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

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era