About a third of the way through Margaret Atwood’s new novel, MaddAddam, I began to get a little antsy. One expects a trilogy, particularly a speculative fiction trilogy, to rise in tension, drama, and imaginative élan with each successive volume. One hopes for shocking revelations, clever plot twists, climactic struggles between the forces of good and evil. And back in 2003, when the first book, Oryx and Crake, was published, one might still have imagined that Atwood was planning something of the sort. Oryx and Crake was, and is, a classic of the post-apocalyptic genre, as powerful in its exploration of politics and science as in the witty, lucid prose and strong characterizations Atwood’s fans have come to expect from her straight-up literary outings. The world has rarely ended so beautifully.
But the trilogy’s second book, The Year of the Flood, had other plans. Instead of pushing forward into the future, the novel went back, introducing new characters and following them along the same timeline as the first. The Year of the Flood was the first book’s equal, arguably its better, folding folklore, religion, and song into the mix. Yet it couldn’t help but disappoint, just a little. Readers didn’t get to enjoy, as they did with Oryx and Crake, the thrilling creation of a new world. And anyone hoping to find out what transpired after the first book’s final scene was going to have to wait a little longer: this one ended, alas, just a few hours after the first.
But at last, the new novel answers the 10-year-old question of what happens next. The answer is: not much. Not much, that is, that lends itself easily to the sort of feverish summary that might send a reader scurrying for the bookstore. Instead, Atwood shifts into low gear and explores, in the darkly comic mode that has typified the series, some of the subtler, and ultimately more profound, ramifications of the stories she has set in motion. It’s a quietly thrilling conclusion, and an unexpectedly subtle one – a patient master’s move, rather than a brash upstart’s. In the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The book’s protagonist is Toby, our heroine from The Year of the Flood, whose back story brought us the God’s Gardeners, the religio-environmental group with mysterious origins and underground connections. She, along with most of the survivors from the last novel, are holed up in their enclave, trying to avoid a couple of escaped Painballers (psychotic survivalists bent on killing them all), nursing Jimmy/Snowman (of O & C fame) back to health, and caring for the goofily innocent Crakers, those genetically-engineered humanoids who eat leaves, go in and out of heat, sing incessantly, and ask silly questions.
There isn’t much of a present-tense plot. Our friends avoid the Painballers, and then they don’t, and there’s a battle. Most beloved characters will survive, a few will not. The excitement in this book, however, comes from two other narratives. One is the back story of Zeb, Toby’s would-be lover, whose shrewd, fearless and delightfully crass personality lends depth to a picaresque tale of familial disharmony, murder, intrigue and revenge. We learn more about his brother Adam, a.k.a. MaddAddam, a.k.a. Adam One, the MIA founder of the God’s Gardeners and inadvertent enabler of the brilliant and troubled Crake. (The search for Adam is one of the present-tense story’s secondary concerns.)
But the important narrative line, it turns out, is a subtler one – the literary evolution of the Crakers from figures of fun to bearers of real emotion, and from illiterate evident fools to surprise saviors, and perpetuators of humanity.
Indeed, the Crakers ultimately assume ownership of the trilogy, as we come to understand that they are, in spite of Crake’s flawed adolescent vision, the future. The vehicle of this transformation is Blackbeard, a precocious and nosy Craker who, at age 10, begins to barrage Toby with questions for which, we are given to understand, he is ill-prepared to know the answers. He is the embodiment of the Crakers’ innocence; his childish view of the fallen world is no less advanced than that of his adult counterparts. At first, we accept Blackbeard’s role as a figure of comic relief. But soon, like the Shakespearean fools that he resembles, his role begins to change. Toby has been keeping a journal that she intends to give the Crakers someday, so that they’ll remember the past; Blackbeard soon demands to know what it is. “That is not me,” he says, when shown his name, written on paper. “It is only some marks.” Toby explains, and before long he has learned to write.
He borrows the journal to practice his writing; eventually he will become the historian of his people, keeper not only of the journal, but of the novel itself.
The book’s final pages are given over entirely to Blackbeard, who tells the Story of Toby, as Toby and Jimmy once told the stories of the Crakers; we are permitted, through his voice, a glimpse of a future that, though tragic in some ways, is nevertheless a future. Humanity will survive in an altered state, as it always has.
Blackbeard’s narrative gives lie to the notion, prevalent among the “old” humans, that writing is inherently corrupt, a tool of manipulation and bureaucracy, while oral storytelling is somehow “pure,” a balm for the young and unsullied. In fact, Atwood shows us, language has a life of its own – it grows and changes with the people who use it, and always strives to express the unexpressable, regardless of how it’s delivered. More than that, it is the thing that gives life shape and substance. When Blackbeard comes to understand the complexity and potentiality of language, he is discovering the complexity and potentiality of life itself.
It should surprise no one that the author of such grand metafictions as The Blind Assassin would turn this trilogy into a manifesto about the power of language. But it does come as a surprise, a strangely satisfying one. Atwood’s reinvention of herself as a bestselling speculative-fiction writer is the ultimate frame story here: the MaddAddam trilogy is, at its heart, a love letter to literature, the endlessly rewarding, protean pursuit that has sustained her, and that is lucky to have her as one of its foremost practitioners.
J. Robert Lennon is the author of a story collection and seven novels, including Happyland, out next month from Dzanc/Open Road. He teaches writing at Cornell University