January 18, 2010

Book review: "The Year of the Flood," by Margaret Atwood

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The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday

Long-time readers will remember that I don't actually come from a background of literary criticism -- I was a photography major in college instead, then spent my first ten years in Chicago as a creative writer -- which means that for a book critic, there are an alarming amount of holes in my personal reading history, when it comes to some of the most important writers of all time. One of these people for example is Margaret Atwood, one of the brightest stars of Postmodernism and also one of the first people to bring academic respectability to the world of science-fiction, due mostly to her 1985 novel A Handmaid's Tale, by now a feminist classic that is required reading in many high-school and college courses. Not only is Atwood still writing, she's at what many consider the apex of her career right now (she just finally won her first Booker at the start of the last decade, after all, after being nominated five times); and among other recent accomplishments, in the last seven years she's put out a pair of related novels that have turned out to be two of the more popular of her entire oeuvre, 2003's Oryx and Crake and 2009's The Year of the Flood. I just got a chance to read the latter, in fact, which doubled as my last official selection from my recent guest membership at BookSwim.com, the "Netflix for books" service which I agreed last fall to try out and review here (with that review finally coming next week); and I have to say that I immensely enjoyed it, although also admit that I could easily see why she's been plagued for decades now with accusations of being anti-male, and of whole-heartedly embracing all the worst traits of the male gender specifically to paint all men in the most negative light humanly possible.

But of course, it's important to know right away that I've never actually read any of Atwood's other books, including A Handmaid's Tale; and in fact since I'm planning on reviewing that earlier book as part of the "CCLaP 100" series of classics essays, I've even avoided over the years learning anything about it, other than that it's supposedly about a theocratic society in the future where women are forced to be royal holy sex slaves or something like that. And that's important to know, because a lot of people have accused these two latest books of hers of being too digressive of that original -- all three are post-apocalyptic future-history stories, after all, involving new patriarchal societies being established that feature the systemic sexual subjugation of women in order to maintain control -- and I am simply in no position to opine on whether this is true, and whether those who have already read the former should skip the latter. But of course, this also brings some benefits to my review as well, in that I'm not saddled with the baggage of expectations; and this of course is the struggle that critics are always going through, of just how much past accomplishments and failures should factor into what we think of a current title by a well-known veteran.

Ironically, the storyline itself shares many traits with one of my other favorite novels of 2009, Neal Stephenson's Anathem, both of them written by their respective authors at the exact same time; like his book, The Year of the Flood also takes place in a world that has already recovered from a series of quasi-apocalyptic events that turned out to be minor only (or "minor" as in "only a few million killed"), but that has left behind a society vastly different from our own, with a sort of teabagger-type political party that has wrested permanent control of the US government, backed by a virtual takeover of almost all police and military units by a series of corrupt Blackwater/Halliburton type private contractors. And like Anathem, our main story revolves around a religious order that has decided to altogether drop out of this permanently sexed-up reality-show society (known as the "Saecular World" in Anathem and the "Exfernal World" here), an order that blends science and religion to create a sort of Long Now survivalism based on the preservation of knowledge and common sense. And without giving away too much of the actual plot, The Year of the Flood is essentially a look at a scattered series of these acolytes in the time preceding and following an apocalyptic event that finally turns out to be genocidal (the "flood" of the book's title, a humanity-wiping virus which had actually been predicted for years by this religious order).

And yes, absolutely, both of these books mostly use such a milieu to critically comment on the Bush Era of 2000 to 2008, and to serve as wish fulfillment for so many of the intellectuals who had to live through that nightmare, the desperate desire among so many smart people back then to literally wall themselves off from the tabloid-obsessed, xenophobic mouth-breathers who had taken over our country, to watch from the top of a high tower as this uneducated, superstitious society tears itself apart through endless greed and stupidity, and to laugh and laugh at the audacity of these people thinking that they could somehow thrive without the help of their most intelligent and rational members. (In fact, I'm coming to realize that there were so many of these books written in the early 2000s, all of them metaphorical, that they're bound to be known as an entire subgenre in the future, a "Bushist Literature" category that would also include such previously reviewed examples as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Max Brooks' World War Z, and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.) And if you wanted to interpret The Year of the Flood strictly like this, it'd be very easy to do so, and Lord knows that you wouldn't be very much off the mark.

But perhaps it's even more interesting to interpret this as a metaphorical look at a typical radical-left commune or organic farm, which I'm sure the ultra-liberal Atwood has had plenty of experiences with over the years -- because unlike Anathem, Atwood's protagonists are more like hippies than traditional monks, their "monastery" actually secretly located within the crumbling, abandoned warehouses of this Exfernal World's urban edges, their lives dedicated as much to diversity and non-violence as it is agriculture and history. In this, then, you can see this book as actually quite similar to TC Boyle's masterfully dark comedy Drop City, in that Atwood is both loving and critical of this communistic experiment, and surprisingly uses up a big chunk of pages to point out all the problems that come with such a community. For example, Atwood really concentrates here on the various inherent hypocrisies that are required to make one of these hippie experiments even function -- such as the fact that their circle of elders are forced to use a laptop on a regular basis, despite their evangelical shunning of technology, and that they must hide this fact from the vast majority of their members in that they are literally not practicing what they preach. Although these "God's Gardeners" are quite obviously the heroes of our story, Atwood has a surprising amount of critical things to say about them as well, adding up by the end to a book that feels like a nostalgic yet realistic memoir of an actual group of this sort.

Now, like I said, it's easy to see why those who don't care for feminist literature tend to roll their eyes at Atwood's work, because men in general really take a beating here -- nearly every character with a penis seems to come off as misguided at best, even when they're one of the goodies, and of course all of the villains just happen to each embrace the exact worst, most sexually violent traits known to the entire human race in general, a world where nearly every man alive has devolved into some kind of snarling monster, who enjoys nothing more than violently raping and then slitting the throat of every random vagina-owner they meet. But then again, this is symbolism we're talking about, within a fantastical universe set in the future no less; and while I definitely found Atwood's points to be delivered many times with a heavy hand, it certainly wasn't enough to truly bother me. In fact, if I was to make any complaint about this book, it'd be merely that it doesn't make it clear at the beginning that this is a companion volume to the earlier Oryx and Crake (the two share a half-dozen characters and many of the same plot pivots), making its comprehension difficult at points -- for example, near the end Atwood hints that this religious order may have had an active hand in bringing about the apocalyptic virus that wiped out most of humanity, but puts it in a way that makes you realize that you need to read the other book to find out definitively. But then again, all the publishers need to do to fix this problem is simply make a big mention of it on the back cover of the coming paperback edition; why they didn't do this with the hardback is freaking beyond me, and represents what I think should be a job-firing error on the part of whoever was in charge of this book's dust-jacket copy. Beyond these few quibbles, in general I was quite impressed with The Year of the Flood, and am glad to finally now have my first Atwood title under my belt. Here's hoping that I'll have a chance to add many more as the years progress.

Out of 10: 9.3

Read even more about The Year of the Flood: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:23 PM, January 18, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |