Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite writers. I first encountered her when I read The Handmaid’s Tale, a story of the Moral Majority taking over America and imposing their beliefs on all women’s bodies, that seems just as chillingly possible today as it did in the 1980’s. Atwood’s book Cat’s Eye took a long, hard look at the ways girls can hurt each other. But it was the Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin that really truly blew me away.
The Blind Assassin‘s structure is intricate, going back and forth in time as an elderly woman muses over her life and the reasons behind her sister’s suicide. As a writer, complex structure fascinates me – it requires such poetic precision in order not to lose the reader through twists and turns in time, space, or character perspective, or two or three of those mixed together. But the truly great writer is the one that uses complex structure to tell their story in the best way possible, leading the reader to the inevitable, inexorable climax. The Blind Assassin pulls a switch not only in time, but in perspective. To me it’s a master work, and like everything else by Atwood that I’ve read, unflinching and honest in the tale that’s told.
I was reminded yet again of how much I revere Atwood when I recently read The Year of the Flood (The Year), a “sidequel” to Atwood’s dystopia Oryx and Crake (Oryx). You don’t need to read Oryx in order to enjoy The Year, but it does give you a deeper perspective.
I was fortunate enough to see Atwood speak in San Francisco when Oryx was published. Her steely grip on current science and what it is capable of was clearly evident, as was her abundant intellect (she reminisced, for example, on writing four complete drafts of The Blind Assassin). At one point Atwood spoke on how green rabbits appear in Oryx and told the audience that those rabbits were, in fact, already in existence.
So, the science behind the narrative is definitely not a weak point in Oryx – if anything, this book is almost too coldly rigorous in its approach. To me, if Oryx had a color, it would be a frosty blue. Told in third-person perspective by Jimmy, or Snowman, Oryx presents a future world of headless chickens bred expressly for fast food, pigs implanted with human brain tissue, and wolvogs, wolf-like creatures that act like curious dogs until they rip out your throat. Corporations have taken over all governing power, and their enforcers are called CorpSeCorps. More and more animals are becoming extinct. This environmentally catastrophic world that Atwood created in 2003 is clearly still not that far from our present reality (although of course it is arguable how much closer we have come in the last seven years). Again, the science here is solid.
But the characters in this work are so distant, except for Jimmy, that the catastrophes seem far removed. Glen/Crake, Jimmy’s genius best friend, who deliberately sabotages humanity in revenge for his father’s murder, never seems like a real flesh-and-blood person. He’s impossibly brilliant and also cold as ice.
Both Jimmy and Crake share a love for Oryx, a woman who was sold into sexual slavery as a young girl. Given her harrowing past, Oryx has a rather philosophical attitude. Jimmy attempts, over and over again, to find her anger at being mistreated – but it’s not there. Oryx only shrugs. She’s in a good place now, employed by Crake, and the world is the way it is. Rereading this fatalistic exploration into the future as I concurrently read The Year, I felt myself on the verge of nightmares.
The Year of the Flood
However, The Year, despite dealing with the same dystopia, is a very different vision of this world by Atwood. Its two female narrators both speak in first person, present tense. The tweaked animals and predominantly soy/artificial diet are seamlessly integrated into the story. This is a warm and green novel of people working together to create gardens and grow healing alternatives to fake food, using herbs and plants as medicine instead of pills. There are several different characters in The Year, and they are all believable – they seem real.
How remarkable that a writer can create a world the way that Atwood has and then look at it in such a different way the second time around. It is as if Atwood created this dystopia, with horror upon horror, in the first book, and then decided to see if there was indeed a different side to the cold science and genetic tweaking – if there was, in fact, hope. With this vision, Atwood has inspired me once again.