Monday, July 13, 2009

The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood is Margaret Atwood's follow-up to Oryx and Crake, although the action takes place in the same world simultaneously, so you don't need to have read that one to enjoy this one. I got an advance reading copy from the my local college bookstore; this novel will be for sale on 9/22/09. And then you should read it.

I got to sit in the back of an overcrowded auditorium at the local college a couple of years ago and hear Margaret Atwood talk about her writing, focusing mostly on Oryx and Crake. It was a very good performance, and the line to have her sign a book afterwards was so long that I had to give it up, finally.

Those of you who follow this blog know that The Handmaid's Tale is a novel I think everyone ought to read. I didn't feel the same way about Oryx and Crake--it seemed a little on the SF side for some. But I do feel that way about The Year of the Flood. A recent interview with Atwood indicates that she's planning a third novel set in this world, so I'll be waiting anxiously for that!

Why do I think everyone ought to read this novel? The short answer is that it takes some of the things that intelligent people are most anxious about and shakes them up together to pose new and more interesting questions about what we can possibly do about any of this. Rather than escapist zombie fiction or a weighty ecological tome, The Year of the Flood is a novel that manages to explore the consequences of how we live now--particularly how we've been treating the environment and our attitude towards the inevitable pandemics to come--by showing the effects on a group of characters that includes someone with whom every reader will be able to identify. As another blog reviewer points out, no matter what you believe, this novel will "give you fits" and make you think.

The long answer is that there are so many pleasures in this novel that I can't possibly tell you about all of them. But here are a few examples. The novel includes hymns that the "God's Gardeners" sing for different occasions in the year, including predator day, when they praise the intelligence and agility of all predators, and "April Fish" day, which has some similarities to April Fool's day. It also includes short sermons by Adam One of the Gardeners, including this section on "Creation Day":
"The Human Words of God speak of the Creation in terms that could be understood by the men of old. There is no talk of galaxies or genes, for such terms would have confused them greatly! But must we therefore take as scientific fact the story that the world was created in six days, thus making a nonsense of observable data? God cannot be held to the narrowness of literal and materialistic interpretations, nor measured by Human measurements, for His days are like eons, and a thousand ages of our time are like an evening to Him. Unlike some other religions, we have never felt it served a higher purpose to lie to children about geology."

Despite such scathing sections, though, the characters generally show humility about what they do and understand and even what they feel. On "April Fish" day, Adam One says that "to be an April Fish is to humbly accept and wear the label of God's Fools gladly, for in relation to God we are all fools, no matter how wise we may think we are." And at another point, a character recalls her previous attitude towards a certain group and realizes "we shouldn't have been so scornful; we should have had compassion. But compassion takes work, and we were young."

At the same time, though, the Gardeners have human failings:
"You'll want to grow your hair," said Nuala. "Get rid of that scalped look. We Gardener women all wear our hair long."
When Toby asked why, she was given to understand that the aesthetic preference was God's. This kind of smiling, bossy sanctimoniousness was a little too pervasive for Toby, especially among the female members of the sect."
What I like most about Toby, who rises to the highest level in God's Gardeners, an "Eve," is that she has doubts, and she doesn't hesitate to express them. And I like that what she is able to do because of living with the Gardeners turns out to be more important.

The flood of the title is a plague (if you've read Oryx and Crake, you know who unleashed the plague and how). The Gardeners call it "the waterless flood" because it wipes out most previous life on earth. The flood is the focal point of the novel; we find out what the characters were doing before, during and immediately afterwards.

Some of the fun of the novel lies in the variety of genetically engineered animals the characters encounter, some of them already familiar to readers of Oryx and Crake, and others not. The "liobam," for instance, is a "lion-sheep splice...commissioned by the Lion Isaiahists, keen to force the advent of the Peaceable Kingdom. They'd reasoned that the only way to fulfil the lion/lamb friendship prophecy without the first eating the second would be to meld the two of them together. But the result hadn't been strictly vegetarian."

For readers of Oryx and Crake there are extra pleasures, including stories about the adolescence of "Crake" and Jimmy and a little about what happened to Jimmy's mother when she left the gated community where she had lived and worked. I enjoyed it when the character Toby, living alone in the former health spa where she has weathered the "flood," sees the genetically engineered people created by Crake in the distance and she thinks they're a hallucination, with their "blue abdomens" and their "crystalline, otherworldly singing."

When you begin reading this novel, you may be, like me, someone who "knew there were things wrong in the world....But the wrong things were wrong somewhere else." By the time you finish it, you'll be less able to "live with such fears and keep on whistling." You'll want to do something. Maybe just one more small thing. Because this novel shows you how much small things can matter. By extension, how much you can matter. How much you already do matter.


FreshHell said...

Oh, I look forward to this coming out. I never did read Oryx and Crake. Not sure why; I guess I just haven't gotten around to it, never mind the enormous pile of books I own that I haven't read yet. Maybe I'll check it out soon in preparation for this one. I love Handmaid's Tale.

SFP said...

I need to reread O&C, I think, because I've obviously forgotten a great deal that I ought to have retained!

I pre-ordered this one back in May when the Book Depository was having a sale. I'm very much looking forward to reading it now that I've read your review.

PAJ said...

I'm going to get and read this book (and perhaps Oryx and Crake) if for no other reason than the wisdom of the line "we shouldn't have been so scornful; we should have had compassion. But compassion takes work, and we were young."

Lori L said...

I'm SO looking forward to getting The Year of the Flood when it's released. I love Margaret Atwood. I'm also coveting your ARC!

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, I think you'll enjoy Oryx and Crake. I'd highly recommend reading it this summer.
But SFP, I didn't find rereading it necessary--the parts I didn't remember well were brought back when I read about them in this one.
PAJ, I loved that line. Had to quote it!
Lori, I have a great bookstore manager at the college bookstore who likes to get opinions on the ARCs publishers send him. There should be more bookish people like him in the world.

Emm said...

I really love Margaret Atwood but I still haven't got around to reading Oryx and Crake. (Mostly because I like to read author's book's in order and I still haven't been able to get through The Blind Assassin!!)

I shall have to start catching up!

Teena said...

Not to make you too jealous but when Margaret Atwood came to Atlanta I waited in the line until the end and got a signature or two...

But I haven't read the book I got singed, the Penelopiad. Have you read that one?

Jeanne said...

Emm, I often don't read an author's books in order. My love for Atwood is based on her satiric/dystopian worlds, so I've only dipped into her other novels.
Teena, I haven't read the Penelopiad. My inability to continue standing in line two years ago was based on being home before kid bedtime.

FreshHell said...

I read the Blind Assassin after Juliette was born. It was my middle of the night breastfeeding book. I still remember it through those bleary eyes.