September 2013

Arts & Letters

Margaret Atwood's 'MaddAddam'

By Peter Pierce

An early book in Margaret Atwood’s prolific and acclaimed career was a guide to Canadian literature called Survival. Implicitly, that notion informs the post-apocalyptic trilogy of novels that concludes with MaddAddam. In this last book, it is less than a year since a human-generated plague (“the Waterless Flood”) destroyed most of mankind. “Gleaning” what they can from the ruined world around them, the few survivors are not given to despair, but feel akin to “the closed circles of the marooned, the shipwrecked, the besieged”. These people (their tale told principally by Toby, one of the Eves among the gentle sect of God’s Gardeners) share the landscape with Crakers, “strange gene-spliced quasi-humans who lived by the sea”, “pigoons – transgenic pigs with human material designed for transplants” and the vicious Painballers, “soul-dead neurotrash”. They are among the denizens of the world – perhaps soon to come – of Atwood’s imagining.

She avers that the book includes no “technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory”. The role of the prophet (insofar, and however ironically, Atwood accepts it) and that of the satirist are closely entwined. Prophesying damnation, the former always inveighs against the ills of the present. Depicting its amusements before the pandemic, Atwood is at once bitter and hilarious: “live-streamed suicides or Hott Totts kiddy porn or Hedsoff real-time executions”. The last are for the “truly jaded”. These programs stream into the homes of the corporate powerful and into the Pleeblands. Everywhere, computer hackers and drug peddlers wage vicious civil wars. Inventors of religions that milk their adherents, such as the father of Adam and Zeb, who are focal points of the narrative, are unaware of how near the “end times” they preach really are.

Yet Atwood’s daringly confident invention of those times has none of the Beckettian prose economy and gloom of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Rather, MaddAddam has an unexpected but beguiling exuberance. Its characters’ dialogue – even in extremity – is often very funny. There are exciting micro-narratives within the whole, such as the pursuit of Zeb by DORCS, “digital online rapid capture specialists”, and various stories of origins, of how a world on the brink of near-extinction came to be. We are transported to many corners of it: wilderness where the legendary bear monster sasquatch seems to appear; the sex club franchise Scales and Tails, and the Anoo Yoo spa that becomes an unlikely refuge. One of the characters ambiguously declares that “hope can ruin you”, but the novel shows that it is a nearly inexpungable part of humanity. A wise, sometimes beautiful piece of foretelling, MaddAddam is another remarkable turn for Atwood.

Peter Pierce
Peter Pierce is a professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University. He is the co-author of Vietnam Days and the editor of The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia.

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