In the fall of 2012, I published a Master’s thesis entitled “ACCIDENTAL DYSTOPIAS: APATHY AND HAPPENSTANCE IN CRITICAL DYSTOPIAN LITERATURE.” This post is the first in a series seeking to extend the ideas in that thesis to Margaret Atwood’s final installment in the MaddAddam trilogy.
The reader should not expect the following work to stand up to the rigors or academe.
Even as I wrote the Atwood chapter of my Master’s thesis, I knew the author was cracking away at her own computer, working diligently to date my thesis as quickly as possible. I made note that she had started the final volume and got to cite a tweet, as the MLA had only just added proper citation rules for items posted on Twitter. Of course, Ms. Atwood has very little knowledge of my existence—she answered one of my questions during a Reddit AMA she did in the first part of 2012—so I can harbor no resentment, but I digress. As the release date for MaddAddam approached, I decided it would be fitting to try to write a review that dealt with the new novel both as a standalone novel and as the final in the trilogy through the same lens as used in my thesis, so here we are.
Before addressing any particular themes from the novel or attempting to parse whether it approaches it dystopic elements in similar or novel ways compared to Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, I would like to spend some time addressing the book on its own and in view of the earlier works. I’ll say now that while I’m not particularly interested in providing spoilers, they’re likely to crop up. You are warned.
Oryx and Crake saw Atwood present a novel for the first time from the point of view of a male protagonist. Jimmy (aka Snowman) is a cripplingly insecure womanizer and man of words who tries endlessly to deal with his mother’s abandonment and his best friend’s immense shadow. He is hopelessly enamored with a women known as Oryx and at the start of the first novel he is the protector and accidental mage of a group of bioengineered humans known as the Crakers in the wastes of his former world, left shattered by the genocidal machinations of his now dead best friend, Crake. In The Year of the Flood, Atwood presents much the same time and many of the same events through the eyes of two female members of the God’s Gardeners, a Judeo-Christian eco-cult living in the slums of the near future world of the novel. The women are a generation apart and the age difference as well as significantly different life circumstances allows Toby and Ren unique perspectives of their uncomfortably familiar dystopic world.
In MaddAddam, all three of the prior protagonists is back and again Toby acts as the novel’s primary POV, though Zeb—Toby’s long time crush from the GG and consummate hard ass biker-type—is arguably the central protagonist of the novel. One of Atwood’s great strengths as a novelist lies in the depth of her character exploration and the brilliant insight she offers, especially for her female characters in regards to their relationships with both males and females. Given that, Toby’s perspective in MaddAddam is surprisingly uninteresting. It is apparent from early on that Toby is desperate to find something worth clinging to in her new world, having been denied such in her pre-Flood life. The end of The Year of the Flood put her back in touch with many characters from the pre-Flood world but she is no more in touch with them than she ever felt. Her deep wish to feel more connected to the people around her and to find a healthy romantic relationship is certainly relatable, but it somehow feels uneasy and untimely in her present setting.
To top that off, something of the gender relations in MaddAddam recalls to mind a rather depressing quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” Where conditions other or the novel a YA work, Toby’s jealousies might have been more interesting but I often found myself counting pages and waiting for the better parts.
Much of the novel takes a similar form not only to the prior books in the series but to all of Atwood’s novels. Much of the novel reveals huge parts of the main character’s—here Zeb—past as it brought him to the present of the story. The problem here is, I believe, two-fold. First, I pull from Tasha Robinson’s review for The AV Club: “The issue isn’t that MaddAddam covers familiar SF ground, it’s that it covers ground trod firm by the series’ two previous books, and doesn’t bring enough new to the table.” On this point, I have to agree with Ms. Robinson entirely. Many of the major revelations for the series come from the first novel but that is not to say that The Year of the Flood does not have a great deal to offer as well. Events that take place in a vacuum in Oryx are given another life in Year and brought into a greater socio-political-eco-religious context. By the time we get to MaddAddam, however, there seems to be little less of importance about her world that Atwood wishes to impart. This time around, we’re just going to see what antics Zeb took place in and it’s not quite enough reason for a novel of his own.
The second issue is one that may speak to the first: Zeb is a much less interesting character than Jimmy, Toby, or Ren, though not as much in the previous novel. Zeb never (obviously) appears in Oryx but he has a huge presence in Year where he is enigmatic and resists easy comprehension for characters and readers alike. In MaddAddam, sadly, that which made him mysterious is demystified and we find that much if not all of his motivation lies in the scare tissue of a disgustingly abusive childhood. That is not to say that such a story makes for an uninteresting character but I think Zeb actually manages to lose a great deal on closer inspection.
Even so, Zeb’s backstory makes up the more interesting parts of the book. In the present, much of what’s presented has to do with Toby’s insecurity and pining, Craker-Human interaction, and a quite possibly imminent threat.
The Craker-Human interactions, though tedious at times, are one of the more significant components of MaddAddam in regards to fitting it into the trilogy and relations must of necessity come up in every post I make about the novel. One of the central questions presented in the first novel and mentioned in passing in the second has to do with the question of Craker humanity. The Crakers are the species that Crake meant to inherit the world in the wake of his mass genocide. They are humans made more weather resistant, docile, ecological, pacifistic, etc, etc. This is to say they are humans made purposefully less human. There are numerous comments across the novels to do with Crake’s attempts to remove symbolic thought from the Crakers so as to remove music, money, and the very kernel of the concept of God from their minds. It is said that his most rigorous attempt left him with vegetables, so we know something had to be left in tack and Jimmy’s interactions with the Crakes in Oryx show the beginnings of symbolic though and religious iconography among the kind-minded meek.
MaddAddam sees this question explored at greater length and in fact even augmented to wonder whether they remain the same species and can thus be mated with. Over the course of the novel at least one Crake takes an interest in writing such that he ultimately takes over the narration of the book from Toby near the novel’s end. More and more ideas from the remnants of the God’s Gardeners are made sacred and ultimately Atwood settles the question of Craker humanity very cleanly and in short order, thus answering one of the major quandaries of the series. I question whether she did this to the novel’s detriment but I prefer to preserve that particular line of thought for my post on MaddAddam and the [accidental] critical dystopia.
There is a final and significant issue with the novel that stems from strange plot choices. Throughout the novel, we and the characters are aware of an imminent threat from roving Painballers. These men made less than human and inordinately violent by their Battle Royale perseverance in Gladiator-like game and they lurk continuously at the edges of the story’s map. The story taking place in the novel’s present is quite obviously heading towards a run in with the Painballers from the beginning and yet when the moment comes, it is convenient and unsatisfying. The latter is due largely to the altercation being viewed through the eyes on an increasingly literate Craker, but even still the lack of detail and attention Atwood devotes to this pivotal seen makes for an anticlimactic ending and a lackluster cap to the trilogy.
As a pair, Oryx and Year are two sides of a dichotomy ever present in the world of the novels. Words versus science, haves versus have-nots, Compounds versus pleeblands, ecological sustainability versus consumerism. As a trio, I fear the overarching story is weakened. Again, I return to Robinson’s review where you opines that “it feels like this trilogy might be best read in reverse order of publication, since the series’ key mysteries are revealed by the end of the first book, defanging everything that comes afterward.” I might agree if I didn’t think the series stood quite well enough as two works. At the very least, MaddAddam makes for a lagging final volume in the trio and one I’m far less likely to suggest to all but the most ravenous readers.
For the more thorough reader, there may still be a silver lining. The final volume in the series has a great deal to offer in regards to the philosophical aspects of Atwood’s near future dystopia/post-apocalyptic waste, as mentioned previously with the question of Craker humanity. It also continues to thoughtfully address the religious and dystopic themes of the prior novels in intriguing and worthwhile ways and these topics will be at the heart of my next two posts on Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam.