The Year of the Flood
By Margaret Atwood
McClelland & Stewart, 386 pages, $33
Ah, the triple-A credit rating and little disappointments of the sequel.
Generally, it's money in the bank. But artistically? Can the sequel surprise, or must we feel we've driven down this road before?
With The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood returns to a near-future that she first opened with her last novel, Oryx and Crake (2003), in which genetic splicing has become marketable and corporations such as ReJoovenesence, OrganInc, and AnooYoo run everything.
There, Jimmy/Snowman, a bit of a slacker, tells of how his friend Glenn/Crake, under the rubric of "the Paradice Project," created a less tortured version of humans, the Crakers, and unleashed a plague intended to wipe out Homo sapiens.
The Year of the Flood covers the same future territory, but from the perspective of two women -- Ren and Toby -- who are part of a radical environmental religious sect, God's Gardeners.
The ditzy but lovable Ren starts off with the Gardeners, and then, lacking alternatives, becomes an exotic dancer, a lap dancer with a heart of gold at "Scales and Tails." Don't ask.
Toby is more cynical and astute, having come to God's Gardeners mainly because she needed a refuge.
The Year of the Flood is a deeply interesting novel, but it's not the masterpiece that Oryx was, and the reason is partly that Oryx was so good, a world at once strangely new and strangely familiar.
It contained such diverse features as smart, murderous pigs ("pigoons") that have been injected with human neo-cortical tissue, college courses on Webgame Dynamics, deathrowlive.com, and the game Extinctathon.
Those familiar with Oryx will wince at the repetitions in The Year of the Flood -- inevitable repetitions, perhaps, where the world is concerned, but not so inevitable in terms of plot.
Does Atwood really need to dovetail the two novels and bring all the characters so neatly together? We'll leave it to literary scholars to sort out whether the novel is actually a sequel or whether eight years ago some enterprising editor said, "Geez, Margaret, I bet you can get two novels out this material."
Among the new developments in Atwood's future world are cellphones (texting hadn't yet reached ubiquity in 2003), eerie hints that pigoons hold funerals, and Painball, a do-or-die combination of paintball, Ultimate Fighting Challenge, and reality TV to which convicts are sentenced.
As well, the artist Amanda Payne, who was little more than a literary joke in Oryx -- spelling out WHOM in dead cow parts, and then experiencing writer's block about her next word -- reappears as an intense and resilient survivor in the new novel, and her artistic spectacles no longer seem like adolescent trifles.
The biggest difference, however, is that The Year of the Flood is told by women. That's both bad and good. In Oryx, we were tempted, horrifyingly, to sympathize with Crake and his sense that the human experiment is a failure.
Jimmy/Snowman was both devil, given over to illicit desires, and reluctant angel, helping the Crakers survive. In The Year of the Flood the narrators are more idealized: the good guys are good and the bad guys bad. Thus, the novel's primary interest becomes whether Toby, Ren and Amanda will survive, not in what moral changes they undergo.
All the same, there's something very satisfying about seeing Toby in a pink cotton outfit and pink sun-hat put the boots to former Painballers who have been raping women. Believe it or not, Toby outdoes Cormac McCarthy's The Road in the do-it-yourself department, because as a God's Gardener she studied the virtues of plants.
It's fascinating, above all, to see Atwood invent a new religion from the ground up. Its pantheon includes St. Dian Fossey, St. E.O. Wilson, and (for Canadian content) St. Farley of Wolves.
Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale made her an international star, but it gave a simplistic portrait of religious fundamentalism. This time, however, Atwood comes at faith with a much more complex understanding.
Every chapter opens with Adam One giving a little Gardener sermon as he encourages the flock, pushes environmental responsibility, turns dark news into tidy bytes of self-help propaganda, and tries to limit the violence of his more extreme co-religionists.
He can't help preening a bit when the Waterless Flood, predicted in Gardener eschatology, arrives, yet when the plague comes home even to the faithful, his platitudes turn more profound.
Atwood has done plenty to make the novel intriguing, and if she has been too quick to fix some of the horrors that made Oryx and Crake such an austere and harsh prophecy, The Year of the Flood is still an excellent novel.
Brandon University English professor Reinhold Kramer's 2008 biography Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain won a Canadian Jewish Book Award and the Gabrielle Roy Prize.