Revisiting the End: Atwood’s Eco-Jeremiad

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
(Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, September 2009)
Bradley J. Fest

Readers who remember the final scenes of Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s 2003 entry into speculative, post-apocalyptic fiction, may not be surprised to find that she has written a sequel. The Year of the Flood (whose narrative is staged simultaneously with Oryx and Crake’s) suggests an alternative to Crake’s diabolical destroy-the-world-to-make-it-new vision. Here, an anarchic cult called God’s Gardeners has reinterpreted the Bible to support a version of eco-Christianity, erected a hierarchic monastic order to ensure the success of its eschatological project, and reclaimed various ruined urban spaces so heavily under the heel of the all-powerful Corporation. The Year of the Flood, for the most part, attempts to offer a less problematic utopia than that imagined by Crake in the first novel, even if achieving it still requires the deaths of 99% of the world’s population in what God’s Gardeners call the “Waterless Flood.”

Though assuredly a worthwhile, thought-provoking, and interesting read, The Year of the Flood, like the soon-to-be overexposed film 2012, is yet another contribution to the glut of what I call “eco-jeremiads.” Atwood’s consideration of the apocalypse only exacerbates the manipulative and weighty rhetoric of the genre. While Oryx and Crake raised some serious metaphysical and ontological questions through its use of eschatological catastrophe, it is unclear what the new novel is attempting to accomplish beyond its gesture toward the generalized anxiety that “we should be more environmentally conscious.” In the same way that nuclear disaster narratives often merely point out the banally obvious—it would be really bad—The Year of the Flood relies upon the apocalyptic thrust of disaster primarily to highlight the author’s serious (if unambiguous) environmental engagement. It appears that Atwood truly intends much of this novel as a model for a lifestyle that moves past the “green” and “eco-friendly” into a wholly-revamped mode of operating in the world more naturally and responsibly. There are hymns interspersed throughout the book (and set to music on the website) that are explicitly intended for readers’ “amateur devotional or environmental purposes.” Major figures in history of ecological activism form a religious canon for the Gardeners: St. Rachel Carson, St. Dian Fossey, St. Al Gore, St. Julian of Norwich. But Atwood isn’t really exploring much territory beyond that of other eco-utopian or eco-apocalyptic novels (most notably the bundle of work from Kim Stanley Robinson).

Adam One, leader of God’s Gardeners, asks in his final speech, “Do we deserve this Love by which God maintains our Cosmos? Do we deserve it as a species?” If the major goal of this novel is to answer “No, we don’t, but we should all work individually toward a place where we would deserve that love,” then it is quite successful. But everything from Carson’s Silent Spring to Shyamalan’s The Happening has effectively already covered the same ground. For Atwood, the possibility of a collective, emergent movement capable of effecting change gets derailed in favor of a thrilling yet normative narrative with an emphasis on the individual’s relationship to the environment. Basically, The Year of the Flood comes off as being far more programmatic than aesthetic, and it is difficult to discern much in that program beyond the cliché: “think locally, act globally.”

(That said, if the endings of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are any indication, Atwood may be inclined to contribute one more post-apocalyptic novel to this universe. A third volume might provide an interesting and necessary engagement with our penal system and culture of ubiquitous surveillance. But we shall see.)

Bradley J. Fest, a PhD student studying 19th through 21st century American literature with an emphasis on literary representations of the apocalypse, recently reviewed Thomas Pynchon’s for Hot Metal Bridge.Inherent Vice

Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, Online

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