“Why is war so much like a practical joke? she thinks. Hiding behind bushes, leaping out, with not much difference between Boo! and Bang! except the blood. The loser falls over with a scream, followed with a foolish expression, mouth agape, eyes akimbo. Those old biblical kings, setting their feet on conquered necks, stringing up rival kings on trees, rejoicing in piles of heads — there was an element of childish glee in all of that.” — MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood
I remember my discovery of Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MadAddam trilogy. I was down with the stomach flu and had recently bought the novel at a used book store, as I was a huge fan of Margaret Atwood‘s other works (The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale). I wasn’t sure what to expect with Oryx and Crake, but I was blown away once I started reading. Despite my aching stomach, I read the book all the way through without stopping, moving from chair to floor and back again trying to ease my aches from the flu. I think Oryx and Crake is easily one of the best apocalyptic novels of our time, and I recently listed it in my list of the best apocalyptic audiobooks.
I bought The Year of the Flood, the second book in the trilogy, shortly after its release. The Year of the Flood takes place in the same dystopian period as Oryx and Crake, but can stand alone as its own novel. Margaret Atwood has created a new world in these stories, and the possibilities of her imagination are endless – both books are funny, sad, and brutal.
And now comes MaddAddam, the third (and final? let’s hope not!) release in what is being called a trilogy. If you haven’t read the first two books and are considering checking out MaddAddam, I’d say to read the other two first. There is much more to appreciate in this novel with an understanding of the story thus far. That being said, I haven’t read the first two books in quite a while and the brief summary at the beginning of the new book helped me recall where each of the stories ended.
As with the sequel to Justin Cronin’s hit apocalyptic book The Passage, MaddAddam has a lot to live up to. I could barely wait to see which direction Atwood would choose to take things.
And go off in a direction she did – MaddAddam reads like the Waiting for Godot of the trilogy, all wit and wait. This story begins where the other two books ended – with Jimmy and the Crakers (characters from Oyrx and Crake) encountering Ren, Toby, and Amanda (protagonists of The Year of the Flood). Those hoping for the quick pace of the first two books may be disappointed – much time is spent on debating the next move, on waiting for others to come back from various missions, and on reminiscing about times before the fall of man. At one point Toby wonders what she is supposed to do, where to go from here, and we are all right there with her. There is a feel here of a post-apocalyptic version of David Eggers’ The Hologram for the King. Where The Hologram for the King leaves us waiting in the harsh landscape of a foreign desert nation, questioning the purpose and productivity of American business, MaddAddam leaves us waiting in a harsh dystopian future, questioning our own potential demise and what is left to do for those of us who survive.
As heavy as this sounds, MaddAddam is a book full of jokes and jesters. The Crakers (leaf eating, genetically modified semi-humans created to flourish in the new world) act as a Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on all they don’t understand from before their creation, inadvertently asking us to evaluate our most basic assumptions. As she illustrated in The Penelopiad, a beautiful book of Penelope’s thoughts on The Odyssey, Atwood is a master of myth. MaddAddam could be a study in the creation of myths (as could much science fiction), as the Crakers’ mythology continues to evolve on what they hear from humans.
Aside from The Crakers, who steal the show in this novel, the other star of the story is Zeb. Zeb is a unique character for Atwood to take on, as many of her books feature strong female characters, and readers may be predictably dismayed that he is the focus rather than the more gentle Adam or the matriarch of the group Toby. Zeb is masculine to the max – swearing and crude, he picks on his scrawny brother, he kills without regrets, he woos the women around him. In the same pre-apocalyptic flashback style used in the first two books, we get to learn of Zeb’s history and his role in the disasters which struck the human race. Atwood writes at one point “The old symbol systems follow us around,” and they surely do here. Toby’s struggle with loving an alpha-male like Zeb could stand just as well in a tale from the frontier West or current suburban America.
As always, Atwood’s writing is stellar. Her descriptions are short knife slices, her dialogue is smart and funny. A woman in the group “looks flinty-eyed, like a wood carving of herself. She’d make a good executioner…” As with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, part of the joy here is reading Atwood’s vivid creation of a future gone mad – nefarious corporations, company backed oil-worshipping churches (“Church of PetrOleum, affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream Petrobaptists”), porn devolved into simulated or real violence, genetically modified animals grown for human profit (Mo’hairs – “Hair Today, Mo’hair Tomorrow went the add when the creatures had first been launched.”) “Funny old thing, the human race,” Zeb says at one point in the story – and Atwood’s future shows the human race to be a funny thing indeed.
Atwood’s dystopian world has now spanned over a 10 year time period (Oryx and Crake was published in 2003), and I have to wonder if MaddAddam will really be the last addition to the series. By the end of MaddAddam it is clear there is so much more to be explored – especially regarding Blackbeard, the charming Craker who becomes Toby’s shadow early in the story. MaddAddam feels more to me like an interlude than a final chapter. More is revealed here, and enemies become allies; but this world is enchanting, gruesome, and hard to let go.