Monday, September 28, 2009

Saint Peggy

Margaret Atwood rocks!

I have to admit, I had a tough time at first giving myself over to her new novel, The Year of the Flood — it was exactly the wrong mood to follow my other recent reads. And I felt like I was somehow morally obliged to like this book.

I've already mentioned how awed I was by the marketing machine moving this book. I wonder how much the average reader feels it though. I'm coming to think I see it only because I'm already plugged into those channels, the blogging and the twittering and the books pages.

The more it goes, the more I see it less as marketing and more as... I don't know... something between style and lifestyle. It's less directly about buy this book and more about here's some interesting information about urban bee-keeping, which has only a very little to do with the novel as a whole.

So the whole promotional angle is pretty unique and turning out to be pretty powerful, I think. I guess one can't really go wrong when publishing a Margaret Atwood novel, so there's a lot of creativity and freewheeling energy about it. How refreshing that the author tour is not a staid reading of an excerpt in some awkward space of a big-box bookstore; it's an enactment, an event. (Now let's promote lesser-selling authors this way!)

I find myself since closing this book putting light around people. And generally feeling kind of, well, floaty and flaky, kind of hippy, like I should get back to the earth. Not that I would actually give up eating red meat or anything.

But it's like this. I loved this book. I think my initial hesitation, my scepticism about this book is, in a way, built into the novel's structure. The two main viewpoints we follow are those of Toby and Ren, each of whom is brought into the fold of God's Gardeners in less than ideal circumstances, and in no way due to their having found anything remotely like God. They are grateful for the kindnesses but irreverent as concerns the core beliefs. They're basically good people, but they find the work of the Gardeners laughable; they're there by accident. But in the end, they're really more "Gardener" than any of them, in spirit and in practice. And I feel like that kind of describes my relationship with this book.

Do I need to tell you anything about the premise? The near future, gene-spliced creatures roaming the landscape, society fractured into haves and have-nots, the haves generally working for and living in the compounds of biotech corporations. The world is seeing various ecological disasters, resulting in migrations and the breakdown of social and economic structures. (Did anyone see Earth 2100? Kind of like that.) And there's a Plague, one following many caused by mutated viruses, that devastates the human population. Oh, do I love a dystopia!

In case you don't already know, Margaret Atwood is sharp. Throwaway lines are loaded with sociopolitical commentary:

[...] but I also had to do something so I might as well get an education. That's how they talked about it, as if an education was a thing that you got, like a dress.

She can be laugh-out-loud hilarious:

Bernice said the West Coast was perfect for that because although they all did stuff like yoga and said it was Spiritual, they were really just twisted, fish-crunching, materialistic body-worshippers out there, with facelifts and bimplants and genework and totally warped values.

And she still has everything of the philosophical poet about her:

There was a close-up of her dead face, looking more gentle and peaceful than I'd ever seen her look in life. Maybe that was the real Bernice, I thought — kind and innocent. Maybe she was truly like that inside, and the fighting we used to do and all her sharp and unpleasant edges — that was her way of struggling to get out of the hard skin she'd grown all over herself like a beetle shell. But no matter how she hit out and rage, she'd been stuck in there. That thought made me feel so sorry for her that I cried.

I love the ease with which she transcribes the cadence of a woman's mind. I became aware of this particularly with Cat's Eye, but it's probably there in her earlier novels too. (I studied Surfacing in high school, and that put me off early Atwood, but maybe I'll go there again some day.) Maybe it's because I'm female, and Canadian, and living in this time, that I relate to how Atwood writes, but I think it's something very special, and it's not a matter of how she captures dialogue, though she does that too, but really of grasping the flow of thoughts.

Notable reviews
Ursula K LeGuin, in the Guardian:

The personality and feelings of characters in Oryx and Crake were of little interest; these were figures in the service of a morality play. The Year of the Flood is less satirical in tone, less of an intellectual exercise, less scathing though more painful. It is seen very largely through the eyes of women, powerless women, whose individual characters and temperaments and emotions are vivid and memorable. We have less of Hogarth and more of Goya.

(I wasn't a big fan of Oryx & Crake, by the way. Some interesting ideas, but as a novel it was a little cold. I am now, however, really keen to revisit it. (TYOTF can be read and enjoyed independently of O&C.))

Jeanette Winterson, in the New York Times:

As ever with Atwood, it is friendship between women that is noted and celebrated — friendship not without its jealousies but friendship that survives rivalry and disappointment, and has a generosity that at the end of the novel allows for hope. Atwood believes in human beings, and she likes women. It is Toby and Ren who take the novel forward from the last page, not the genetically engineered new humans.

(Right. Did I mention? Genetically engineered humans!)

About the roadshow
The Guardian

The Next Chapter.
Q, September 18, 2009, in which Atwood asks Jian Ghomeshi if he even knows what a hippie is (God's Gardeners are not them).

Give thanks to Saint Peggy for clear-sighted literature! Let us sing!


Stefanie said...

I can't wait to read this! I thought Oryx and Crake was just so-so, too, not her best which was hard to face after Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin. I am so glad this one is back up to marvelous!

Melanie said...

You've actually made me want to read this. I love Atwood herself but I didn't think this one sounded interesting. Thanks!

cipriano said...

Hi, Isabella.
Thank you so much for this excellent review. I just finished reading the book, tonight.
I hope you don't mind that I included a link to your posting, with my own thoughts on the book!