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MaddAddam is here! (Spotlight on Oryx & Crake and Year of the Flood)

September 10, 2013

Spotlight posts contain spoilers–and lots of ’em.

I started MaddAddam yesterday even though it came in the mail Saturday.  I had a friend over this weekend and I knew that once I started the book, I wouldn’t put it down.

Except I am putting it down all the time.  Because eventually it will end, and I don’t want that.

I love this world that Margaret Atwood created.  It’s our world, but not.  It’s brighter, brasher, more violent, and if it’s our future please help me out buying and sustaining some sort of bunker for the end of the world.

Why does our generation love the apocalypse so?  Is it our guilt because we’ve been raised to believe we’re destroying the environment and since “we” means grown-ups and we’re still not even thinking of ourselves as grown-ups yet, that there’s nothing we can do about it?  Probably so.  But also it could be because we’re prone to thinking of the end of the world every time there’s a war (and when isn’t there a war?) thanks to nuclear weapons.  Or it could be that we’re so desperately overcrowded and surrounded by people we believe to be lesser than ourselves that we can’t help but want to clear things out and start again–you know, with people Like Us.  Or maybe it’s because we’re so incapable as seeing ourselves without all our toys and gadgets that part of us longs to prove that we COULD live without them, yes we COULD.

Zombies are the monsters we make ourselves; don’t forget that.  That’s why I’m less crazy about raising little guys with stories of zombies the way we tell stories of other kinds of monsters.

This is Margaret Atwood’s apocalypse series, just as the brilliant Handmaid’s Tale was her dystopia.  We know from Handmaid’s Tale that that world has an end; there is no guarantee that civilization will last in this new series.  (At least not yet.  I’m still only about 80 pages into the new book.)  And didn’t we deserve it?

In Oryx & Crake, we meet Jimmy at the end of the world.  He’s a gross mess, possibly the last man, and de facto guardian of a new race of people called Crakers, named after their creator.  As we get Jimmy’s back story, we find that he’s tangential to everything important that goes on–just close enough for bits and pieces, just removed enough for mystery.  If we put the bits and pieces together, we’re doing better than he was.

Jimmy is a “word guy” in a world where only science counts.  You can see the apathy towards the arts most clearly in Jimmy’s liberal arts college, but it’s there on every page: the names of the companies are phonetic.  It grates at first–too dumb, why would anyone go along with that?–but don’t we just?  Think of the word “webisode”–so awkward, yet we use it enough to appear as if we’ve embraced it.  (I wonder if anyone ever pitched “eepisode.”)  Jimmy grows up in a world where a writer writes advertising copy, because what else is there to write?  Certainly there are no books anywhere to be found, and all entertainment is reality.  So maybe there are scripts, and maybe there aren’t.

Science is worshiped.  It’s interesting to compare this to Handmaid’s Tale, because there you see religion at the forefront, as you see it in the background of Oryx & Crake and in the foreground of Year of the Flood, and you wonder: has Atwood stopped attacking religion?  Or is she attacking it on every page?  Yet it’s a combination of activist-scientists and the religious who make it through–among random, scattered others.

So science gets all the funding, and the science is pushing toward the usual: immortality, perfection, youth.  The government is the corporations, with their power focused in their privatized police force.  There is no one person to blame; there’s no bad guy (unless you count Crake–and can you?).  There are only organizations, corporations.  A person without a group around or behind him doesn’t exist at all.  People are defined by their jobs, and jobs are limited.  Jimmy can pretty much only write copy.  Ren ends up with a choice between gym instructor and stripper.  Crake has a few more options, but even they are limited; he can’t just find funding on his own and do what he wants.  He needs a corporation behind him.  Amanda is the only one who makes her own choices as to what she does, but we’re shown over and over again that Amanda’s for sale (or, as she sees it, trade), and I wonder exactly where that funding comes from.

But back specifically to Oryx & Crake.  As a reread, I was surprised by one thing: I really didn’t like Jimmy.  As an avid reader, I was long ago trained to love the narrator; I guess I didn’t read enough Poe as a kid.  I excused Jimmy in a way I couldn’t in my reread–God, he is such a worthless jerk.  And that’s pounded into our heads over and over again in Year of the Flood, when we see him from Ren’s perspective–and, I suppose, Amanda’s, a little.  Enough.

Who I really enjoyed?  Crake.  I saw him as such a jerk the first read-through and now I’m on the fence.  I think his meanness to Jimmy is really just him goofing–maybe–and Jimmy takes him too seriously.  I think Jimmy’s bad at people–all people.  He doesn’t recognize that his girlfriends are actual people with actual feelings; he doesn’t see that Crake might actually like and appreciate him; and he believes everything Oryx says is a lie to placate him.  I don’t think so.  I think everything Oryx tells him is the truth, until he begs her to lie.

He’s such an idiot.

But that’s the thing about Atwood–she shows you how relationships dig at a person’s self-worth.  One of the things we see in Year of the Flood is that Toby grows to dislike Lucerne more and more as she takes an interest in Zeb. Lucerne is weak.  Toby sees herself as stronger, better, a more compatible match.  Bu ownership of another human being destroys us from the inside.  Toby’s mad at herself but she has so much further to fall (as we see in MaddAddam, which I’ll discuss later).

So, really, where is it that Atwood DOESN’T shine a light? Nowhere.  Not human nature, not our need to feel good about ourselves, not our need to own others, not at religion, not at science.  That’s the best part of these books: that she gives us a plot, good characters to love and/or hate, and yet still manages, without being too heavy-handed most of the time, to poke at these things that create our society.

There’s a small flaw in Year of the Flood, though, that I’d like to point out: sometimes Ren’s narration is too smart.  I don’t think she’s supposed to be that smart.  It’s like Atwood is pushing through the character, and it was a bit off-putting.  But otherwise?  What an amazing two books.

And I didn’t even get into the Gardeners, and the mysteries of Adam One.  (I didn’t remember he admitted to lying, or that he may be alive at the end of Year of the Flood.)  Ooh, and the Crakers!

MaddAddam, from what I’ve read so far, is a lot of present-timeline and Zeb’s back story, which is tangled with Adam’s.

I’d like to see more Crake from other perspectives, but all we get is bits from the scientists so far.  Sadness.

Sorry, I can’t write about these books much longer.  Gotta get back to the new one.  WHEEEEE!

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