Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The year of the flood, by Margaret Atwood

I attended the London launch event of this book on 2nd September 2009, and found it rather odd and stilted, with actors reading out passages in a church. Given my great respect for the author (who was present at the launch – a small, sprightly, grey-haired lady), having read two of her works previously – ‘The blind assassin’ and ‘Oryx and Crake’ – I then bought this handsome hard-back book. I like its bright green inner covers and bookmark. Books do furnish a room.

The content is more equivocal. Margaret Atwood is delving further into the terrifying dystopia given us in ‘Oryx and Crake’. The further detail is fascinating and worthwhile. The author picks up on contemporary news stories, and distorts or extrapolates them into a plausible future, with a vividness that exceeds most science fiction writers. While reading the book, I heard a TV news story about scientists growing meat in a laboratory, and that is the sort of thing she puts into her stories, taking them to their logical and sickening conclusion.

‘Sickening’ is a good word to describe the future world she paints for us. ‘The flood’ referred to in the title is a viral epidemic that kills most people in the world – again echoing contemporary news stories about Swine Flu, SARS, Ebola and such. For the sake of future readers, I will not reveal the specific cause of this epidemic, but it is part of Margaret Atwood’s evident antipathy to large, powerful, selfish corporations.

She has a violent imagination. Death and physical violence are ubiquitous in her imagined world. It is curious to see her fascination with the abuse of women’s bodies. Women are also among the strongest characters in her books, but not uniquely.

She has an exemplary vocabulary and range of interests. She used the word ‘spandrel’, and I had to look it up in my Chambers 1972 edition dictionary, where it gave the definition “the space between the curve of an arch and the enclosing mouldings, string-course, or the like”. This did not appear to make sense in the context of referring to hair. A Wikipedia search revealed that the term had a specific biological evolutionary meaning, from a 1979 article by Gould and Lewontin, referring to characteristics that were strictly unnecessary by-products of adaptive selection. So I could see that Atwood is smart and widely read – not that I doubted it.

But I say the content is equivocal, because it does not bear comparison with ‘Oryx and Crake’. It has a confusing chronology, and a story line that sags so much that I put the book down to read another for a couple of weeks. But I persisted to the end, and wondered if I had been fully rewarded. How much extra had I gained, compared with reading the first book?

The story mentions characters from ‘Oryx and Crake’, filling in more biographical detail and bringing us to the same geographical point where ‘snowman’ lives, but no clear climax. Clearly mankind has ruined itself and the planet. The message is clear, but the strange religion of ‘God’s gardeners’ is obviously not sufficient and seems to be satirised – the tone was very unstable for me.

Is Margaret Atwood working towards a trilogy? Maybe not, Margaret; leave it at that.

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