Honey and Salt | The Nation


Honey and Salt

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From the liberal middle class, The Year of the Flood turns to the radical fringe, the people the liberal middle class is most apt to ridicule. There is indeed a good deal of bathos in Adam One's exhortations, as he seeks to meld spirituality and science, a pious tone with practical necessity:

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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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With its lack of art and absence of thought, the blockbuster Norwegian novel disappoints.

The unflinching fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

Saint Euell [Euell Gibbons], may we sit with you in Spirit at your table, that lowly tarpaulin spread upon the ground; and dine with you upon wild Strawberries, and upon spring Fiddleheads, and upon young Milkweed pods, lightly simmered, with a little butter substitute if it can be obtained.

The Gardeners' belief system, improvised and ad hoc, can't help but feel a little ersatz, like everything else in the novel's world. But the Gardeners are no fools. In the middle chapter of the novel, Adam One preaches on the famous Gospel verse, "Be ye therefore wise as Serpents, and harmless as Doves." When Toby is taken into the council of Adams and Eves, she finds out that these humble doves are wiser--more worldly, more cunning--than they let themselves appear.

A good deal of aggression seems to lurk beneath their placid surface. They practice vegetarianism, but they don't claim to practice nonviolence. Zeb teaches a class in Urban Bloodshed Limitation, and in his view, "the first bloodshed to be limited should be your own." When the Waterless Flood arrives, Adam One warns, people will be clutching at their last straw. "Don't let yourself be that last straw, my Friends." The Flood is not only an event the Gardeners prepare for; it is one, like the most vengeful of end-time churches, that they seem to look forward to. (Whether they had a hand in inciting it the third volume of the trilogy will tell.) Not for nothing do they call themselves Adams and Eves, or count time--like the Christian church or the Khmer Rouge--from the "creation" of their enterprise. Their Edencliff garden is this novel's version of Paradice, the Gardeners themselves its answer to the Crakers: a new race, to inherit a new earth.

Which is not to say that Atwood doesn't give them her endorsement. The most repulsive thing about the bogus world we're creating for ourselves, she implies, is the assault that it perpetrates on our senses: the eye-stabbing colors and skin-crawling textures and headache-making smells. The synthetic names of her synthetic things, familiar words re-engineered like strands of DNA into trite, degraded copies of themselves, are the verbal equivalent of such affronts: AnooYoo, ChickieNobs, BlyssPluss. Ren's mother, forcing her back to normalcy after years with the Gardeners, offers to paint her toenails: "Look at all these colours I bought for you! Green, purple, frosted orange, and I got you some sparkly ones." Her father, a HelthWyzer scientist, smells to her now of "complex chemicals--the kind of chemicals used for cleaning off sticky things, like glue. A smell that could burn right down into your lungs." Her expulsion from Edencliff reverses Toby's experience upon arrival: "At night, Toby breathed herself in. Her new self. Her skin smelled like honey and salt. And earth."

This is why Atwood loves the Gardeners, whose way of life surely owes something to her girlhood in the forests of Northern Quebec (just as Ren's wild-child re-entry into the mainstream must recall her creator's own return to formal schooling at age 11). If disaster reduces existence to its essence, the Gardeners have given themselves a long head start, behaving, in effect, as if the apocalypse had already come. That means living simply and making do with what's at hand, but it also means re-establishing their relationship with nature--its dangers, its fruits, its works and its ways--which can only be done by smelling and touching and tasting it. The Euell Gibbons invocation, complete with cooking tips, may sound absurd at first, but it exemplifies what the Gardeners are trying to do: not sentimentalize nature, or aestheticize it, but actually live in it. Some of their saints (they have a full calendar, like the Catholic church) are social activists or spiritual paragons--Jane Jacobs, the Buddha--but the largest number are naturalists, people, like Atwood's father, who studied nature with the keen, clear eyes of a scientist. When Toby, holed up in her compound after the Flood, runs out of food, she scoops out a cupful of maggots from the body of a dead pig and fries them on a tin can, à la St. Euell.

But it is not finally nature that might save the Gardeners; it is the thing we take to be its opposite: culture. In Oryx and Crake, Snowman is haunted by a sense of language slipping away, and with it, memory itself: "'Star light, star bright,' he says. What comes next? It's gone right out of his head." McCarthy expresses the same fear: "The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true." One of Jimmy's girlfriends is a conceptual artist working on a series called The Living Word: huge, single words ("PAIN," "WHOM," "LOVE") spelled out on the landscape in cow bones or fish guts. As the materials are slowly scavenged or decay, the words disappear.

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