Saturday, September 12, 2009

Atwood's Grandest Gamble

"The Year of the Flood"
By Margaret Atwood
ISBN No. 978-0-7710-0844-3

If there’s one thing writers love to write about it’s the end of the world. Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, the editors of US Weekly; all soothsayers and truthseekers, it seems, have taken a turn picturing what the next world will look like. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a book that keeps proving itself readable and prescient (“Brave New World”). If not, we get Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” And if we’re really, really lucky we get Margaret Atwood playing Mother Nature herself.
As you’d expect from Atwood, “The Year of the Flood” is as elegantly intellectual as her previous book, the dystopian chiller, “Oryx and Crake.” And if you already know that “Oryx and Crake” is a biomedical nightmare love story set in the future, then all you need to know about “The Year of the Flood” is that it’s sort of a continuation of “Oryx and Crake.” It’s usually at this point that the reviewer goes into spoiler alert mode but I’m going to limit my synopsis to a very brief, publisher-okayed description of three characters from “The Year of the Flood”: Adam One, the meek leader of God’s Gardeners (a faith that marries science and religion), Ren, a young trapeze-dancer, locked inside a high-end sex club; and one of God’s Gardeners named Toby, who is barricaded inside a spa. That’s it. That’s all anyone who hasn’t read the book needs to know because a book this good should be read, not read about.
Great books of fiction are so few and far between these days that a reviewer gets protective when dealing with even a decent title. In an effort to not give anything important away we end up talking about what book writers’ rightly fear most: the nuance stuff, the paragraphs that set the tone and establish a set piece; the easily nitpick-able stuff. But Atwood – again working in the most overworked genre of sci-fi - does a remarkable job here of getting her story’s little asides wow-worthy spot-on. You can picture the streets, the buildings, the clothing, even the jellyfish bracelets. Sure, there are some clunky moments; a few too many generalizations about how things will “look” (yes, yes, they’re needed to make the book accessible for the fantasy- and sci-fi-challenged) but Atwood’s clunks trump most other writers’ triumphs and add to the story’s discussion value. For instance, in “Oryx and Crake” I thought she clunked big time with the description of the McNuggets of the future (you’d think animal rights would trump all by then) and then I thought she got it so perfect when a character is trapped by roaming warthogs of the future that I can still see her words in my mind.
Even better, the sense of dread in “The Year of the Flood” is delightfully, perfectly well-timed for the start of the new school year and the run-up to family holiday get-togethers with others of your gene pool. The greatest compliment I can give “The Year of the Flood” is that I wished I could have saved it to read on my off time. I wish all books could be this wondrous. “The Year of the Flood” is that rarest of fiction titles: the creation of a new myth on a biblical scale.