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Year of the Flood
of the Flood. Margaret Atwood, McClelland & Stewart, 2009
has become apparent that the song-lines of bees are being skewed. What we don’t
know or disregard about the flight patterns of singing insects, dolphins and the
angels who guard us is the substance of Margaret Atwood’s polemical novel,
The Year of the Flood. How did human beings blessed with apparent “superior
intellect” get so far off course, taking so many species down with them?
In her recent poems, essays
and fiction, she flourishes like a doomed garden signaling its willingness to
procreate. This is a desperate flowering, one that cracks the apparently impervious
façade and reveals the heart within. In “Heart,” a poem from
her recent poetry collection, The Door, she writes:
Some people sell their blood.
You sell your heart.
It was either that or the soul.
The hard part is
getting the dam thing out.
A kind of twisting motion, like shucking an oyster,
Your spine a wrist
And then, hup! It’s in your mouth.
Biblical novel in the great tradition of Adele Wiseman’s The Sacrifice
and the canon of Morley Callaghan, is prophecy, proverb and Psalm rolled into
one big Rinpoche sandwich, “Make me one with everything.” Did the
writers of the Gospel bear such a burden when they were faced with the question,
“Did world begin or end with the Crucifixion?” Do we still believe
We could call
Atwood the angel of redemption if she would let us get away with that. Her own
intellectual rigour precludes that possibility. Redemption is too easy, a “pawnshop”
concept, and so we are left with the buzzing of lesser angels, mosquitoes taking
meaty nips out of the conventional morality and chewing it up to make “special”
paper, the kind that might get past the tree police. “… paper was
sinful because it was made from the flesh of trees.”
Payback, her recent Massey lectures, and the new novel, The Year
of the Flood, a record of the Waterless Flood, a plague that is the nemesis
of so-called “civilization,” she offers a multi-layered, multi-textured
justification for the end of the human species, which has defaced the gold standard
of God’s first holy law, “Do unto others as you would have them do
a random philosophical examination of the history of indebtedness, the moral,
phenomenal and legal basis of human society with its dialectic politics and delicate
equilibriums of goods and services, is a blueprint for the novel. As everything
changes and is the same, it turns out there is no compass to make us one with
everything, “I deal in futures. My best offer is Maybe.”
remember considering possible book titles with Carol Shields before her untimely
death a few years ago. “If, Maybe, Or,” she mused. Are life and fiction
all about conjunctions?” Carol called her novel Unless. Atwood
has given us her Maybe. The bottom line is the same. The future is uncertain,
but gifted with free will, we do have a say in it, just like Robert Johnson standing
at the crossroads with the guitar that would or would not make him famous, Eve
with her rosy apple, or Faust with the charming Devil. Maybe.
Ago and far away I called Margaret Atwood an “Ice Queen” (no wings)
because, in the words of another poet, I thought her heart was “armoured
in a plate of stone.” How could a writer with such an arsenal of gifts not
offer her readers a more comfortable pew to rest their bolsters on? She owed us
hope, didn’t she? In the explication offered up in Cat’s Eye,
we witnessed the germ state of cynicism, even a systemic misanthropy and we understood.
She got that we are a “get” species when many of us had our heads
in the sand, or worse, where the sun don’t shine.
what is a man profited,” Jesus asks in the Gospel according to St. Matthew,
“if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” The cynical
view is that we have nothing left to lose. The twenty-one grams we release at
death may be just gas. Methane.
a canon covering almost fifty years and as many books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction,
the writer who does, as it turns out, so love the world and its creatures, especially
the ones with music knit into their beings, has laid the Pollyannas to waste.
The Dian Fosse of print, Atwood is an oracle; would that even more of us had listened.
in The Year of the Flood, with its resonant title, the novelist releases
the doves from her holy sepulcher with holy trompe l’oeil, visions
of possibility that may be miracles or simply tricks. Our gilded monuments may
be tumbling into Ozymanduis’ gritty grave, but is there faint hope in the
values that have less to do with intelligence than grace, the intangible qualities
that transcend our material existence?
all good satirists, most of them wounded optimists, Atwood has an acute sensitivity
to the grossology of empirical existence. We are creators of garbage, a filthy
and disgusting species. Interspersed with giddy glimpses of supernatural light,
she spins relentless description of the many ways in which we have laid waste
to the garden, polluting the land and the sea and the innocent creatures who share
the earth with us.
despite inevitable betrayals in the imbalanced equation of give and get, she does
find grace, even in the garbage dump of human existence. In real time, not Bollywood
time, children who have no experience of the currency that forms the basis of
our faulty hierarchies may rise out of the slums of Mumbai and re-plant the garden,
or the garden may go on without us.
in the various narratives of The Year of the Flood is the story of bees,
a threatened species. Atwood’s post-apocalyptic bees are singers and pollinators;
just like the ones we are missing. Their buzzing and birdsongs are contrapuntal
to the hypnotic cant of God’s Gardeners, the new religionists whose hymns
appear at intervals in the narrative told by two women, Toby and Ren, who may
or may not survive the Apocalypse. “The Gardeners loved their instructive
Garden, oh my Garden,
I’ll mourn forever more
the gardeners arise,
And you to life restore.
one has warned the Gardeners about hubris. They too are doomed, in spite or because
of their self-righteous behaviours undermined by hypocrisy. The Gardeners will
not save the bees with their prideful janitoring. The bees will clean out their
own hive when it is infected, or they will fail.
the queen bee is healthy, the hive is healthy. It is the queen equivalents, white
witches conversant with spells, who mitigate the damage done by mortals bartering
with the ephemeral commodities, money and power. The Gardener women, our narrators
Toby and Ren, and their accomplices, Pilar and Amanda, remember the recipes even
as the forest goes quiet.
the small creatures hush their singing,” said Adam One, “it’s
because they are afraid. You must listen for the sound of their fear.”
the sound of fear is silence, and fear is the large elephant in her garden of
unmentionable experience, Atwood has filled the book with singing. In the beginning
and at the end, there is music, “faint and far away but moving closer.”
That is her only real affirmation. You can’t kill music.
Romans covered their ears so as not to hear the shrill cries of the prophet Calpurnia
warning her husband not to go to the Forum on the ides of March. We all know what
happened to Caesar. Atwood mitigates her doomsday homilies with humour, and millions
listen. The Year of the Flood could be described as an apocalyptic comic
book, complete with cleverly manipulative rhymes (hymns) and catchy nouns like
“bimplants” for bosoms that are vessels for the estrous equivalent
of sugar makes the medicine go down, in the most delightful way.”
Gardeners, shrubby meadow muffins and latter day hippies, are the only religion
to survive the Waterless Flood, a contagion that purges the earth of human interference
in its natural destiny. “Adam One sighed. “We should not expect too
much from faith,” he said. “Human understanding is fallible, and we
see through a glass, darkly. Any religion is a shadow of God. But the shadows
of God are not God.”
Gardeners are the last desperate Aristotelians, chanting their fresh litany of
Saints: Saint Dian Fosse, Saint Euell Gibbons, Saint Terry Fox et al. It is all
human invention, Toby thought, “for every, Yes… there is also, a No.”
There is some comfort in the naming, as Al Purdy discovered in his last days.
Atwood pays tribute to the poet with whom she had an uncomfortable affinity. “Say
the Names,” she repeats as Purdy did in his powerful poem.
say the names
as if they
were your soul
lost among the mountains
a soul you mislaid
the days before Armageddon, when global warming was just settling in, Atwood sent
flowers to the dying Poet of the Land. While everything else in his hospital room
wilted and crumpled in the heat: bouquets from lesser scribblers, gifts of fruit
and poems, the poet himself, The Oracle’s flowers remained fresh and vibrant.
That is the under-painting of The Year of the Flood, which is Genesis
and Revelations plowed into one uneasy garden, a wasteland spread like
compost, “God’s great dance of proteins,” around seedlings that
will thrive because they are the progeny of the tree of knowledge of good and
evil. “I am the resurrection and the life” sing the libidinous honey-drunk
bees whose payback for all their industrious hive building and pollinating is
the conditional survival of flowers.
require compost, just as humans require protein. “We would not be human
if we did not prefer to be the devourers rather than the devoured, but either
is a blessing. Should your life be required of you, rest assured that it is required
speed with which humans are consuming one another accelerates (where are the singing
frogs?) we are warned about larger predators. Ruin and beauty is one dog (humanity)
chasing its tail. Nothing stops death, not the Gardener’s natural foods
or the life-enhancing aesthetic procedures in the Helthwyzer Compound, where Ren’s
inappropriately named bio-mother Lucerne, a Strega Nonna to her milkless
core, claws at immortality.
female characters, although they inhabit a higher chakra than the men, are not
completely out of the range of Atwood’s ruthless paintball pen. Mean girls
that pop up like weeds in the Atwood oeuvre raise their slender necks in The
Year of the Flood, but this time, whew, they are absolved by the doctrine
of sisterhood. All for one and one for all, Ren and Toby put down tender roots
in the post-apocalyptic garden that is their new reality. After Predator Day,
Toby puts aside the notion of survival to risk all for Ren. She is the future,
if there is one.
is a precious gift that has been given to Toby so that Toby might demonstrate
unselfishness and sharing and those higher qualities the Gardeners had been so
eager to bring out in her.”
is no guarantee that the sacred sisterhood, Atwood’s Greek chorus, will
survive the aftermath of the Waterless Flood but she does point us to the fornicators
who will serve in the pink trenches protected by bodysuits and possibly save the
species for an undeserved Second Chance.
One said we should always look on the positive side, and the positive side was
that we were still alive.”
one, not even Margaret Atwood, can guarantee the outcome, but because there is
music and a garden that mutates around out terrible mistakes, the possibility
Rogers’ is Victoria’s Poet Laureate and the author of Muscle Memory,
a new collection of pre-apocalyptic poems.