Margaret Atwood moves through literary fiction like a mad aunt at a family gathering. The kind of aunt you don’t really want to talk to, but is so bonkers that you know there will be a good anecdote to be had from the experience if you can only screw your courage to the sticking-place. Atwood’s fiction is often just a touch odd: reading her is a bit like talking to someone who spends most of the conversation gazing over your left shoulder and twitching slightly. You can get a sense of what her prose is like by listening to her speak.
The author of twenty novels, fourteen books of poetry, eight collections of non-fiction and six books for children, Atwood is one of the few women writing serious fiction today who can shift pretty serious quantities of lavishly produced Bloomsbury hardbacks.
Her most recent lavishly produced Bloomsbury hardback is The Year of the Flood, a 400-odd page behemoth which finds Atwood hammering away at the three themes she loves so well: the exploitation of women, religion and modernity.
The world of Year of the Flood is essentially America run through a distortion pedal with the volume cranked all the way to eleven: consumerism and corporations gone mad, religions competing to produce the most insane theology and a brutal gulf between the haves and the have nots. To this already beleaguered universe Atwood adds a few touches that are pure Stephen King: a gladiatorial to-the-death sport called ‘Painball’, strip joints full to bursting with buxom lassies in reptile costumes and a virus that just about wipes out the human race.
Year of the Flood orbits around Toby and Ren. We meet Toby when she is an employee of SecretBurgers (secret: the patties are made from ground flesh and any flesh will do, be it cat, cow or human cadaver) under the tender management of Blanco. Blanco is as charming as his taste in tattoos:
‘Around his neck was a tattooed chain, with a lock on it shaped like a red heart, nestled into the chest hair he displayed in the V of his open shirt. According to rumour, that chain went right down his back, twined around an upside-down naked woman whose head was stuck in his ass.’
But Toby doesn’t last long flipping person patties and servicing Blanco – she takes off with God’s Gardeners (‘Bitch!’ Blanco curses as she flees, ‘I’ll slice off your tits!’).
God’s Gardeners are a sort of vegan hippie Christian commune, preaching Old Testament creation theology with a bit of weak science crow-barred in. Insipid as they are, they’re rather less offensive than the other crack-pot cults on offer – The Known Fruits, the Petrobaptists, the Pure-Heart Bretheren Sufis, The Lion Isaiahists, The Wolf Isaiahists or the Hare Krishnas.
At this point Ren is still a girl, struggling with the Gardener’s way of life and rather predictably hankering after the lifestyle led by other kids her age. She ends up, however, working at Scales (strip joint, lizard women), where she is in quarantine when the virus (the ‘waterless flood’) devastates humanity.
In the weird Robinson Crusoe world after the flood, Toby and Ren have the space to cogitate deeply on their situations, but Atwood does most of her pontificating about the world before. The central implication of the novel seems to be that a world debased enough to look like a hyperbolical America will destroy itself and that the quicker it does so the better.
Hard to argue with that conclusion, certainly: but equally hard to see it as anything you wouldn’t hear in a conversation in a trendy bar.
I said that Atwood’s prose is like talking to someone who spends most of the conversation gazing over your left shoulder and twitching slightly. Here’s the eye fixed over your shoulder:
‘Toby couldn’t remember being hugged by a child. For the children it must have been a formality, like hugging a distant aunt, but for her it was something she couldn’t define: fuzzy, softly intimate. Like being nuzzled by rabbits.’
And then the twitch:
‘But rabbits from Mars.’
Or this one: over the shoulder first – ‘STARDUST PERSONAL MASSAGE, SECOND FLOOR, ALL TASTES INDULGED,’ and the twitch: ‘NOSE JOBS EXTRA.’
‘NOSE JOBS EXTRA’?
Does that mean the ‘massage’ parlour has a lucrative side-line in cosmetic surgery, or that… well…
And I don’t want to boast, here: but just how big are the nostrils of the ‘massage’ staff if… er… y’know?
Looking over your shoulder: ‘Ever since her family had died in such sad ways, ever since she herself had disappeared from official view, Toby had tried not to think about her earlier life.’ And in the next paragraph, the twitch: Blanco’s ‘view was that a woman with an ass as skinny as Toby’s should consider herself in luck if any man wanted to stick his hole-hammer into her.’
Dystopian, didactic and difficult to place, The Year of the Flood shows what happens when science fiction or fantasy strays too close to the real world for its inspiration: readers miss the writer’s invention and writers miss the opportunity to comment on the reader’s reality.
The mad aunt always provides you with a great anecdote. It takes time, however, before you can look back with equanimity upon a brush with her.