Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Margaret Atwood, Year of the Flood (2009)

Here’s the gist:
Adam One, the kindly leader of the God’s Gardeners – a religion devoted to the melding of science, religion, and nature – has long predicted a disaster. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women remain: Ren, a young dancer locked away in a high-end sex club, and Toby, a former God’s Gardener, who barricades herself inside a luxurious spa. Have others survived? Ren’s bio-artist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers? Not to mention the CorpSeCorps, the shadowy policing force of the ruling powers… As Adam One and his beleaguered followers regroup, Ren and Toby emerge into an altered world, where nothing – including the animal life – is predictable.
Except that predictable is exactly what it is. It’s a solidly handled, readable and engaging peregrination through some extremely familiar territory; which is fine, but unlikely to light the phosphoros-flame inside your skull. Some of this familiarity comes from the sequel-to-Oryx and Crake aspect of the book; most of it, though, comes from the fact that post-apocalyptic narratives, and satiric extrapolations of the present into quasi-dystopian horribleness, are legion. Are, indeed, ten-a-euro. Now, Atwood’s handling of her two main narrative lines is that of a writer who really knows her onions: often superbly confident and impressive and never less than good. But the rest of the book slips, rather, under the reader’s whelm: the worldbuilding, the God’s Gardener’s cult, the satire.

I don’t have a lot to add to other reviews I’ve seen. Fredric Jamesons’ piece in the LRB is pretty good: in the right ballpark about the strengths of the novel (though Jameson likes it rather more than I do), and plain about the weaknesses (‘The mark of the amateur here is topicality, among other things: in Flood, the reference to ‘the Wall they’re building to keep the Tex refugees out’, or the list of saints’ names – ‘Saint E.F. Schumacher, Saint Jane Jacobs . . . Saint Stephen Jay Gould of the Jurassic Shales’ etc.’)

But this is what particularly struck me: one of Atwood’s greatest strengths as a writer is her attentiveness to things; and in Year of the Baxter that attentiveness generates some very powerful writing about the natural world, and about how human beings get along when downtrodden. But that same attentiveness seemed to me wholly lacking on the actual satiric-dystopian aspects of the same book. Since the former are grounded in the latter, that’s an undermining thing.

An example of what I mean, indicative of a larger blindness, is in Atwood’s naming; or more specifically her naming of future-commercial products and organisations. This is almost entirely off. The names don't quite get it, glancing off versimilitude by that miss that is as good as a mile. (Some of these organisations already appeared in Oryx and Crake, of course; so my rant is a tad untimely):
AnooYou Spa
Mo’Hair (artificial human hair, derived from sheep)
CorpSeCorps is the security arm of the Corporations who run this horrible future world; the name boiled-down from ‘Corporate Security Corps’. But we see what Atwood is doing, because she telegraphs her satiric disapproval in too lumpen a manner: they are the CORPSEcorps, you see? Because late Capitalism is like a CORPSE, see? And its rotting stench and poison is polluting our world, see?

The logic is to take plain speech, roll it together and put a twist in it: HelthWyzer is supposed to look like a corporate tag implying wiser health choices, but misspelled like this it suggests instead illiteracy, idiocy, ‘hell’ and ‘wizened.’ ‘Bimplants’ are silicon breast implants that make you look like a Bimbo. Atwood’s MacDonalds-equivalent are called SecretBurgers (advertising tagline: ‘SecretBurgers: because Everyone Loves a Secret’)—‘the secret of SecretBurgers is that no one knows what sort of animal protein was actually in them’, Atwood ploddingly explains [33].

Now this is all fair enough, as far as the rather sophomoric level of inventing satiric commodity names goes, which isn't terribly far. But it clashes badly with the backbone of Atwood’s fictional approach, for it is very poorly observed. Corporations put a lot of money into finding the right name for themselves and their products. It is my contention that no rebranding committee or logo designer would come up with ‘Bimplants’. Cosmetic surgery may, arguably, turn its customers into bimbos; but its surgeons would not stay in business if they actually marketed themselves on that basis. No fast food company would foreground the vague suspicion its customers have as to the precise content of the product after the manner of SecretBurger. MacDonalds have Chicken Nuggets; Atwood’s SecretBurgers sell ‘Chickie Nobs’. The former may indeed be thoroughly yucky as a product, but the name is carefully chosen not to suggest so, because the semantic field of ‘nugget’ is golden, and snuggle-it, and safe, and appealing. No fast food joint would market ‘nobs’, because the semantic field is knobbly and penile and nothing else.

My point with all this is not that these are poorly chosen names from a satirical point of view—although they are all of them a little too clunking and facetious. It’s that they don’t fit Atwood’s larger aesthetic, which is, to repeat myself, one of persistent and truthful attentiveness to the world. They’re on a level with the deliberately cartoonish, daftery of last year’s Clarke shortlistee, Martin Martins On The Other Side. They are not well-observed or attentive as to how actual corporate Late Capitalism operates.

Something similar is true of the youth gangs that roam the streets, the names of three of which are supplied by Atwood. ‘Asian Fusion’, which is borderline believable as a musical style, though not as a gang tag; ‘Blackened Redfish’ which is not believable on either score, and ‘Lintheads’, which is just barking mad. This latter infuriates me, actually; smacking, as it does, of a semi-detached social observer thinking ‘Of course, there's skinheads, and didn’t that nice Mr Morrissey write a song called Suedeheads? Clearly there’s a panoply of youth gangs who self-identify after strange fluffy hair.’ Can you really imagine a subcultural style called Linthead? For that matter, can you imagine an Afro-Caribbean gang calling itself ‘Blackened Redfish’? Atwood's acuity and eloquence about the natural world, and human interactions, jars badly with this stuff.

Then there are the hymns, many of which are interleaved into the narrative, along with sermons from the Gardener’s head honcho Adam. Jameson, in the review above mentioned, thinks highly of these hymns (‘the Hymnbook deserves independent publication’), but I found them hard to stomach, on account of their remarkable and sustained shitness. In the endnote Atwood namechecks Blake and the tradition of English hymnal writing, but Blake’s lyrics are mindblowing, and most English hymns have more technical-poetic nouse than these.
O Sing We Now The Holy Weeds
That flourish in the ditch.
For they are for the meek in needs
They are not for the rich.

The Holy Weeks are Plentiful
And beautiful to see—
For who can doubt God put them there
So starved we’ll never be? [127-8]
Ugh, agh. Urgh. I found it hard to gauge whether the poems are supposed to be awful (a tricky play for a novelist) to reflect upon the clumsy limitations of the Gardeners’ theology more generally, or whether they’re supposed to be charming rough-hewn nuggets of beauty and wisdom, because Atwood secretly really likes the Eco creed she has invented. Blake? Really? They sound less like Blake, and more like Blakey from On The Buses. They lack true Blakeishness.


David said...

I'd broadly agree with you there, Adam -- it's a decent enough read, but not a great one.

I hadn't thought about the corporation names in that way; but they did strike me quite old-fashioned, in a way -- the sort of naming style you might find in an sf novel from the '50s or '60s.

The hymns did make me wince at times, but they were easily ignored (which does raise the question of what their point is, I suppose). I was left unsure whether the novel was trying to argue in favour of the Gardeners' creed or not; as presented, the cult has its shortcomings -- but so do the corporations; and I didn't gain a clear sense of how far that nuanced stance was truly intended.

Tulkinghorn said...

Atwood gave a remarkably condescending (and irritating) interview to Radio4 a couple of weeks ago where she refused to call the book "science fiction" because there were no giant squid monsters it it, which people would be looking for if they thought it was SF.....

Birdtoes said...

About the hymns -
I absolutely loved them, and think they were purposely "bad."
Perhaps I have that particular take on the hymns because when I was a teenager, I belonged to an idealistic, rather sweet and silly cult, which had its own hymns written by its own members. The Gardeners' hymns are quite similar. David, I think Atwood was both in favor of and not in favor of the cult. She saw beauty and maybe even some truth in it, but also its extreme, childlike naivete.

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Laura said...

Did anyone notice that the hymns were basically rewording of the sermon that Adam One gives on the page before. Either he writes the sermon to match the song or the song to match the sermon. I found it irritating and ended up skipping the hymns altogether.

I agree the names of the corporations jar with the rest of the story. They were obviously intended to provide light relief... I hope.

mr_subjunctive said...

Coming to this a bit late, obviously, but I just wanted to say that the bit in this post about the semantic fields of nuggets vs. nobs, etc., crystallized perfectly for me what I disliked about Atwood's namings. So thanks.

I had no trouble believing "lintheads" as a word, though I don't remember how she described them in the book and have a nagging suspicion that she was a bit too literal about the name. And I almost buy "Mo'Hair:" it's a bit too cute, perhaps, but it's a bit too cute in the way actual products sometimes are. (I'd put it in the same neighborhood of believability as Myspace, uggs, or Snuggies, whereas I can't think of anything as unbelievable as CorpSeCorps.)

In fairness to Atwood, there's a good bit about our current naming of things that would seem very strange to a visitor from the year 1900, or even 1970. (I expect "iPod," "Wal-Mart," and "Tumblr" would seem at least as odd as HelthWyzer, never mind "Hulu," "Google," or "Skype.") Semantic expectations may have changed by whenever YotF is supposed to have taken place. I don't expect them to ever change to the point where "wolvog" slides easily off the tongue, but whatever. She should have been able to handle that better, but I could read around it, more or less.

I was under the impression that the hymns were deliberately bad.

Though that may not have been an impression so much as a hope.