Story last updated at 9/30/2009 - 11:34 am
There is gallows humor, and then there is Margaret Atwood. The masterful Canadian writer is emerging as literature's queen of the apocalypse. And the dark visions Atwood again summons in "The Year of the Flood" (Doubleday, 448 pages, $26) prove quite illuminating.
Atwood's fine new novel revisits the landscape of her 2003 effort, "Oryx and Crake." A waterless "flood" has wiped out most of the human race. Two women - young, lovelorn Ren and older, stoic Toby - are, for all they know, the cataclysm's only survivors.
"Crake" explained the back story behind the mysterious manmade disaster, which "Flood" expands on. The newer novel serves as a follow-up, if not precisely a sequel. It shares plot lines, themes and characters, but it's not necessary to have read "Crake" before picking up "Flood."
The dismal world will be familiar to readers of "Crake," though. Earth is slowly being undone by corporate greed, materialism and genetic tinkering. Corporations rule the world, enforcing their control through a Gestapo-like police force.
Before the flood, Ren and Toby were members of God's Gardeners, an earthy religious sect built around a hippie canon of vegetarianism and defiance of corporations. The Gardeners worship creatures big and small, cultivate a rooftop garden while living in relative squalor near the city slums, and have been predicting a waterless flood for years. They are led by their sermonizing leader, Adam One, a sort of Rick Warren in burlap, who delivers a daily word honoring eco-saints like Gandhi and Al Gore.
We learn about the Gardeners through flashbacks, because Ren and Toby have drifted by the time the flood hits. Ren is locked in a virus-free area at the high-end strip club where she works and manages to avoid the outbreak. Toby is holed up at a chichi spa that she's managing. The novel moves forward and back, showing the women's pasts while keeping up a fairly pulsating survival story in the present.
The way Atwood does this is, fittingly for her, unusual. The novel alternates between Ren and Toby for storytelling, although, inexplicably, only Ren's story is told in the first person. Toby's half is told in a detached third person. This construction works well enough, though it's a bit conspicuous.
More curious is Atwood's decision to break up sections with some of Adam One's sermons as well as songs from the "God's Gardeners' Oral Hymnbook." It's strange enough that it will surely isolate and annoy some readers. But it's also the sort of odd but pleasing thing you might expect from someone with Atwood's ferocious imagination. The sermons and songs are quintessential Atwood - archly written and funny in a wry way.
Whatever its structural peculiarities, "Flood" emerges as a novel that is both gripping and scary, provocative and quite humorous. In Atwood's hands, Adam One and the Gardeners manage to be sublime, both literary messengers of society's ills and a smart satire of goofy idealism. Ren and Toby, meanwhile, are - even in a science-fictionish setting - totally tangible real-world heroines.
Atwood may foresee a bleak future for Earth, but in her hands, the endgame is oddly enjoyable.