The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (2009) Doubleday Nan A. Talese (2009) 431 pp
Here is my first review as a member of this year’s Giller Prize Shadow Jury: The Year of the Flood. I’m excited to discuss this book! However, because I don’t want that sentiment to mislead any Atwood lovers into reading a highly irreverent review you’d rather avoid, I must forego witholding my opinion of this book and forewarn you: my basic response to The Year of the Flood was (1) giddiness because the first half, to me, was “So Bad It’s Great!”; (2) indifference as the book became nothing more than a faux-literary thriller, with all of the conventions and lack of depth so that it read more like Stephen King than Margaret Atwood; and (3) indignation at the author’s pretensions, particularly in the self-promoting build-up to this novel’s release and as showcased on the “Acknowledgements” page. In brief, this is not a glowing review. In fact this might be my most negative review yet, and I usually avoid such negativity. However, it’s worth discussing this book, negativity and all (well, negativity is about all that’s here), and not just because of the Shadow Jury. There are a lot of books out there that don’t pretend to be literature; they have their place and meet their expectations. Then there is an ugly class of books that pretend to be more than they are. I don’t like it when an author who knows better presents that faux literature as something profound. And it’s almost offensive when that author’s methods for promoting the book are beyond pretentious.
Let me get one thing straight, though, before I call down your ire, or at least before I call down more of your ire: I do respect some of Atwood’s work. She has exceptional talent. You’ll find nothing but my deepest praise for The Handmaid’s Tale; it is one of my favorite books, truly a highlight not just of Atwood’s career, but also a highlight of speculative fiction. Alias Grace (which won the Giller and was one of the first books I reviewed on this site) had me intrigued throughout until the disappointing ending. And The Blind Assassin was as clever and enjoyable a book-that-should-not-have-won-the-Booker as you’ll find. Furthermore, after reading The Year of the Flood, I am actually more likely to read Oryx and Crake (The Year of the Flood takes place at the same time and even involves some of the same characters), as the references to it towards the end seemed more substantial and interesting than the soap opera I was reading. So, hopefully you see that while I do not hold myself out to be Atwood’s greatest fan, I am attracted to her books. She is a terrific writer, sometimes, but I’m afraid what we have here is a prime example of talent gutted by ego.
The plot itself is engaging only because its structure keeps the mysteries alive. This is a structure we’ve seen in other Atwood novels, so though it is effective and well executed here, it must now be Atwood’s go-to formula. The Year of the Flood is divided into several large sections with chapter titles. Each section begins with a short speech from Adam One, the founder of God’s Gardeners, to his fellow Gardeners. The speeches, besides letting us know which time period the bulk of the events of the upcoming section cover, give Atwood a chance to express blunt philosophy with no nuance or depth, but with many aphorisms, because Adam One is seen as a bit of an eccentric:
By covering such barren rooftops with greenery we are doing our small part in the redemption of God’s Creation from the decay and sterility that lies all around us, and feeding ourselves with unpolluted food into the bargain. Some would term our efforts futile, but if all were to follow our example, what a change would be wrought on our beloved Planet! Much hard work still lies before us, but fear not, my Friends: for we shall move forward undaunted.
I am glad we have all remembered our sunhats.
Each speech ends with “Let Us Sing” (or its equivalent), and we then have the dubious pleasure of reading the hymn the congregation is singing. After the hymn, the section moves to a brief segment about either Toby or Ren, the two main characters, in Year Twenty-Five, the Year of the Flood. Year Twenty-Five is the book’s present time. Some pandemic, a “waterless flood” (a wonderfully apt name, showing that Atwood still has a gift for new perspective as she ties together culture, the present, and its future — there’s something positive!), is about to spread or has spread over the earth, wiping out humanity, but these two women are survivors (as, we find out, are several other characters, all fortuitously and conveniently — it’s beyond a stretch that they all survive and come together).
After that brief glimpse into what Toby and Ren are doing in the Year Twenty-Five, the section moves into the past (to the year Adam One’s speech indicated) for several smaller chapters within the larger section. Either Toby or Ren tell how they became part of God’s Gardeners, introducing us to the people in their lives, their doubts, their tragedies, eventually leading us up to the causes and effects of the Flood, eventually filling in the gap in the narrative.
That gap between the past and the bleak present is the heart of the novel. But this is where Atwood’s structure becomes formulaic, a low-grade authorial trick. In the Year Twenty-Five, Toby and Ren speak of the past in vague but suggestive ways, and most of the time we can tell that it’s actually Atwood teasing the reader and that the prevaricating is not based in the characters themselves; or, in other words, the prevaricating does nothing to deepen the characters, to make their minds come alive. Some of my favorite books use a similar technique, but for more purpose than to snag the reader: for example, in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day Stevens is vague about his past because he himself doesn’t want to acknowledge it; it’s an effective way to show his own evasiveness. Perhaps Atwood is emphasizing the stark contrast between the Ren and Toby of the past and present, though that in itself isn’t particularly important. Also, with Atwood we’re getting junk like this:
He was an older guy, bald on top, with a ponytail at the back, and a lot of arm tattoos. There was something familiar about him — maybe he was a repeat — but I didn’t get a very good look.
Such plotting is artificial. It’s an author’s evasiveness shoved onto her characters, meant to drag readers on to a promised climax that is often much less interesting than the one we imagined. Atwood is a master at this structure and has used it more effectively before, and on a sentence-by-sentence level this is still a well written book. So — as was the case in Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin — I found myself reading because the pages flowed on smoothly and I wanted to know what happened between the past and present. Many more author’s shenanigans, I’m afraid.
I’m sure there are many readers who will disagree with this next proposition, but I also didn’t find Toby and Ren to be particularly interesting characters. Atwood has given them a past that is compelling reading; the problem is that again it is familiar territory Atwood has plodded before: abandonment, sexual warfare, wandering hands of otherwise innocuous men, outright brutal sexual abuse of not-so-innocuous men, psychological warfare between the affected women as their identities fade away, the way our culture infects us with these tendencies. Because the background was so familiar, Toby and Ren become stock characters; the things that happened to them lost their impact when it felt they were meant to quickly and conveniently trigger our sympathy for otherwise empty characters. In the end, Ren and Toby offer nothing new, so, really, they offer nothing.
What’s different in The Year of the Flood is the environment. We stand in the future, and North America has become an exaggerated version of its current worst traits (again, from the acknowledgments page: “The Year of the Flood is fiction, but the general tendencies and many of the details in it are alarmingly close to fact.”). While these worst traits deserve critical literary treatment, we don’t get it here. Instead, in this book Atwood’s clever lexicon that melds the future world with our current world is downright cutesy, reducing all potential depth to mere cleverness for the sake of cleverness.
Government as we know it is nonexistent. Instead, massive corporations have conglomerated and privatized everything. The brand name is “Corporations.” They run the world, careful to keep the profit margin as large as possible. They have a private security force called the Corporation Security Corp, or, as Atwood calls it with her ham-fist: CorpSeCorps. The world is a very materialistic place, and the corporations like that. Keep the pleeblanders (that’s what Atwood calls Orwell’s proles) happy with cosmetics from AnooYoo, with toys from SeksMart, with food from an omnipresent fast-food chain called SecretBurger, “Because Everyone Loves a Secret!” Right up front Atwood explains that the secret is that “no one knew what sort of animal protein was actually in them.” However, within this awful (if comical) future, there is a subversive group called God’s Gardeners that has melded traditional elements of Judeo-Christian religious doctrine with environmentalism and vegetarianism. They call themselves “bioneers.” They take their “Vegivows.” And then there are the hymns. In her “Acknowledgments” page Atwood claims, “The clearest influence on Gardener hymn lyrics is William Blake, with an assist from John Bunyan and also from The Hymn Book of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada.” As much as I love the subtlety of Blake’s poetry or the nuance and perspective of Bunyan’s allegories, I certainly couldn’t Atwood’s hymns seriously. Here’s an example from the first hymn:
Who is it tends the Garden,
The Garden oh so green?
‘Twas once the finest Garden
That ever has been seen.
It goes on. Here’s a bit of the second:
When Adam first had breath of life
All in that golden place,
He dwelt in peace with Bird and Beast,
And knew God face to face.
Man’s Spirit first went forth in speech
To name each Creature dear;
God called to all in Fellowship,
They came without a fear.
. . . . .
How shrunk, how dwindled, in our times
Creation’s mighty seed —
For Man has broke the fellowship
With murder, lust, and greed.
I don’t care if you believe in the sentiments expressed in these hymns or not, they are not poetic. They don’t do justice to the sentiments express. For many of the hymns I wondered if Atwood did her research in contemporary megachurches to come up with the appropriate amount of bathos. If that is the case — brilliant! But she’s serious. Besides comparing her work to Blake and Bunyan, she has made the hymns available online if anyone would like to use them for “amateur devotional or environmental purposes.” It takes a certain amount of pride to set oneself up as a de facto poet for some movement, but she’s apparently got it. Which might also explain the large cathedral gatherings, promoting the release of this book, where the hymns are sang by a choir.
And now for my real problem with the book: if Atwood had offered something worthy of the cause it pretends to promote, then go to! However, The Year of the Flood is nothing more than a slight thriller masquerading as serious literature. It is unfortunately just as full of stock images and techniques as it is of cutesy futuristic lingo. In its exaggerated portrayal, it does not analyze our current culture. Its only critique is made in blunt and obvious references. Again, the shallow treatment makes it seem as though Atwood is throwing these references in the text not to critique, not to discuss, but rather to come across as important. Here’s one reference topical for us in America. It’s just thrown into the narrative to further show how bad this future is:
Nobody could get public wellness coverage unless they had no money of their own whatsoever.
That’s it. It’s done its job. It’s created the illusion of depth, and, perhaps more importantly, the illusion of commeradery as many readers will think that Atwood so gets it! Here’s a particularly offensive one that exploits Hurricane Katrina to introduce a history for Amanda, who lived in Texas before it was destroyed:
The shelter was a football stadium with tents in it. There was a lot of trading going on: people would do anything for twenty dollars, Amanda said. Then her mother got sick from the drinking water, but Amanda didn’t because she traded for sodas. And there was no medicine, so her mother died. “A lot of people shat to death,” said Amanda. “You should have smelled that place.”
Again, it’s not whether I agree or disagree with Atwood’s underlying claims about our current times; it’s how poorly she deals with them and the sense that they are there as a shortcut to build her ethos.
Where the book settles into a narrative without worrying about throwing in any of these familiar but poorly used motifs, it becomes nothing at all, just a few characters trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. To me, the best speculative fiction is fiction with a real human story, where the environment is merely incidental, where the environment merely allows the author to explore themes more deeply. But here we have an author hung up on her own creativity — the creative future environment is the subject of this book, the characters are secondary, any discussion about how to make the world a better place is tertiary. Were it not for the fact that Atwood’s covenant of silence with Canadian book reviewers who received advance copies, for her cathedral promotional show, for her self-appointment as poet laureate for environmentalism, I would have simply dismissed this book as a poor addition to Atwood’s late period. But if ever there were a book written in bad faith, where a talented author makes a mockery of serious writing while actively promoting it as something profound, it’s this book.