Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Year of the Flood

I've read a pile of top quality novels this year including two Booker Prize winners, a Pullitzer Prize winner and the odd classic, but if I hadn't also read Roberto Bolaño's unquibblable masterpiece Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives), this would probably have been the one that would have stood out above all the others.

It's certainly one of the most immersive stories I've ever had the pleasure of dipping myself into.

Which is odd on one level at least, because this speculative, — not sci-fi, Canada's greatest living author still demures— somewhere-down-the-track world is unapologetically contrived (as are, it has to be said, almost all the male characters living within it).

I suppose you might say it does for the future what Asterix does for the past.

But this ironic conjecture, both a projection of things that could happen and things which might already have happened, is but the background tier of this complex, multi-layered novel of ideas — and Atwood cleverly offsets against it her sympathetic depiction of the two central female characters, Toby and Ren, and the the themes of friendship and loyalty that she explores with them. All this lays down a base of empathetic glue that committed me almost unerringly to her imaginative vision as the narrative jumps from dystopia to apocalypse and back again.

Perhaps Atwood's greater achievement here was to locate within this somewhat cartoonish (or maybe graphic novel-ish) sci-fi scenario a far deeper creative achievement: a fully-realised religious sect calling themselves God's Gardeners, complete with their own hymn book (set to music on the audio version) and a theology which neatly splices Abrahamic faith with scientific doctrine on matters such as macro-level evolution. Could such a thing really happen? It's compelling, disconcerting even. My mind tells me that it's unlikely, but I have yet to reason my way out of it.

On the Mayo Book Review podcast, Boyd Hilton, another self-confessed atheist, had a similar finding. Everything they say is mumbo-jumbo, but there's a nevertheless an underlying right-headedness about their approach to the impending environmental catastrophe. And whilst the author pokes fun at the solemnity of sect-founder Adam One, she dextrously maintains our sympathy for the communitarian and vegetarian approach of this community through Ren and Toby, neither of whom is guided by the blinding faith of the convert. (I would myself liken the experience to watching Little House on the Prairie. You just can't help rooting for this hard-pressed bunch of believers!)

The starting point for both of the narrative strands is the 'waterless flood' that the Gardeners have long anticipated: a viral pandemic which sweeps away most of human kind...though is strangely ineffective against almost all the characters, primary and secondary, that Atwood is about to introduce us to. We are however given to understand that Toby and Ren owe their survival largely to their comparative isolation at the time of the outbreak.

Readers of Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake (I'm not one of them yet) will apparently be aware how this super bug got going. Atwood describes The Year of The Flood as a 'simultaneul' to her earlier work, borrowing some of its characters, but generally presenting events as occurring "meanwhile..."

It was slightly disappointing for me to learn that the deadly plague wasn't necessarily a direct consequence of all the bad stuff going on in the world beforehand. This amounts to very much a North American dystopia, where the logic of mass production has resulted in a melding of the state and he big corporations, and one has little inkling about what might be going on in those economies that will supposedly rule the roost not long from now, such as China and India.

And yet this is a late stage form of capitalism which in some important ways resembles the early-stage version Aravind Adiga sends up in The White Tiger, for here too the wealthy and the white-collared live enclosed within compounds while the rest of the population are consigned to the 'plebelands', Atwood's equivalent of 'the darkness'. Is Atwood suggesting that it is the inevitable course of the West to revert to the fundamental inequalities it experienced in an earlier stage of its development?

In anticipation that some of her readers, myself included, would be sad to leave this world after turning the final page, Atwood has been on tour delivering a fuller experience, including a full-featured website, hymn recitals and the promotion of 'shade-grown' coffee (Is it really that easy to grow without shade then?) The author has also promised to go and stay veggie for the duration of this multi-stop trip.

I have to say that I've been left a little confundido with the blend of commercialism and anti-commercialism, religion and anti-religion indicated by Margaret Atwood's promotional scheme for this book.

The corporate nasties in the novel include both the irredeemable Secret Burger Co. and a Starbucks clone which also seems to be making those familiar, very marketable token gestures for helping producers and the environment, so I rather gathered that Atwood was au fait with how companies (and sects) co-opt all that into their discourse without having any real impact on the deeper issues.

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