ve finished it.

Back to Oryx and Crake. The plot is relatively straightforward: we follow a man named Jimmy from childhood to adulthood whose childhood friend and later employer, Crake, is a mad scientist. And we follow Jimmy as he tries to navigate a post-apocalyptic world caused by Crake. The book opens some years after this mad scientist has done his thing. Jimmy is both alone and not alone—Crake created an enhanced group of human beings, genetically lab-grown to perfectly fit their surroundings where Crake did his best to splice out ‘undesirable’ elements of the human fabric. Jimmy tends to these people, whom he calls the Crakers, who are human but such a different kind of human that he is still utterly alone.

The narrative structure is split between chapters set in Jimmy’s present, where he tends to the Crakers, and his past, which explores the world which led up to the birth of the Crakers and the destruction of everyone else. But the story is very clearly rooted in Jimmy’s present; the chapters set in the past have a deliberate haziness to them, and Jimmy interjects commentary on his memories. Atwood makes it clear that rather than an objective narrative jump to the past what we are reading is present-day Jimmy remembering his own past. Like Winterson’s Weight, this book explores the nature of narrative and how we use interpretations of our past to construct our own futures.

The idea of art and narrative as hard-wired into human beings, as one of the intangible things that makes us human, is a theme in the book. Jimmy is a self-described ‘word person’ in a world where words no longer get you very far. Atwood’s future is a destroyed and severely overpopulated Earth where capitalism has run amok. Global warming has ruined the climate, leading to the destruction of many major cities. Class is clearly defined by occupation—the upper classes, uniformly technical and biological geniuses working in elite labs at elite corporations, live in sealed-off and secure corporate communities. There, these scientists are protected from the biological warfare and espionage from competing companies. The middle class live in Modules, and everyone else lives in the pleeblands. Jimmy, the product of two elite scientists, grows up in corporate compounds. The pleeblands are places of myth, of seductive legend, to him and as a reader we see very little of how the poor in Atwood’s world live*. So, there’s Jimmy, who lacks his parents’ capacity for numbers and science stuck in places that do not value his gift for empathy and wordplay. Coupled with his best friend Glenn (who becomes Crake), who is an obvious wunderkind, and Jimmy is left with an inferiority complex the size of Texas.

I read this book the year it came out, in 2003. I remember being somewhat fascinated by it but not liking it much, which was disappointing as I was and still am a major Atwood fan. I was in Boston, living on the couch of a friend and elbows-deep in a summer of socialist organizing. I’d scored a shitty summer job on campus which I abandoned on the spur of the moment to couch-surf and read a lot of Trotsky and argue with people about whether we, as socialists, should support and campaign for Ralph Nader. I was driving a lot of conversations about masculinity in activist spaces and how it was alienating female members of our organization. This was the summer I began to embrace my proletariat roots instead of trying to shed them; a moment, if you’ll indulge me, of internal class crisis. I picked up Oryx and Crake for some light reading, and frankly I picked it up at the wrong moment in my life. Jimmy, as a narrator, was not someone I could connect to at that moment in my life—his male, upper-class privileged voice and viewpoint was simply a bridge too far. The worldbuilding was fascinating as it dovetails so nicely with Marxist theories of late-stage capitalism and imperialism but I never developed an emotional connection with the book.

I read it now as someone ten years older. As someone who has, in some very real sense, sold out. I’m middle class now, a thing which I struggle with but is very obviously true. I’m reading it again after doing some heavy-duty renovation on my own psychological landscape which has left me a much more compassionate and less judgmental person. This time around, I connected much more with Jimmy, especially his imposter syndrome. My initial reading of the book as a self-righteous 19 year old was that it lacked depth, that is was a bit obvious. But I’m not sure that’s true. It’s certainly the case that Atwood as a writer creates stark worlds where Things Have Gone So Very Wrong, but it’s also true that within those worlds she’s a writer of immense subtlety. I mean to say that the worlds she creates are not subtle, but that the people within them still are. This book, I think, is less a warning about capitalism run rampant or the dangers of playing god with science. I think it’s more about the things that Crake tried and failed to breed out of his batch of ‘perfected’ humans: our capacity and need for story, for meaning. I think this is a book about what happens to a culture where we abandon art, where our creative meaning-making of the world around us is seen as less-than and unnecessary. When we do that, Atwood seems to say, we lose our souls. In a sense, then, our compulsion to create and to describe and to enrich is intimately tied with our embedded altruism. All of which is to say that I understand better now why Atwood chose hapless Jimmy, word-oriented and patient Jimmy as her narrator. He’s not a good man, but he’s an exceedingly human one.

4/5 stars

*Or, more accurately, we see very little of how the poor live in Oryx and Crake. We see a whole lot more of life in the pleeblands in The Year of the Flood.