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Honey and Salt | The Nation

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Honey and Salt

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The Year of the Flood is not so much a sequel to Oryx and Crake as the same story told from a different angle. The structure is identical, but doubled. Now we have two survivors, each as isolated as Snowman but both veterans of God's Gardeners, a radical environmental sect that Oryx and Crake had glanced at several times in passing. (Atwood snaps her puzzle pieces together with admirable cunning. The earlier book is sown with hints that awaken into meaning only now, six years later, in the second. She's clearly planned the whole thing out as carefully as Crake.) Toby, early 40s--tough, savvy, a little dry--is barricaded inside the AnooYoo spa she used to manage. Ren, 25--passive and fragile--is locked within an isolation room at Scales and Tails, the sex club where she once performed.

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William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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The new book, like the first, is mostly backstory told through recollection, but Ren and Toby have lived very different lives from Jimmy and Crake. Both have seen the worst of the pleeblands: Toby, before being rescued by the Gardeners from the tattooed hands of a sexual brute named Blanco the Bloat; Ren, after leaving the group as a teenager with her chilly mother, dropping out of Martha Graham and spiraling down toward Scales. But they have also experienced a kind of Eden, the Gardeners' rooftop redoubt of bean rows and beehives. The group is a hybrid of hippie commune, survivalist cell and New Age cult. They make their own clothes, stockpile supplies in hidden "Ararats" around the pleeblands and honor saints like Rachel Carson and Mahatma Gandhi. Adam One, their leader, delivers homilies on ecological virtue and preaches the coming of the Waterless Flood (a prophecy fulfilled by Crake's pandemic, and the meaning of the book's title). A council of secondary Adams and Eves conducts the group's affairs--Toby eventually takes over as Eve Six, in charge of mushrooms and bees--including the all-important task of training the children, Ren among them, in the arts of postapocalyptic survival: edible weeds, holistic healing and, most important, predator-prey relationships.

All this makes for a richer dramatic situation than in Oryx and Crake. Jimmy and Crake were loners inhabiting an emotionally sterile environment, the tightly regulated world of the ruling corporations. Here we have an entire community set down amid an urban slum that teems with danger and surprise. Toby, resistant to Gardener theology, negotiates her relationships with Adam One, a more complex figure than he first appears; Pilar, a wise-woman of subtle spiritual force; and Zeb, "large and solid, with a biker's beard and long hair," the group's darkly ironic, sexually magnetic link to the "Exfernal World." (It's a good bet the trilogy's final volume will center on him, his mysterious disappearances and his enigmatic relationship with Adam One. Like Jimmy and Crake, the two were schoolmates, "or something like that.") Meanwhile, the Gardener kids conduct their pubescent intrigues, and everyone keeps a lookout for the pleebrat gangs and Blanco the Bloat.

But if the scene is busier, a measure of glee has gone from the writing. Atwood proceeds, at her most alert, through a kind of inspired dyslexia. (Poetry, in Brazilian writer Augusto de Campos's punning phrase, is "afazer de afasia," the making of aphasia.) In Oryx and Crake, the coinages exhibit a special degree of brilliance and bite: "OrganInc," with its mutilation of "organic"; "Extinctathon," an online game; "NooSkins BeauToxique Treatment," which carries a hint of cosmetic-surgery suicide; "Paradice," the crapshoot of planned utopia. The new novel's innovations are abundant--"bimplants," a form of breast augmentation; "carbon garboil," petroleum made from trash; "Painball," a kind of gladiatorial combat among convicted felons--but they lack the wicked brio of the earlier book.

The same may be said of the characters' language. Snowman puns in the Atwood manner, but Toby and Ren, never. The older woman's voice is cautious, almost muted, and though the younger's rises to humor ("the football team were known for date rape and I didn't think Buddy would even bother with the date part of it"), Jimmy simply seems to have done a better job of inciting their creator's imagination. His boy-voice is deliciously fresh and crude: "If he wants to be an asshole it's a free country. Millions before him have made the same life choice"; "The Martha Graham Academy was named after some gory old dance goddess of the twentieth century who'd apparently mowed quite a swath in her day." Even though Atwood exposes men's barbarity to women--including Jimmy's--she seems to have a lot more fun, here at least, inhabiting their minds.

Indeed, The Year of the Flood is something like a female rejoinder to Oryx and Crake. Two women, set against the two men of the earlier book. Cooperation and community, in contrast to Jimmy's misanthropy and Crake's megalomania. Both nurture and nature--nurture through nature--as opposed to genetic engineering and industrial reproduction. A feminine solution to a masculine problem. No wonder Oryx and Crake was more fun--destruction always is, be it the depredations of Crake and his ilk or the satiric savagery of Atwood herself. The Year of the Flood tenders something less witty and more vulnerable to derision: hope. By the close of the earlier book, Snowman was looking like a dead end; but the Gardeners, both to the novel's characters and to us, its readers, offer the fragile prospect of a way out.

As a work of political psychology, Oryx and Crake turned its gaze on the liberal mind. Jimmy and Crake are joined by a third figure, Oryx, a mesmerizing, mysterious young woman who enters their lives--and their beds, and their dreams--after a past as a child prostitute in a nameless Asian city. This last information sends Jimmy into a spasm of righteous anger. The veteran tail-chaser and pornography-monger, who'd always treated the women in his life with calculated indifference, now wants to play the avenger. Who did this to you, he wants to know, and where, and when?--as if it weren't already too late to play out his rescue fantasies. The Oryx plot fits a little awkwardly into the rest of the novel, but as an illustration of the liberal conscience's relationship with reality--the reality of exploitation, be it sexual or environmental--it is perfectly apt. Our indignation at the sins of others stands in direct proportion to our need to forget our own. We seek to save a single thing, and think thereby to save our souls.

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