Thursday, 19 November 2009

On Not Enjoying Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood

This was appropriate reading for the plane journey back from Cambodia - although I hadn’t planned it like that. The book was just one of the ‘must reads’ I’d taken along with me to fill the TV free evenings, along with a selection of light entertainment I’d picked up in the airport bookshop. I’d released most of them into the wild during my time in Cambodia and Margaret Atwood’s latest, much hyped novel, was the only one left in the bag. But on the way back to civilisation, after experiencing what it was like to live in a more primitive society, existing much as our tribal ancestors must have done, I felt in the mood for a dystopian excursion into a technology-free future. I’ve got a feeling that we’re all, in the end, going to have to leave the Garden of Eden after turning it into a waste land, so perhaps we should start considering our options now?
The novel opens in the aftermath of the ‘waterless flood’ - a plague virus that has wiped out most of humankind, leaving only a few isolated individuals and genetically engineered animals - some of them with human genes. There are blue people, who have had aggression and jealousy removed from their psychology, purple mohair sheep, completely unfitted for life in the wild, and pigs bred for human transplant tissue. The Gardeners - a harmless, rather barmy religious cult - in their strange clothes could well have emerged from the grounds of Hogwarts.

The Year of the Flood is not a sequel, more a companion piece to Oryx and Crake, which I read when it came out. It disappointed me, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. Now I feel the same about The Year of the Flood and because Margaret Atwood is one of the world’s major novelists, I need to discover why and give her novel some serious thought.
I never felt settled in the narrative - never knew whether I was supposed to laugh or cry, and it didn’t engage any of my emotional centres enough for either. It never appalled me, gripped me, or made me catch my breath with pleasure as previous Atwood novels have done, (Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye etc). I read it, enjoyed it, and then put it down, still feeling uneasy.
This is in part because I never knew whether the novel was supposed to be an exercise in black humour or a socio-economic parable. It could have been both, but never felt unified enough. Much of my unease is to do with the credibility factor - Margaret Atwood didn’t make me believe in any of it. The multiple narrators meant that I didn’t engage with one character for long enough to care about them. One or two stood out for me - the feisty, gritty Amanda for instance - but the other women seemed rather interchangeable. Adam One was a good depiction of a well-meaning but ineffectual man, but few of the other men came alive for me at all. The thugs, who should have been terrifying, didn’t have any real menace. All the violence happens off-stage, as if the author is saying, ‘It’s ok guys, don’t worry, I’m not going to frighten the children.’ This is definitely PG not a genuine 18 certificate.
The only time the book became real for me, was when one of the female characters contemplated shooting her friend in order to survive. This lack of real horror still bothers me. I felt I needed the author to dig deeper, go darker, in order to offset the strange humour of the rest.
I loved the pompous sermons given by Adam One to the Gardeners, but the Gardeners’ hymns bored me rigid. One or two might have been ok to illustrate the blandness and ineffectuality of the Gardeners’ beliefs in the face of annihilation, but it was possible to skip the rest, without losing anything of the narrative. They weren’t even good poetry - and Atwood is a good poet. Apparently they’ve been set to music, so maybe I’m alone in wishing they’d been left out.
The names were a problem for me too. Names are important in a novel - they help you to believe. But here they never seemed to take themselves seriously. They were spoof names, rather than something a society, however dysfunctional, might develop. Scales and Tails wasn’t bad for the brothel, but somehow none of the others had roots. I didn’t believe in the luxury health spa called Anooyoo, couldn’t quite get my jaws round illicit food at Secret Burgers any more than I could relate to the Pleebrats. The CorpSeCorp - the elite of this future society - seemed only a rather macabre joke, like the eco-toilets called Violet-Biolets.

So there I have to leave it and admit failure. This isn’t the Handmaid’s Tale, and I prefer Cormac McCarthy’s future catastrophe to Margaret Atwood’s - mainly because he makes me believe it could happen and that if it did, it would be just like that.

1 comment:

  1. thought I'd left a comment the other day mmmm just wanted to say how accurately you summed up my thoughts about The Year of The Flood. I don't think I'm going to make it to the end of the book. Shame as, in the past, I've devoured every one of Atwood's novels...