The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

16 Mar

The Year of the Flood cover

The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood
Virago Press, 2009
ISBN 978-1-84408-564-4

Review by Adam Roberts

This essay continues on from the review of Oryx and Crake here.

This dry-flood novel is not only a much lesser fictional achievement than Oryx and Crake; it drags the larger project down. There are several reasons for this. Where the first novel was well focalised and paced, this one feels dissipated and disorienting. The shorter chapters and jumpabout points of view fray the effect of the whole. The re-treatment of the same themes rang hollower. So, where the systematic sexual abuse of Oryx (in the first novel) felt ghastly in a real way, the sexual abuse of Toby (she gets a job in a McDonalds-clone burger bar, where the owner, a fat, hairy ex-mafia goon, rapes his female staff during their lunch hours) felt ghastly in a cartoonish way.

Part of the point, and I suppose one of the pleasures, of this second novel is the way it meshes with the reader’s memories of the first; such that s/he reads ‘[Toby] scanned with binoculars … a strange procession appeared. It seemed to consist entirely of naked people, though one man walking at the front had clothes on, and some sort of red hat, and – could it be? – sunglasses’ (The Year of the Flood, p164) and goes, ‘oh! That’s the scene from near the end of Oryx and Crake. Or in The Year of the Flood LindaLee remembers dating Jimmy in High School, and writing ‘Jimmy you nosy brat I know your reading this in her diary (p226), and the reader is sent scurrying back to Oryx and Crake to find the bit where Jimmy recalls reading his girlfriend’s diary and coming across that message. From comparing the one with the other we learn that having sex with LindaLee didn’t mean much to teenage Jimmy, but meant a great deal to teenage LindaLee (‘I loved being in bed with Jimmy, it made me feel so safe to have his arms around me’). Which, we might think, is not news.

I’d say that the pleasure of knitting the events related in the 2009 novel into the events related in the 2003 novel is a meagre kind of pleasure. I’d say more: Atwood revisiting more-or-less the same material in The Year of the Flood dilutes the effectiveness of the whole. Much of the The Year of the Flood slips, rather, under the reader’s whelm: the world-building, the God’s Gardener’s cult, the satire. It doesn’t burn with life, the way Oryx and Crake does. It doesn’t really burn with anything. Fredric Jameson, in a very interesting LRB review, finds seeds of genuine utopianism in the God’s Gardeners cult and Adam’s dreary sermons. I put my telescope to my blind eye and declare: I see no such seeds. Jameson’s insightful, actually, on some of the book’s lamer aspects (‘the mark of the amateur here is topicality, among other things: in Flood, the reference to ‘the Wall they’re building to keep the Tex refugees out’, or the list of saints’ names – ‘Saint E.F. Schumacher, Saint Jane Jacobs . . . Saint Stephen Jay Gould of the Jurassic Shales’ etc.’). I suppose I feel that the lameness extends further than that.

To repeat myself: one of Atwood’s greatest strengths as a writer is her attentiveness to the way the world actually is. In Oryx and Crake that attentiveness generates some very powerful writing about growing up, and about how human beings get along when downtrodden, and about the natural world. But that same attentiveness seemed to me lacking in the actual satiric-dystopian aspects of The Year of the Flood. Since the former thing is grounded in the latter, that’s an undermining thing.

An example of what I mean, indicative of a larger blindness, is in Atwood’s naming; or more specifically her naming of future-commercial products and organisations.. These names (some of these appear in Oryx and Crake, but there are many more in The Year of the Flood don’t get it right, glancing off verisimilitude by that miss that is as good as a mile.:

AnooYou Spa
Mo’Hair (artificial human hair, this, derived from sheep)

CorpSeCorps is the security arm of the Corporations who run this horrible future world; the name boiled-down from ‘Corporate Security Corps’. But this name telegraphs Atwood’s satiric disapproval in too lumpen a manner: they are the CORPSEcorps, see? Because late Capitalism is like a CORPSE, see? And its rotting stench and poison is polluting our world – see?

The logic is to take plain speech, roll it together and put a twist in it: HelthWyzer is supposed to look like a corporate tag implying wiser health choices, but misspelled like this it suggests instead illiteracy, idiocy, ‘hell’ and ‘wizened.’ ‘Bimplants’ are silicon breast implants that make you look like a Bimbo. Atwood’s McDonalds-equivalent is called SecretBurgers (advertising tagline: ‘SecretBurgers: because Everyone Loves a Secret’) – ‘the secret of SecretBurgers,’ Atwood superfluously explains, ‘is that no one knows what sort of animal protein was actually in them’ (The Year of the Flood, p33].

Now this is all fair enough, as far as the rather sophomoric level of inventing satiric commodity names goes, which isn’t terribly far. But it clashes badly with the backbone of Atwood’s fictional approach, for it is very poorly observed. Corporations put a lot of money into finding the right name for themselves and their products. It is my contention that no rebranding committee or logo designer would come up with ‘Bimplants’. Cosmetic surgery often does turn its customers into bimbos; but its surgeons would not stay in business if they actually marketed themselves on that basis. No fast food company would foreground the vague suspicion its customers have as to the precise content of the product after the manner of SecretBurger. McDonalds have Chicken Nuggets; Atwood’s SecretBurgers sell ‘Chickie Nobs’. The former may indeed be thoroughly yucky as a product, but the name is carefully chosen not to suggest so, because the semantic field of ‘nugget’ is golden, and snuggle-it, and safe, and appealing. No fast food joint would market ‘nobs’, because the semantic field is knobbly and penile and nothing else.

I’m not saying that these are poorly chosen names from a satirical point of view – although they are all of them a little too clunking and facetious. It’s that they don’t fit Atwood’s larger aesthetic, which is, to repeat myself, one of persistent and truthful attentiveness to the world. Something similar is true of the youth gangs that roam the streets, the names of three of which are supplied by Atwood. ‘Asian Fusion’, which is borderline believable as a musical style, though not as a gang tag; ‘Blackened Redfish’ which is not believable on either score, and ‘Lintheads’, which is just barking mad. Atwood’s acuity and eloquence about the natural world, and human interactions, jars badly with this stuff.

It could be that the problem here is that Atwood’s is trying to knead some of her, I’m sorry to say, underpowered sense of humour into the dough of the novel’s outrage and poetry. Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘funny’, even (look! – the Porter is opening his door in the middle of Macbeth!) in the midst of the darkest tragedy. The problem is that Atwood’s humour is so watery as to leave the reader unsure, often, whether it is supposed to be funny or not. In Oryx and Crake Crake shows Jimmy round the various experiments at Watson-Crick, rather in the manner of Mr Wonka taking those children round the chocolate factory:

First they went to Décor Botanicals, where a team of five seniors were developing Smart Wallpaper that would change colour on the walls of your room to complement your room. This wallpaper—they told Jimmy—has a modified form of Kirilian-energy-sensing algae embedded in it, along with a sublayer of algae nutrients, but there were still some small glitches to be fixed. The wallpaper … could not tell the difference between drooling lust and murderous rage, and was likely to turn your wallpaper an erotic pink when what you really needed was a murky, capillary-bursting greenish red. (p201)

As an example of The Funny, or even of Harry-Potter-ish whimsy, this falls flat. And as a grace note on the novel’s worldbuilding or on Atwood’s polemic about the way men so often confuse sex with violence it clatters badly (‘Kirilian energy’? Say it aint so!)

Then there are the hymns, many of which are interleaved into the narrative, along with sermons from the Gardener’s head honcho Adam. Jameson, in the review above mentioned, thinks highly of these hymns (‘the Hymnbook deserves independent publication’), but I found them hard to stomach, on account of their remarkable and sustained shitness. In the endnote Atwood invites people to use these hymns ‘for amateur devotional or environmental purposes’, and namechecks Blake and the tradition of English hymnal writing, but Blake’s lyrics are mindblowing, and most English hymns have more technical-poetic nouse than these.

O Sing We Now The Holy Weeds
That flourish in the ditch.
For they are for the meek in needs
They are not for the rich.

The Holy Weeks are Plentiful
And beautiful to see –
For who can doubt God put them there

So starved we’ll never be? (The Year of the Flood

, p127-8)

Ugh, agh. Urgh. I found it hard to gauge whether the poems are supposed to be awful (a tricky play for a novelist) to reflect upon the clumsy limitations of the Gardeners’ theology more generally, or whether they’re supposed to be charming rough-hewn nuggets of beauty and wisdom, because Atwood secretly really likes the Eco creed she has invented. Blake? Really? They sound less like Blake, and more like Blakey from On The Buses. They lack true Blakeishness.

For reasons unconnected to Atwood, I’ve been working recently (academic researching; not work-working) on the topic of ‘cleanness’. I mention this fact by way of explaining why one central problem I had with these novels struck me as hard as it did.

Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are centrally about environmental collapse. That’s a serious business. In interviews, Atwood has described our present race to the abyss as a battle between the polluters and the scientists, the latter trying to find ways to undo all the damage humanity has inflicted upon the planet. Here, for instance (in the Grauniad, in 2010): ‘It’s a race against time, because we’re already overloaded with nine billion people. At what point do the people with pitchforks and torches come and burn down your lab? … Physics and chemistry. [The world] can’t be sustained. The world is this big, and we can’t make it any bigger. You can’t put any more unrenewable resources on to it. There’s a lot of hi-tech thinking going on. It’s that trend versus Famine, Flood, Drought.’ Now, we might say that in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Science gets beaten around by the head by the Polemical Satire stick in a way that just isn’t true of counter-cultural green treehuggers cult God’s Gardeners, howsoever dippy this latter group are shown as being. We might add that this is because the Science in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood is exclusively at the service of Capitalism. It does not (setting aside Crake’s scorched-earth monomania on one side) propose any solutions to the continual degrading of the environment; instead it concentrates on selling beauty-treatments, comestibles and cures for diseases that Science has, secretly, invented Itself. My problem isn’t that this is a one-dimensional view of Science—it is; but a Polemic has no obligation to provide reasoned balance. My problem is that I’m honestly not sure how far these novels agree with Crake’s view that the problem for the planet is us. That take us out of the picture, and the environment stops collapsing.

Both these novels, and The Year of the Flood in particular, present a portrait of homo sapiens sapiens that is not flattering. A few dedicated individuals aside, human beings, and most especially male human beings, are a cruel, short-sighted, dirty, vile, exploitative lot. Maybe that’s how we are, or many of us. But I find it impossible not to react against the notion that human beings are vermin. It’s not a notion that is born, fully armed, from the head of Environmentalism in the 20th-century. On the contrary. In the Guardian interview I just quoted, Atwood proposes the notion that concerns for ‘human rights’ ought not to get in the way of Green Reforms, on the grounds that ‘Go three days without water and you don’t have any human rights. Why? Because you’re dead.’ The word she uses to describe human rights in that context is ‘fatuous’. I can’t say this endears me to her. There’s a long political tradition of dismissing human rights as bourgeois irrelevancies in the face of one or other really really serious, I assure you ‘pollution’ or ‘danger’ or ‘imminent disaster’ threat to The Folk, and it’s not a tradition to which you want to belong.

Homo sapiens is dirty, but the Crakers are clean. Atwood’s prose comes most luminously alive in the description of a natural world purged of humanity; and rakes thoroughly over the nasty sty when describing the myriad uncleannesses of humanity. All this, to go back to what I was saying earlier, is very reminiscent of Lawrence, whose fetish for a notional ‘cleanness’ that excluded humanity may have been one of the distant influences on this novel. I’m thinking of Birkin cooing to Ursula in Women in Love: ‘Don’t you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?’ When I was an undergard, my lecturer (the excellent George Watson – not, I should add, the Cambridge George Watson: the much superior Aberdeen George Watson) read out that passage and then actually tossed the book away from him in disgust. His point was about the very close ideological connection between notions of ‘cleanness’ and fascism. We don’t have to look far in DHL’s work to find this connection spelled out. Witness the pasty bile of his letter to Blanche Jennings [9 October 1908]:

If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.

What really strikes me about this, actually, is not the ur-Nazism of the sentiment, although that’s obvious enough. It’s Lawrence’s inability to rouse any properly diabolic force of expression. In a writer that’s almost a worse sin. Check out this famous letter, to Edward Garnett, expressing anger that his manuscript for Sons and Lovers was rejected by Heinemann (3 July 1912):

Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery its a marvel they can breed. They can nothing but frog-spawn — the gibberers! God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wish-wash. Exterminate them, slime. I could curse for hours and hours — God help me.

It’s as if DHL has, sanctimoniously, decided to reserve ‘fuck’ only for purely sexual-descriptive purposes. An ounce of Byronic vim is worth gallons and gallons of this weirdly stifled, tame blather: as if DHL can’t quite let go of notions of respectability enough to actually yell. It reads like a vicar performing the idiom of ‘swearing’.

Atwood isn’t as buttoned-down as this; she’s not afraid of the f-word for instance. But she never lets anger get the better of her narrative voice either; and I wonder whether these two novels actually do find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up. Maybe that would be fair enough—after all, Megagrump and Great American Writer Vonnegut wrote Galápagos in 1985, celebrating a future world purged of the contamination of humanity. The difference, I suppose, is that though Vonnegut despairs of humanity, sometimes angrily so, he is never revolted by us, and accordingly never contemptuous or fascistic about us. Vonnegut didn’t think that human beings were vermin. On the contrary: the problem with human beings in Vonnegut’s novel is that they’re not verminous enough. Our problem is that we’re too clever. (‘the only true villain in my story,’ he is clear, ‘is the oversized human brain’). Atwood, I think, doesn’t walk the same path. She can’t manage Vonnegut’s lightness-about-serious-things, or his irony either, although that’s a separate issue.

This, I think, is the heart of my problem. When Oryx and Crake was a standalone (when I first read it) it stood rather magnificently alone. But The Year of the Flood appears as an inseparable continuation of the same novel, and The Year of the Flood diminishes the earlier achievement. Thinking about the two books, by way of writing the present piece, I was struck by certain family resemblances between them and an earlier North-American ‘literary’ writer’s excursion into SF, Paul Theroux’s O-Zone (1985). There’s a similar vibe in Theroux’s novel: near future dystopia, rich kids venturing into dangerous badlands polluted by rampageous Capitalism. And O-Zone, ending with a new breed of human appearing, better suited to the new world – ‘She saw him in a landscape like this. He was the new breed, an O-Zonian, a sort of indestructible alien—stronger than any Owner’ (‘Owners’ are the regular humans, here) (Theroux, O-Zone, p546). More to the point there’s an unmistakable shall-we-say badness to Theroux’s novel. This old PN Review from the 1980s gets it right, and in doing so finds words that chime with the doubt The Year of the Flood has insinuated into my admiration for Oryx and Crake: ‘astonishing in its leaden triteness … a futurist initiation fiction, with sub-1984 satire on the ad absurdum abuses in cancerous late capitalism and a preacherly insistence on values, especially the value of resilience and survival. It is a long novel and attempts a great deal, and might have achieved particular effects better if it had been less of a welter.’ Maddaddam, when it appears, might change my view; but as it stands, and talking about the larger novel this dyad constitutes, I have to say – well, yes.

This essay originally appeared on Sibilant Fricative.

One Response to “The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood”


  1. The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood | darkmatterthinktank - March 30, 2013

    […] The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood. […]

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