Disease And Dystopia In Atwood's 'Flood'

200 'The Year of the Flood'
The Year of the Flood
By Margaret Atwood
Hardcover, 448 pages
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday
List Price: $26.00

Read An Excerpt.

Margaret Atwood has been writing original and provocative works of fiction for nearly a half-century. The Year of the Flood, her 63rd book, is her third work of speculative fiction. She has an uncanny ability to spin timely, very plausible and sometimes even terrifyingly prescient tales.

1985's landmark The Handmaid's Tale posited a theocracy that controls women's childbearing. Oryx and Crake, published in 2003, at the outbreak of the SARS epidemic, is narrated by a survivor of a biological disaster.

In The Year of the Flood Atwood imagines a country run by a corporate elite and policed by a corporate security force (CorpsSeCorps) trained in "Internal Rendition." Genetic engineers have invented hybrid creatures, like the liobam, a lion-lamb mix, and recreational meds such as BlyssPluss, a sex drug that promises multiple orgasms with no medical risk. These scientists are working toward the ultimate goal — immortality. Meanwhile, the balance between the human and natural worlds has gone awry, with "great dead zones" in major bodies of water and many animals passing into extinction.

Atwood is close enough to recent headlines and sophisticated scientific research to make her invented universe believable. And, she reminds us, scientists are capable of terrible, Earth-changing errors.

As The Year of the Flood opens, most of the human population has been wiped out by a fast-moving airborne plague. Toby and Ren, two women associated with a nature-embracing group called God's Gardeners, are among the few still alive. The cult's founder, Adam One, has warned of doomsday by Waterless Flood, and set up a series of food storehouses dubbed "Ararats" in anticipation of disaster.

Margaret Atwood i i

hide captionMargaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books, including The Blind Assassin, for which she received the 2000 Man Booker Prize.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books, including The Blind Assassin, for which she received the 2000 Man Booker Prize.

Toby is holed up in a former spa, using her Gardener skills — gardening, foraging, using herbal medicines and, if necessary, a gun — to survive in the wilderness. Ren, a trapeze dancer at a high-end sex club, has stayed alive because she's locked in quarantine while awaiting test results after a client ripped her Biofilm Bodyglove.

As Toby and Ren struggle to find others, and to fend off nightmarish predators, they tell the stories of God's Gardeners, with its Edencliff Rooftop Garden blooming in the midst of urban slums, and the increasingly repressive years leading up to the pandemic they have both survived.

There are slow-going parts — the section breaks made up of sermons by Adam One, founder of the Gardeners, and songs from "The God's Gardeners Oral Hymnbook" are difficult to decipher at first. But even here, it's hard not to chuckle at Atwood's inventive naming of saints' days (Saints Rachel Carson and Euell Gibbons, among others) and to wonder what dire events are in store as the sermons and hymns become increasingly ominous.

Atwood orchestrates her narratives into a heart-pounding, mysterious and surprisingly touching finale. She enchants us so convincingly that after her spell is over, the "real" world seems temporarily transformed. The Year of the Flood is both a warning and a gift.

Excerpt: 'The Year Of The Flood'

1

TOBY. YEAR TWENTY-FIVE,
THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD

In the early morning Toby climbs up to the rooftop to watch the sunrise. She uses a mop handle for balance: the elevator stopped working some time ago and the back stairs are slick with damp, so if she slips and topples there won't be anyone to pick her up.

The Year of the Flood
By Margaret Atwood
Hardcover, 448 pages
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday
List Price: $26

As the first heat hits, mist rises from among the swath of trees between her and the derelict city. The air smells faintly of burning, a smell of caramel and tar and rancid barbecues, and the ashy but greasy smell of a garbage-dump fire after it's been raining. The abandoned towers in the distance are like the coral of an ancient reef bleached and colourless, devoid of life.

There still is life, however. Birds chirp; sparrows, they must be. Their small voices are clear and sharp, nails on glass: there's no longer any sound of traffic to drown them out. Do they notice that quietness, the absence of motors? If so, are they happier? Toby has no idea. Unlike some of the other Gardeners the more wild-eyed or possibly overdosed ones she has never been under the illusion that she can converse with birds.

The sun brightens in the east, reddening the blue-grey haze that marks the distant ocean. The vultures roosting on hydro poles fan out their wings to dry them, opening themselves like black umbrellas. One and then another lifts off on the thermals and spirals upwards. If they plummet suddenly, it means they've spotted carrion.

Vultures are our friends, the Gardeners used to teach. They purify the earth. They are God's necessary dark Angels of bodily dissolution. Imagine how terrible it would be if there were no death!

Do I still believe this? Toby wonders.

Everything is different up close.

***

The rooftop has some planters, their ornamentals running wild; it has a few fake-wood benches. It used to have a sun canopy for cocktail hour, but that's been blown away. Toby sits on one of the benches to survey the grounds. She lifts her binoculars, scanning from left to right. The driveway, with its lumirose borders, untidy now as frayed hairbrushes, their purple glow fading in the strengthening light. The western entrance, done in pink adobe-style solarskin, the snarl of tangled cars outside the gate.

The flower beds, choked with sow thistle and burdock, enormous aqua kudzu moths fluttering above them. The fountains, their scallop-shell basins filled with stagnant rainwater. The parking lot with a pink golf cart and two pink AnooYoo Spa minivans, each with its winking-eye logo. There's a fourth minivan farther along the drive, crashed into a tree: there used to be an arm hanging out of the window, but it's gone now.

The wide lawns have grown up, tall weeds. There are low irregular mounds beneath the milkweed and fleabane and sorrel, with here and there a swatch of fabric, a glint of bone. That's where the people fell, the ones who'd been running or staggering across the lawn. Toby had watched from the roof, crouched behind one of the planters, but she hadn't watched for long. Some of those people had called for help, as if they'd known she was there. But how could she have helped?

The swimming pool has a mottled blanket of algae. Already there are frogs. The herons and the egrets and the peagrets hunt them, at the shallow end. For a while Toby tried to scoop out the small animals that had blundered in and drowned. The luminous green rabbits, the rats, the rakunks, with their striped tails and racoon bandit masks. But now she leaves them alone. Maybe they'll generate fish, somehow. When the pool is more like a swamp.

Is she thinking of eating these theoretical future fish? Surely not.

Surely not yet.

She turns to the dark encircling wall of trees and vines and fronds and shrubby undergrowth, probing it with her binoculars. It's from there that any danger might come. But what kind of danger? She can't imagine.

***

In the night there are the usual noises: the faraway barking of dogs, the tittering of mice, the waterpipe notes of the crickets, the occasional grumph of a frog. The blood rushing in her ears: katoush, katoush, katoush. A heavy broom sweeping dry leaves.

"Go to sleep," she says out loud. But she never sleeps well, not since she's been alone in this building. Sometimes she hears voices human voices, calling to her in pain. Or the voices of women, the women who used to work here, the anxious women who used to come, for rest and rejuvenation. Splashing in the pool, strolling on the lawns. All the pink voices, soothed and soothing.

Or the voices of the Gardeners, murmuring or singing; or the children laughing together, up on the Edencliff Garden. Adam One, and Nuala, and Burt. Old Pilar, surrounded by her bees. And Zeb. If any one of them is still alive, it must be Zeb: any day now he'll come walking along the roadway or appear from among the trees.

But he must be dead by now. It's better to think so. Not to waste hope.

There must be someone else left, though; she can't be the only one on the planet. There must be others. But friends or foes? If she sees one, how to tell?

She's prepared. The doors are locked, the windows barred. But even such barriers are no guarantee: every hollow space invites invasion. Even when she sleeps, she's listening, as animals do for a break in the pattern, for an unknown sound, for a silence opening like a crack in rock.

When the small creatures hush their singing, said Adam One, it's because they're afraid. You must listen for the sound of their fear.

From The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Copyright 2009 by Margaret Atwood. Published by Random House. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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