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Atwood is often lyrical, but ultimately indulgent

by Justin Cartwright

The Observer

This is the third in Margaret Atwood’s science fiction trilogy, which started with “Oryx and Crake” and progressed to “The Year of the Flood.” The title of the third, MaddAddam, you will notice, is a palindrome. There is plenty of wordplay to come.

MADDADDAM, by Margaret Atwood. Bloomsbury, 2013, 416 pp., 18.99 (hardcover)

This is life in a planet devastated by a pandemic, by rising water and many other catastrophes. Nobody knows just how many people are still alive. Out there in this dystopian world are the giant pigoons — carnivorous pigs, once bred to provide organs for humans, now feral — and the Painballers, who are — I think — Mad Max figures, up to no good. Rape and abuse of women is their recreation of choice.

At the heart of this strange, runaway train of a story is Toby, who is a woman. She has survived to live in an isolated encampment, as far from danger as possible, alongside a small group of “Crakers” and an assortment of survivors, including Zeb, her lover. She is an expert on mushrooms and in her previous life she kept bees and gardened; she was one of the enlightened God’s Gardeners, Eve One. Now she is concerned with feeding the survivors and keeping watch for danger. She always has a gun. Members of the group go out to forage in abandoned stores and shops and derelict towns or shepherd the Mo’Hairs, a sort of goat or alpaca. Another survivor, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is asleep or comatose. (Don’t ask, I don’t know the answer.) Snowman-the-Jimmy is in fact the prophet of this group and a source of great interest to the inquisitive, but irritating Crakers. The Crakers’ genitals turn blue in the mating season, and the males develop very large penises. They are gentle folk who were created — “bio-engineered” — by Crake to live in the Paradice Dome, now destroyed or submerged. The Crakers operate as a kind of naive chorus, well-intentioned, curious, free of jealousy, and with some endearing habits, such as purring to heal the sick and humming a kind of bee-music.

So the story unwinds, as we are introduced to Zeb and his brother Adam and their back story. They are the sons of a bogus preacher, the leader of a thriving and fraudulent church, the Church of PetrOleum, which worships oil; their father stashed millions in banks in the Caymans, and had some very unpleasant ways with young children. Zeb managed — this is all pre-flood in a high-tech world full of passwords and portals and techno-speak and sinister companies — to siphon off his father’s millions and he and Adam went on the run, hiding behind false identities and employing all sorts of high-tech ruses, like cyber chatrooms and games-rooms, to hide their identities. This left me some way off the pace. Zeb killed someone up in northern Canada near Whitehorse and while on the run he killed and ate a bear, and then wore its coat. Later he killed his father — who, it turns out, had murdered his mother. Zeb used some unpleasant tablets which dissolved his father.

I have to admit that, try as I would, I began to lose the will to keep abreast with the plot. I am sure this is my fault rather than Atwood’s — but it seemed almost as though she had embraced automatic writing, that fad of the 19th century which suggested that a writer could just sit down and the words could be channelled directly to his or her pen. And the words certainly do pour out, not least because Atwood has a habit of qualifying statements three times. There are some wonderful, lyrical passages, particularly about bees, and there are some very good jokes, including a running joke about the word “fuck” which the poor Crakers hear, mostly from Jeb, but are unable to comprehend, imagining because he uses it so often, that it is the name of Jeb’s friend. The book is written with admirable energy and bravura, but at the same time there is a nagging sense that what is supposed to be a richly imagined dystopia, is in fact a rather overburdened and undisciplined indulgence.

I wondered what it was that induced a writer as gifted as Atwood to write this trilogy. It is playful, at times funny and mildly satirical — although corporation names like HealthWyzer and SoyOboy and CryoJeenyus are fairly lame — but at the same I never felt that this world was fully realized, even on its own terms. A dystopian novel, I think, depends for its success on having recognizable roots in a reality we are familiar with or fear or have intuited, but Atwood’s book is, for all its bravura, whimsical rather than moving.

For myself I will continue eagerly to read anything Atwood writes except tales of bio-engineered people with blue genitals.