MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
‘There’s the story,’ writes Atwood in MaddAddam, ‘then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.’
With Oryx & Crake, Atwood explored everything that led up to a complete reboot of society. The brilliant Crake has developed the BlyssPluss pill, which promised ‘sexual ecstasy, birth control, and prolonged youth’ - everything an already broken society controlled by large corporations and immense capitalism desired. Unknown to everyone but Crake, the BlyssPluss pill would also cause a lethal pandemic to wipe out most of the human population of the planet. Crake also had a team of ex-bioterrorists helping him create a race of not-quite humans to take over the earth after the plague: the beautiful, gentle Crakers are a ‘gentle humanoid species bioengineered’ to live as a graceful part of the ecosystem. The Crakers live off the kudzu vines that grow over everything, they do not create a carbon footprint, they will never war, or even disagree, they have no sense of greed, sexual jealousy, no need of animal protein - ‘all the factors Crake believed had caused not only the misery of the human race but also the degradation of the planet.’ Crake’s best friend Jimmy is left to lead the Crakers out of the Paradice Dome into the new, wild world in which only they can survive with ease.
Atwood set The Year of the Flood in the same time period as Oryx & Crake and explored the God’s Gardener’s, a ‘green religion’ founded by Adam One that taught the ‘convergence of Nature and Scripture, the love of all creatures, the dangers of technology, the wickedness of the Corps, the avoidance of all violence, and the tending of vegetables and bees’. The Gardeners prepared for a ‘Waterless Flood’ they believed would sweep away most of the world. Atwood also tells the story of three of the flood’s other survivors Toby, Ren and Amanda, who struggle to find each other and some sense of sanity in a broken world none of them can quite understand yet.
With MaddAddam, Atwood picks up the story exactly where she left off in The Year of the Flood. For those who have not read the earlier novels or those who need reminders of what has passed, Atwood has provided a handy two page summary of each of the earlier books before beginning this third and final story of ex-Gardener Zeb and his brother Adam, who would go on to be Adam One and MaddAddam: the man responsible for the God’s Gardeners as well as the one whose chatroom allows Crake to find the bio-terrorists he needs to change the world. But why would you not read the books that came before? Oryx and Crake is sheer brilliance, and The Year of the Flood is arresting. Atwood has never been anything less than a master storyteller and worldbuilder, wether it be the oppressive, tense dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale, or the fabulist fairy tale baroques in The Robber Bride. At first, MaddAddam seems a little less captivating as the first two books in this trilogy, evendisappoints slightly at the start when some familiar characters appear to have lost their verve -Toby is often a pining, whining jealous girlfriend, Ren and Amanda barely feature in the book, Jimmy is catatonic most of the time. But all is forgiven when the narrative reaches an end that is so sad, sweet and hopeful - ripe with possibilities. The trilogy comes together full circle with MaddAddam, in gorgeous poetic symmetry.
This time around, there is no major plot as such - everything that we are told has already happened, has already led up to where we are right now, and with the small exception of one lurking danger that is eventually tidied up very neatly, MaddAddam is told to us via stories narrated by the characters to each other: ‘Toby later made two stories. The first story was the one she told out loud, to the Children of Crake; it had a happy outcome, or as happy as she could manage. The second, for herself alone, was not so cheerful. It was partly about her own idiocy, her failure to pay attention, but also it was about speed. Everything had happened so quickly.’ MaddAddam is a tidying up of what remains, a filling in of the gaps in the stories we have read earlier.
This is also, perhaps more importantly, the story of life in a new world, cleansed of everything Crake believed was destroying society. Those who have survived the ‘Waterless Flood’ need to deal with the detritus that remains - each other and the new, constant dangers of a world entirely altered yet still full of ‘[L]ife, life, life, life, life. Full to bursting, this minute’. The survivors must ‘[R]epair what can’t be repaired, mend what can’t be mended, shoot what needs to be shot. Hold the fort.’
Zeb’s story and Adam’s story are new - who were they before we met them as God’s Gardeners? Adam remains the more intriguing, mysterious of the two, even when Atwood reveals what part he may have played in the creation of the pandemic. The brothers’ story must be told for it to complete the journey to where we, as readers are. As Toby explains to the Crakers, the story ‘hasn’t come to the part with me. But I’m waiting, far off in the future. I’m waiting for the story of Zeb to join up with mine. The story of Toby. The story I am in right now, with you.’
Things come a violent, chaotic but perfectly circular climax back at the Paradice Dome where everything began. As always, Atwood’s humour is sharp, her language supremely crafted and effective and her vision astute. Ever self-aware, she even throws in a nod to her own dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, a story considered prescient now more so than ever before, with its pertinence to the recent debates in the US about women’s rights over their own bodies,. ‘Men are always telling women what to do with their uteruses’ says one survivor of the flood, ‘Excuse me, uteri.’
Ultimately, MaddAddam is about what connects people to each other - our innate desire and ability to share stories, to share memories. This is a book very much about storytelling and how stories are told and retold, what versions are remembered and what stories can lead to. Almost accidentally, Toby teaches Blackbeard, one of the Craker children, to read and write. ‘Now what have I done? she thinks. ‘What can of worms have I opened? …What comes next? Rules, dogmas, laws? The Testament of Crake? How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them?’ Whether she has ‘ruined’ them or not remains a question, but the Crakers do grow in MaddAddam, alongside the stories Atwood tells. Zeb tells Toby his story and Adam’s story, Toby tells various stories of Zeb, of Adam and even of Crake to the Crakers, who then learn to tell them to their future generations: ‘This is the Book, these are the Pages, here is the Writing,’ explains Blackbeard, and with stories and book, the Crakers become more human than they had ever been created to be.