Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood: A Novel
Here's a double-header.  I recently reviewed Atwood's 1985 best-seller The Handmaid's Tale (at the request of my good friend Mark) and I found it so enjoyable that, when I saw Atwood's latest, The Year of the Flood, at the library, I was enticed.  Unfortunately, I failed to realize until later that this novel is a sequel, of sorts, to 2003's Oryx and Crake, which I read after The Year of the Flood.

The books are not necessarily sequential - both jump around in time (and are set entirely in the near-to-distant future), and both cover the same basic sequence of world events, from differing perspectives.  Many of the same characters appear in both books, and the differing perspectives complement each other well.

The basic plot common to both novels concerns a group of loosely associated men and women from the same unnamed city, sometime during the mid-21st century.  The environmental, social and political collapse is in full flower, and society is divided into two groups - the masses of the poor, sickly, violent and depraved, and the isolated, privileged citizens organized into corporate villages, secured by lethally armed private security troops.  Corporate hegemony and rampant consumerism dominate the dying planet.

Oryx and CrakeEnter Crake, the best (and only) boyhood friend of narrator Jimmy, who will eventually turn his genius for gene splicing toward engineering a perfected replacement for the human race.  He also has a detailed plan for reducing the numbers of the existing version.  Against a chilling backdrop of disintegrating society and imploding family life, the two young boys wend their way through the adolescent and adult rituals of the corporate elite, ultimately linked together by Oryx, a mysterious child-woman who will occupy the third point of a very twisted triangle.  Together they will bring about the birth of a new age, even as their reasons for doing so remain vague, unwitting or ambiguous.

The Year of the Flood similarly looks back from the same events that climax Oryx and Crake, this time revolving around two women, Ren and Toby, whose lives have touched those of Oryx, Crake and Jimmy repeatedly during the twenty-five year period that comprise the novels.  Their perspective comes from their exposure to The Gardeners, an ever-expanding quasi-religious movement that means to counter the corporate hegemony's ascendence.  In essence the two books relate the same events from two primary competing worldviews.

The enjoyment here is not necessarily to be found in the plotting, which is relatively spare, but in the tremendously detailed and satirically horrifying world that Atwood imagines is in store, along with the realistic and engaging characters she creates.  As in The Handmaid's Tale, she describes a strange and forbidding future that is, nonetheless, oddly familiar, and all too possible.  And ultimately, the events that Jimmy, Ren and Toby instigate and participate in engulf them in a snowballing tragedy that they can't forsee, drawing the reader into the whirlpool of their befuddled terror and sorrow.
Although these paired novels lack the compactness and immediacy of The Handmaid's Tale, they are still convincing, thought-provoking, and emotionally wrenching.  The Handmaid's Tale effectively presaged the theocratic merger of fundamentalism and totalitarianism that defined the eight-year reign of George W. Bush (and which may not have ended).  One seriously hopes that the world Margaret Atwood depicts in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood is not so accurate a view of our future.

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