Ten years after her remarkable “Oryx and Crake,” and four since her acclaimed “The Year of the Flood,” Margaret Atwood brings her saga of life-as-we-no-longer-know-it to a close with the publication of “MaddAddam.” And this – like its predecessors – is a doozy.
Aficionados of the enchanting Oryx and the ingenious-yet-dangerous Crake will rejoice. So too will readers (like me) who simply revel in the brilliance of Atwood’s imagination, her dry wit, her endless associations and the way everything she writes is fraught with meaning, or just cleverly slipped in (the reader to decide which is which, or whether, as in most cases, it is both).
That Atwood is Canada’s pre-eminent living author is indisputable and perhaps never more so than in this trilogy of a barren (and perhaps possible) world of the near future, its landscape including but a handful of humans along with the bioengineered Children of Crake, meant to replace humans, and any number of carefully combined and/or “new” species of creatures and-or beings.
In “MaddAddam,” Toby is prominent, as she was in “The Year of the Flood,” a young woman who – before the pandemic known as “the Waterless Flood” wiped out nearly all of humankind – worked at a burger stand and, later, a beauty emporium. Becoming one of “God’s Gardeners” in “The Year of the Flood,” she now possesses not only extraordinary survivor skills but maturity and compassion.
She knows she must protect the kind, loving but simple Crakers – who sing and purr and need no protein nor clothing and have parts which, in mating season, turn blue. She knows that, whatever threat comes their way, the real danger in this new and untested world will be “something human.”
In “MaddAddam,” this would be “Painballers” – bad people in our parlance – and perhaps unknown others. The other palpable peril is a “quasi-human” creature known as a Pigoon, a pig with some human stem cells: The Pigoons consider Toby and her ilk the enemy – as she and her cohorts consider pork and pork products part of their sustenance.
Granted, this make-believe milieu isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – but avid Atwood followers will relish the wit and wiles that comprise “MaddAddam,” a novel concerned not with make-believe but with the very real possibility of chemical warfare and/or a world pandemic not to mention all the logistical and moral problems of global warming, shrinking resources and genetic engineering.
Crake, we are constantly reminded, created the Crakers and caused the pestilence that eradicated most humans because of the chaos man had inflicted not only upon the earth but upon his fellow man with his growing lack of compassion and respect for his own kind. (The Crakers in turn will say, of some humans: “They are not happy, they are broken.”)
Like the Bible, Atwood tells her “MaddAddam” tale in parables, this one featuring not only Toby but Zeb, brother of Adam and Toby’s crush of years ago, along with Ren, Amanda, Jimmy-the-Snowman and others recalled from one or both of the earlier books. There are also those captivating Crakers, in particular one named Bluebeard who narrates a portion of the book.
Toby discovers them nearby, in the early pages of “MaddAddam” – “filing through the trees, carrying pitch-pine torches and singing their crystalline songs. Toby had seen these people only briefly, and in daytime. Gleaming in the moonlight and the torchlight, they were even more beautiful. They were all colours – brown, yellow, black, white – and all heights, but each was perfect. The women were smiling serenely; the men were in full courtship mode, holding out bunches of flowers…”
These are gentle, environmentally-conscious people, Atwood writes, “free from sexual jealousy, greed, clothing, and the need for insect repellent and animal protein – all the factors the (now-deceased) Crake believed had caused not only the misery of the human race but also the degradation of the planet.”
Toby will come to love these uncomplicated beings – who beg her to tell them stories not only of a world before them but stories of the day just past and what the day has meant. Toby gracefully prepares two stories – a hopeful, G-rated version for the Crakers, an actual, less hopeful one for herself. “Don’t hope too much,” she will reflect. “Hope can ruin you.”
Toby will also be reunited with computer hacker Zeb – whose life with his brother Adam (known in “The Year of the Flood” as Adam One) and their treacherous preacher father (“The Rev” or “his warpiness”) will make for still more stories. Toby – who already believes her not tethering two Painballers securely to a tree has unleashed human malice upon the world once more – now sees a human girl, Swift Fox, also vying for Zeb’s attention, and human jealousy rises within her:
Cellphones are useless now, she thinks. “We’ll have to learn smoke signals all over again … One for he loves me, two for he loves me not, three for smouldering anger.” When all is well, she will reconsider, “Zeb’s hand in hers is rough velvet: like a cat’s tongue …”
Thus humanity’s best and worst sides persist in a netherworld Crake had hoped would have no dark side. It is a strange and primitive world in that its few inhabitants now have no cyberspace, no light but the sun, no heat unless they make a fire. There are vestiges of the old world but Manhattan, for instance, is submerged and items such as clothing are hard to find: Toby and the other humans now dress in old bed sheets and depend on their post-flood gardening skills to forage and to grow food and medication.
“MaddAddam” is best read in conjunction with its predecessors. And if it sounds like a work of science fiction, don’t let Atwood hear you say that. She makes it very clear, in her Acknowledgements at the end of the book that “it does not include any technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory.”
Part “Alice in Wonderland” and part “Just So” story in feel, “MaddAddam” is at its most charming when dealing with the Crakers – who insist that Toby wear a snowman hat and place a fish in her mouth before telling them her nightly stories. Atwood gives us a sense of time passing here, and the realization that Toby – like Oryx and Crake and others before her – will not live forever.
So it is Atwood we think of, now in her eighth decade, as Toby teaches the eager Craker known as Bluebeard how to “write down the stories.”
“You need to be the voice of the writing,” she tells him – perhaps already knowing that, later, it will be Bluebeard putting the words on paper “after Toby stopped making any of the Writing.”
“I have done this,” he will write, “so we will all know of her, and of how we came to be.”
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
416 pages, $27.95
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.