MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: Living in the end times

This final installment of Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy shows a master artificer inventing nothing less than a cosmogony, one shining constellation at a time.

MaddAddam
Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury, 416pp, £18.99

Margaret Atwood does not call herself a writer of science fiction, preferring the term “speculative fiction”. Certainly the writers whose tradition she has inherited – H G Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell – were not limited by such reductive categories and the invidious cultural hierarchies they now suggest. Yet it is not entirely clear how speculative fiction differs from other kinds of fiction: all fiction is speculative. If writing is not speculative, it is non-fiction.

Atwood surely has earned the right to dispense with categories altogether. Her novelistic worlds, depicted in a kind of slipperyslope realism, are exercises in imaginative extrapolation that point to the dragons at the end of our cognitive maps. If we keep on the way we’re going, we will fall off the edge of the known world and into monstrous depths.

Science, politics, religion, myth, jeremiad, cautionary tale, satire, realism – all have their place in Atwood’s fiction. Her books do not merely defy categorisation; they tell stories about the importance of defying categorisation. MaddAddam, the third and final instalment in the trilogy that began with the triumphant Oryx and Crake in 2003 and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood, is a satire about the way we live now, a warning about our future and an exploration of the question of what makes us human.

Oryx and Crake opens in a recognisably post-apocalyptic landscape with a traumatised man, known as Snowman, who fears that he is the last human being to survive an unnamed catastrophe. As he tries to navigate his new world, he remembers his childhood as an ordinary boy named Jimmy and his friendship with the extraordinary Glenn, a genius hacker and biogeneticist who adopts the code name Crake and becomes a kind of Frankenstein, inventing another type of human and deciding to wipe out the old ones so his “Crakers” can succeed them: apocalypse as reboot, Humanity 2.0.

The inspired conceit of Oryx and Crake is that Jimmy’s lost paradise looks to us like a dystopian future, giving Crake’s decision to annihilate the human race a provocative ethical and environmental dimension: he wants to save the world by destroying its current inhabitants. One dystopia replaces another, all in the name of creating utopia. One can see why Crake might think his society is not worth saving. Governance has been completely privatised; science corporations rule the world and privileged geneticists and engineers live in walled compounds. Everyone else inhabits a blighted urban sprawl known as the “pleeblands”, where crime flourishes and where the few who resist the private police (“CorpSeCorps”), constant surveillance, galloping consumerism and genetic engineering try to live under the corporate radar or to mount a futile resistance.

Meanwhile, Crake and Jimmy have both fallen in love with the mysterious Oryx, a woman sold as a young girl into sexual slavery. This being a story of plague and apocalypse, it all ends badly – although the novel ends brilliantly.

The Year of the Flood retells the same story from the perspective of two women in the pleeblands whose lives intersect with those of Jimmy and Crake. Where the first novel concerns men, hacking and science, the second focuses on women, environmentalism and religion. A New Agey eco-activist group called God’s Gardeners is working with the mysterious network MaddAddam, which practises a kind of bioterrorism against the corrupt biomedical Corps. God’s Gardeners, led by the idealistic Adam One, save a young woman named Toby from sexual violence. The Year of the Flood alternates between the story of Toby and that of a Gardener girl she knew named Ren. Both have survived the plague and Ren has been in love with Jimmy for years. Her best friend, Amanda, also a Gardener, dated and loved Jimmy. Ren and Amanda have bit parts in Oryx and Crake, while Jimmy is relegated to cameo appearances in The Year of the Flood.

MaddAddam, told primarily from Toby’s perspective, brings them all together at last, alternating the tale of God’s Gardeners (and their relationship to MaddAddam) with the current struggles of our protagonists to survive, post-plague. Once again, subplots and minor characters from the first two books become the main plot, as Atwood turns the full force of her satire against the bastardisation of religion in capitalist America (the Church of PetrOleum is a highlight).

She also takes a more affectionate view of humanity’s need for mythology. The Crakers come to full, humorous life in MaddAddam, demanding stories to understand the world they have inherited and insisting on the deification of what they cannot comprehend. The humans’ weary, confused attempts to explain the devastated world to the innocent Crakers provide much gentle comedy. In the meantime, they must battle freely roaming bioengineered animals, including the ferocious liobams (half-lion, half-lamb, invented by religious fundamentalists who were tired of waiting for the lion to lie down with the lamb) and the frighteningly intelligent pigoons, giant pigs with the cerebral cortex of humans: a walking, snorting tribute to Animal Farm. There are a few dangerous human beings left wandering about, too – dehumanised prisoners who kill and rape for sport, whom our ragtag band must defeat.

A penchant for coincidence began to emerge in The Year of the Flood and by this instalment it’s running as amok as the pigoons. All the survivors have known each other for years and keep bumping into each other in the post-apocalyptic landscape, while rarely encountering anyone who didn’t appear in the first two books.

One might expect a dystopia to be rather messier and more entropic: the plague wipes out the entire human race, except for all of Atwood’s protagonists, who endure in order to come together in MaddAddam and tie up her storylines rather too neatly. Though it remains inventively imagined and compulsively readable, MaddAddam offers a kinder, gentler dystopia than the more brutal and challenging world of Oryx and Crake, to my mind the tour de force of the trilogy.

MaddAddam provides a satisfying end to the tale – perhaps, ultimately, too satisfying. But read as a whole, the MaddAddam trilogy shows a master artificer inventing nothing less than a cosmogony, one shining constellation at a time.

Sarah Churchwell’s latest book is “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby’ ” (Virago, £16.99)

A portrait of Margaret Atwood by Deborah Samuel.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle