Honey and Salt

Honey and Salt

Technology has made us capable of exterminating ourselves. In The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood wonders what might save us.



So here we are, right back where we were a few decades ago and hoped we’d never have to be again: staring down the barrel of global catastrophe. Anyone over 40 will remember the feeling. The numb resignation, the night panic, the sense of a world gone mad. The missiles, it seemed, were already overhead, hanging like a pregnant pause. And now the feeling is back, and anyone under 40 has to wonder what’s in store for them before they die. Will they live to see the cities drown, the fields dry up, the food system collapse? Will they die a peaceful death, or will they be driven from their homes to wander the roads and eat grass? And if the worst does come, how will the survivors find the will to go on?

Novelists have been asking themselves the same questions, just as they did in other times of existential threat. Apocalyptic fears have played a part in the human imagination since at least the rise of the great world religions. The sky will be rolled up like a scroll, or Shiva will burn the three worlds to ash. Armageddon will arrive, or the Tribulation, or the closing of the Kali Yuga. A divine figure will descend to bring an end to human time: Messiah or the Bodhisattva of the Future, the tenth avatar of Vishnu or the Twelfth Imam. We seem to require such myths to maintain our moral and metaphysical equilibrium–a sense of justice and, in Frank Kermode’s phrase, the sense of an ending. But terrors of a modern apocalypse are not therefore to be dismissed, for they differ from the traditional kind in one crucial respect. It used to be that God would end the world, because only God could. Technology has made us capable of exterminating ourselves.

H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds (1898) when the specter of industrialized conflict, soon realized, was beginning to haunt the human imagination. Nevil Shute wrote On the Beach (1957) during the worst days of the cold war, right after the American and Soviet H-bomb tests. It should come as no surprise that two of our leading novelists have, in recent years, created works that refract the dread of global warming. Cormac McCarthy published The Road in 2006. Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake in 2003, the first part of a projected trilogy of which the second, The Year of the Flood, has now appeared.

Apocalyptic fiction is not the same as the dystopian variety, which remains a common mode of social criticism. (Atwood herself produced an instance, The Handmaid’s Tale, more than two decades ago.) It is not, or not only, an extrapolation of current trends but something necessarily more radical: an investigation into what it means to be human. In the wake of universal disaster, amid extremes of scarcity and threat, the essential drives and qualities are laid bare. McCarthy’s figures are simply “the man” and “the boy,” allegorically general, stripped of social identities that no longer exist. Their actions, as they plod through a charred and wintering landscape under a continuous rain of ash, address the basic biological needs: finding food, keeping warm, staying in motion. The necessities that even dystopian fiction can take for granted–potable water, cooking fuel, shoes–become the focus of complex exertion and elaborate narrative attention. The moral situation is equally reduced:

You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know…. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
 He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
 Yes. We’re still the good guys.

So it is in Oryx and Crake. For Snowman, the protagonist, staying alive is a full-time job: fighting off pigoons (transgenic organ-donor pigs his father helped create at OrganInc Farms), keeping a sharp eye out for wolvogs (a deceptively vicious wolf-dog splice). And he’s got it easy, what with the Crakers’ weekly gift of fish. Atwood, with her customary fertility and zest for social satire, not to mention a long immersion in the life sciences that began with her childhood as the daughter of a field entomologist, populates her nightmare in dense detail. Whereas the biblically spare McCarthy simply incinerates the world without comment–no more water, the fire next time–Atwood devotes most of Oryx and Crake to describing, via Snowman’s recollections, how things have gotten to where they are.

If the twentieth century was the age of physics, it’s been said–the computer, the Bomb–then ours will be the century of biology, and Atwood draws her conclusions accordingly. Atmospheric degradation has already done its work in Oryx and Crake–the midday sun is deadly, abandoned towers loom offshore–but the real horrors come from genetic manipulation. Snowman, or Jimmy, before the catastrophe, grows up a privileged corporate Compound kid in a world of bobkittens and pet rakunks, eating “imitation Spam” and “20% Real Fish” fish fingers. In high school, he’s befriended by Glenn, alias Crake, a scientific prodigy who thinks the species most in need of improvement is the human one. Crake goes off, after graduation, to the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute, where the students in NeoAgriculturals have developed a kind of meat-plant called ChickieNobs, while Jimmy, a technological dud, studies Applied Rhetoric and Advanced Mischaracterization at the moribund Martha Graham Academy (“Our Students Graduate With Employable Skills, ran the motto underneath the original Latin motto, which was Ars Longa Vita Brevis“). When the two meet years later, Jimmy is working a dead-end sloganeering job for AnooYoo–cosmetic creams, Joltbars–while Crake has landed a top job with RejoovenEsense.

That’s when his friend drafts Jimmy for the ultimate lifestyle-enhancement project. Part one, BlyssPluss, a pill designed to recalibrate human nature along the pacific lines of the bonobo chimp. Part two, secreted inside the sealed dome of Paradice, Crake’s very own corporate fiefdom, the Crakers, a new human species altogether: docile, herbivorous, innocent. Take care of them if something happens, Crake tells his friend, and when something does, and society collapses from the shock waves of a global pandemic unleashed by Crake himself, Jimmy, now Snowman (he adopts the pseudonym in self-disgust), becomes the desperate, fumbling angel to a new race of Adams and Eves.

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.

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.

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:

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.

No culture without nature: but equally, the Gardeners understand, no nature–or at least no human nature–without culture. Adam One’s first sermon recalls the original Adam’s first act: naming. To name a piece of nature is to bring it into culture, and it is culture that creates memory, continuity, knowledge. The Gardeners don’t just grow radishes and forage for roots; they enact rituals, sing hymns, teach classes, establish traditions. Eschewing writing as perishable (as well as potentially incriminating), they memorize, memorize, memorize: songs, sayings, useful information. Most important, they use culture to shape time. Oryx and Crake begins with Snowman looking at his broken watch. “A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour.” Like McCarthy’s protagonist, whose story also begins with a stopped clock, he spends the rest of the novel suffocated by the sense that duration stretches out before him like a featureless waste–a succession of meaningless days that lead only to death. But Toby begins each day of her postapocalyptic isolation by remembering the name of the appropriate Gardener saint. Culture preserves the past, and it also promises a future.

McCarthy, whose work has long been marked by distrust of the human word, vile forgery of God’s, could not feel more differently. “Years later he’d stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row.” Crake concurs in his own imperious fashion. Compared with science, art, for him, is pointless and pathetic (not a rare view these days). An evolutionary psychologist of the worst kind, he regards aesthetic creation as nothing more than a masculine strategy for getting laid (as for female artists, he explains–just in case we have any doubt about whose side Atwood stands on–they are “biologically confused”). The Crakers, programmed for sexual bliss, will have no need of art or culture. “Watch out for art,” Snowman recalls him saying. “As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall.” Yet what Snowman finds his charges needing most, and what he invents for them as quickly as he can–ad man turned artist–is, precisely, culture: explanation, understanding, stories of origin and purpose. Who are you? What’s become of Crake? What are we supposed to do now? The need for meaning lies too deep in human nature, it seems, for even Crake to have eradicated it.

But the erosion of culture, in Atwood’s view, like the extinction of nature, is not waiting for the apocalypse. Jimmy lies awake at night, after a day of corporate spin-doctoring, mourning the death of language: “he’d stare at the ceiling, telling over lists of obsolete words for the comfort that was in them. Dibble. Aphasia. Breast plough. Enigma. Gat.” For Atwood, the cultural tragedy is not only equal in import to the natural one; it lies behind it:

When did the body first set out on its own adventures? Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old traveling companions, the mind and the soul…distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere…and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays.

No culture, no restraint; no restraint, no world. “And appetite,” says Shakespeare, “an universal wolf,/So doubly seconded with will and power,/Must make perforce an universal prey,/And last eat up himself.”

The trilogy is Atwood’s attempt to reverse the process, to address the natural disaster, like the Gardeners, through cultural means: to name, like the original Adam; to tell stories, like Snowman; to put our minds and souls in play again. McCarthy thinks the only hope is goodness, a gift from God. Atwood thinks that God may well help to keep us good, but only because He is himself a product of culture. Adam One doesn’t spare the theology, but only, it turns out, for strategic reasons:

“What you mean is, with God in the story there’s a penalty,” said Toby.
 ”Yes,” said Adam One. “There’s a penalty without God in the story too, needless to say. But people are less likely to credit that.”

With Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood, Atwood seeks to make us understand the penalty, whatever we happen to believe.

People can’t imagine their own death, Crake says, because “as soon as you say, ‘I’ll be dead,’ you’ve said the word ‘I,’ and so you’re still alive inside the sentence.” The same applies on a species-wide scale, and limits the power of apocalyptic fiction. Not only does the genre inevitably focus on the survivors–among whom, no matter how few they be in number, we always imagine ourselves–it necessarily implies the persistence of an audience. Not only are Ren and Toby left; the narrator is left, and we are left, listening to her. Like “I’ll be dead,” the grammar of the genre negates its meaning. We close the book feeling, Well, at least I’m still there. But Atwood does her best within the limitations of the form, and if the message gets lost, it won’t be her fault. “I knew there were things wrong in the world,” Toby thinks of her girlhood days,

But the wrong things were wrong somewhere else.
 By the time she reached college, the wrongness had moved closer… Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began to discuss it, you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.
We’re using up the Earth. It’s almost gone.

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