The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood (Bloomsbury, 2009) chronicles the sort of post-apocalyptic world familiar to readers of Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, or Cormac McCarthy's The Road--worlds devastated by those supposedly civilizing animals we call humans.

In Atwood's world, the corporation has trumped the state, the suburbs have fallen into ruin, the artificial has replaced the natural, and murderous violence has become commonplace in the sandlots where kids continue to play out their make-believe games. And yet, somehow, Atwood's world isn't nearly as haunting as McCarthy's wending, minimalist Road. But it sure ain't Mayberry, either.

Our focus is drawn to a band of resistance centred in "The Gardeners," a green cult, living out a consistently vegan discipline rooted in an interesting combination of biblical metaphors and an unblinkered appreciation for natural selection, articulated in a rich set of practices including their own liturgical calendar of Feast Days and Saints Days (including some Canadians like Saint David Suzuki and Saint Terry Fox!), as well as their own hymnbook. (Indeed, I'm starting to think that knowledge of theology is a handicap while reading this novel because one could so easily get sucked into the minituae of Gardener theology, and be tempted to draw all sorts of parallels and analogies with Christian theology. It would be an interesting read for Christians concerned with creation care--but I'd worry that this would be instrumentalizing the story Atwood wants to tell.) The Gardeners are a remnant, squatting on what corners and ruins of former suburbia they can find, led by a cadre of Adams and Eves who are responsible for catechesis, education, and government--but regularly haunted by CorpSeCorp, the privatized industry that has assumed responsibility for what used to pass for "the common good."

While the world as described seems bad enough, things get worse when a plague ("the Waterless Flood") is unleashed--"a plague that infects no Species but our own" (p. 424), thus giving Creation a chance to try again without us.

So not unlike The Road, this is a relationship-as-the-means-of-survival story. We follow a small band of acquaintances whose relationships are bound by a kind of love, though they might not think so. In particular, the book is organized around Toby (a Gardeners convert who becomes an Eve) and Ren (a child in the Gardeners commune). The book is spliced in two parallel tracks: the "Toby" track is narrated in the third person (just who is that?), while the "Ren" track is told in the first person. We regularly jump from Year 25, "The Year of the Flood," back through the years leading up to Year 25, back as far as Year 10. Eventually, these two tracks intersect in the final chapters. (It is also significant that time in the book is organized according to the liturgical calendar of the Gardeners.)

What to make of it? It's been a long time since I'd read any Atwood (who is the doyen of Canadian letters). Having, of late, read stuff that wears its literary flourish on its sleeve (Thomas Wolfe, John Updike, etc.), Atwood's prose is spare and simple--and yet not quite the charmed minimalism of McCarthy. But it has a remarkably cumulative effect--she is carefully drawing a character such that 300 pages in, one can look back on a rich development that seemed transparent at the time. (Is this is the sign of someone whose medium is rightly the novel rather than the short story?) While her lexicon is tight and rather puritan (I can see how the realism of Ren's first person demands this, but not sure why the third person narration of Toby's experience had to hew to the same rules--perhaps this is a sign I'm missing something about that narrator?) And in the end, there were just a few too many "coincidences" for me; or at least, it seemed to me that the world would have been bigger, and our encounters more anonymous, then the close of the story suggests.

But that said, the story also turns into a beautiful page-turner with 100 pages to go, and the glimpses of friendship, charity, and compassion are welcome respites in such an appalling world.