Reading the Anthropocene:  Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood”

Continuing on with my “Reading the Anthropocene” series, today I’d like to talk about the second volume in Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAdam Trilogy,” ominously titled The Year of the Flood.  Unlike the first novel, which was told from the perspectivenovel of the embittered Jimmy, this one is told from the dual perspectives of Toby and Ren, two survivors of the plague and former members of the religious cult known as God’s Gardeners.  As the novel toggles between Year Twenty Five (the eponymous Year of the Flood) and the past–interspersed with exhortations from Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners–we get a glimpse into the lives that Ren and Toby led prior to the plague.  Both women emerge as tenacious survivors in a world that, as becomes clear, is perilous for women, who are often subjected to the violently sexual whims of men like Blanco (Toby’s employer and tormentor for most of the novel), and exploited for their bodies.

If in many ways the first novel portrayed the misogynist worldview of both Glenn and Jimmy, The Year of the Flood acts as something of a corrective, evoking shades of The Handmaid’s Tale with its rigorous focus on the perspectives of its two female protagonists, Toby and Ren (Brenda).  While Brenda’s storyline focuses on her sexual objectification as part of the Scales and Tails strip club, Toby’s focuses on her search for meaning in a world that continues to collapse around her.  While she finds respite for a time with the God’s Gardeners, she is eventually forced to find shelter elsewhere after Blanco continues to pursue her and jeopardizes the entire Gardener colony.  Nevertheless, Toby puts her Gardener-learned skills to good use, and it is precisely these skills that allow her to continue surviving in the harsh, unforgiving world left in the wake of the Waterless Flood (the plague).  While Ren does not possess the same amount of agency as Toby, she is still just as much of a survivor, enduring neglect and abandonment by her mother as well as by  Jimmy (for whom she harbors a long-unrequited love), as well as the harsh exploitation of Scales and Tails.

One of the most compelling (and sometimes frustrating) things about this novel is its mixed tone about the God’s Gardeners.  At times, it seems that the novel wants us to view them sympathetically and their worldview–with its emphasis on returning to the principles of the earth, its compelling mixture of science with genuine religious faith, and their eco-friendly practices–as a genuinely practical alternative to the corporate/military dystopia which surrounds them.  Indeed, several of the “hymns” that punctuate the main narrative are actually quite touching and melancholy, evoking as they do the heavy price humankind has to pay as a result of its pushing so many species over the brink of extinction.  However, these moments of pathos remain at least slightly undercut by the exhortation that begins the Adam One chapters, which routinely refer to his fellow Gardeners as “fellow mammals.”  To me, this always strikes a bit of a humorous note, a sly wink from the narrator (perhaps even Adam One himself?) and a suggestion that perhaps all of this should not be taken too seriously.

Of course, no review of this series would be complete without an obligatory mention of the animal hybrids, especially the pigoons (who of course make several appearances, usually as a torment to Toby).   These quasi-pigs continue to be a menace, disturbing precisely because they so seamlessly embody a strange sort of cuteness with a brutal and sinister cunning.  A new hybrid, the liobam, also makes an appearance, as a bizarre cross between the lion and the lamb, manufactured by yet another religious sect in the hopes of bringing the apocalypse to pass (hence the lion laying with the lamb).

Again, despite the brutality and the animal hybrids, the end of the novel ends on a cautiously optimistic note, as the journey narrative seem to have come to a satisfactory conclusion:  Amanda has been successfully rescued, the remnants of God’s Gardeners have been reunited at last, Jimmy is brought back from the precipice of death, and the People of Crake approach.  Unlike many products of the anthropocene (particularly films like Melancholia and the literary works of authors like Paolo Baciagalupi), the trilogy (so far, at least), seems to be cautiously optimistic about hte advent of the anthropocene.  Humankind might be capable of destroying the world, but these novels suggest that it is just as capable of rebuilding at least a measure of what was lost.