Tuesday, October 13, 2009

BOOK REVIEW - Margaret Atwood - Oryx & Crake - The Year of the Flood

It's a long time since I opened a book by Margaret Atwood, in fact eighteen years since I read 'Cats Eyes'. My memory of that, was of a not particularly enjoyable experience. I remember becoming intensely frustrated with her emotional coolness, and the distancing effect of the way she wrote. There she was writing about the bullying and abuse of a central female character, but she might as well have been reporting on someone doing their laundry. This may, in retrospect, have been a 'Brechtian' style of literary device where the larger moral and sexual politics of the story, took precedence over any personal identification or empathy with a characters plight. This would leave it up to you how you should respond, and in my case it was with indifference. 'Cat's Eyes' was therefore my one and only delving into the world of an Atwood novel until I read - Oryx & Crake (2003) & The Year of the Flood (2009)

Though separated by six years, these two books both explore the same pre and post apocalyptic world and share some characters. Each could easily be thought of as Atwood writing in a Science Fiction genre, though she is reluctant to have them so consigned. She is, after all, a prolific and critically lauded, Booker winning writer. Science Fiction, shamefully, rarely wins you literary plaudits. Of the two, 'Oryx & Crake' could best be described as an extensive allegorical satire. Its crammed with witty ideas, linguistic puns and cultural in-jokes. The world she is sending up is set in the none too distant future, and shares many contemporary obsessions and concerns - genetic manipulation, cross breeding and generally meddling with 'god's creation. The world both before and after the catastrophe is seen through the eyes and erratic recollections of a pitiful character- Jimmy/Snowman. This device allows Atwood to feed you small tit-bits of information, slowly revealing how the world could become so chronically ruined. It is a novel about the logical and unforeseen consequences of certain types of social and scientific manipulations. The politics of personal choice in a world where every desire can be met, at whatever cost. In this way 'Oryx & Crake' cannot help but captivate your attention, as she drags you through the dystopian wreck of this future world. It is all quite plausible.

Still, the narrative elegantly unfolds these consequences in marked preference to any strong identification with a character. In 'Oryx & Crake' this works well. Science Fiction and satire rarely need emotional truth in quite that way, the world just has to be well realised, believable and to hit its targets well. We don't need to deeply understand motivations, so explicatory internal dialogue is largely absent. The emotional distance here is invaluable, it works to the benefit of this style of allegorical tale. You are forced to remain absorbed with the ideas and the points she is making. The subtlety and fluency with which she's structured this story amply demonstrate why she's been nominated for, and won, so many writing awards. The execution is so assured and sophisticated, its easy to overlook quite how scathing about human tendencies her authorial perspective actually is.

Quite why she decided to return for a second visit, to write 'The Year of the Flood' is not that clear, even after reading it. She takes two new characters - Ren and Toby, who are each stranded or isolated in situations that have arisen because of 'the waterless flood', the disease that has wiped out the majority of the worlds population. I have to admit. I got a little confused as the storyline emerged through a series of short flashbacks, and in the early chapters I wasn't entirely certain which character I was with - Ren or Toby, they seemed barely distinguishable initially. I got quite lost.

Here the world of 'God's Gardener's' 'MaddAddam' and the 'pleebland', that were referred too only in passing in 'Oryx & Crake' are more realised. 'The God's Gardener's' are a group of 'eco evangelists' who eschew the materialist concerns of their world, and warn about imminent environmental catastrophe. Their religious philosophy is a well meaning, but naive attempt, to spin a spiritual intent and purpose around what is happening to mankind. As their world begins to crumble, surrounded by increasing levels of brutality, survival becomes paramount, and their actions drift from non-violent to more pro-active violent defence.

'The Year of the Flood' shows us the underbelly, the under-privileged, the alternative side of this society, one that is raw, animalistic and grossly inhuman. As the book progresses, the links between Ren And Toby and characters from 'Oryx & Crake' slowly begin to build up. It becomes clear before we actually get there, that we'll inevitable be returning to the concluding scene of 'Oryx & Crake', as if Atwood was conscious of a need to finish off some unfinished business. It was satisfying to read, absorbing even, because it does join up a few more dots and loose ends. Though I'm still not entirely convinced this was essential for her to do. Reading the novel doesn't provide the full justification one would expect for her return to this subject matter.

She's chosen this time to write in a less cutting or cryptic way, its less broadly satirical in its manner, more character led and descriptive. Because we now are seeing the crises of this world through the eyes of two more solidly realised female characters, not a male caricature, one comes to realise how unreliable the recollections and explanations of Jimmy/Snowman were in 'Oryx & Crake'. All was not as he portrayed it, but then any man who hangs around in trees dressed only in a blanket can't really be trusted, can they? Putting any quarms about 'why' aside, I would recommend both these books simply because there execution is so superb, and the subject matter itself still so prescient.

No comments: