Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The Year of the Flood

Linda Rogers

Year of the Flood.
Margaret Atwood, McClelland & Stewart, 2009

It 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.

This 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 in miracles?

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.”

With 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 unto you.”

Payback, 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.”

I 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.

Long 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.

“For 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.

In 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.

Now 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?

Like 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.

However, 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.

Woven 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 rhymes.”

Oh Garden, oh my Garden,
I’ll mourn forever more

Until the gardeners arise,
And you to life restore.

No 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.

When 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.

“When the small creatures hush their singing,” said Adam One, “it’s because they are afraid. You must listen for the sound of their fear.”

Since 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.

The 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 hemlock.

“A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, in the most delightful way.”

The 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.”

The 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
and found again rejoicing

In 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.

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 by life.”

As the 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.

The 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.

“Ren 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.”

There 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.

“Adam One said we should always look on the positive side, and the positive side was that we were still alive.”

No 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 exists. Maybe.

Linda Rogers’ is Victoria’s Poet Laureate and the author of Muscle Memory, a new collection of pre-apocalyptic poems.