MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam is the final book in Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction trilogy and though it contained some pleasing new developments – Pigoons, the pigs spliced with human DNA, talk through the Crakers and make peace with humans; humans can successfully mate with Crakers; Crakers learn to write and tell their own stories – the novel allowed me to pinpoint my disappointment in The Year of the Flood by once again mostly going back rather than further in time. My hankering was for more knowledge of what might be and how the new world might be forged, rather than for more knowledge of how the key players in the post-viral world ended up in the Craker story.

Even though Jimmy is revived, I missed his voice. He becomes nothing more than a bit part in the story – he is almost a mythic figure in MaddAddam even when alive. First Toby and then Blackbeard, a Craker boy, take on his story-telling duties, making the joint creation story of the new world. This emphasis on the stories of the Craker world is probably why the book goes backwards rather than forwards. It is as if we are reading the beginning of a new Genesis, something Crake himself would have wanted to avoid. We are given all the important details of the making of the Craker world, though the ends of Jimmy and Toby and Zeb are shrouded in Craker-speak. But I don’t want to look back, mostly because the previous two books have made it clear what sort of stories will be found in looking back. I am now so versed in the lives of those significantly entwined with Crake, from the second and third books of the trilogy, that there are few secrets remaining in the past. No, I want to look forward and the book really only hints at that – suggesting a future in which Craker-human hybrids could recreate the unenvironmental and bloody mess of our current human climate. Already Pigoons, humans and Crakers have gone against the Painballers and though they are victorious it is made clear future battles with other bad humans are likely.

But perhaps this morose outlook is my own. I had naively yearned for hope in some human-inhabited future and that which MaddAddam doles out is slender. Though God’s Gardeners would have seen that as no bad thing, I’ve yet to entirely give up on the human race. But it should be noted that whilst the introduction of the written word to the Crakers brings with the promise of mass cultural history, it also brings the likelihood of dogma; it creates a culture and it creates something to fight about. The pen may well be more powerful than the sword – something the Crakers have not yet learnt to use – but the pen may engender the sword. This is an interesting addition to the on-going need for narrative suggested in Oryx and Crake. We need story to make sense of ourselves, but written story, something seemingly unchanging, can be as destructive as it is creative.

Ironically, for a book that speaks mostly of the past, those main characters, Jimmy, Zeb and Toby, not to mention Ren and Amanda, are focussed on only for their past. What happens to them after the battle with the Painballers is mediated through Blackbeard and is therefore incomplete. After three books of getting to know these characters their ends or possible futures are suddenly denied full-bodied description. As a reader who has grown to feel a keen interest in them, this is a disappointment and makes me wonder why Margaret Atwood decided to stop at a trilogy. Why not another book? But then, the point about the human world fading into the background and being remade with the Crakers at the centre suggests perhaps no other ending, as dissatisfying as that might feel.

Ultimately, I sit back from the trilogy and feel a mixture of awe and irritation. Oryx and Crake is the most complete novel of the three. It contains all the idea kernels that unfurl in the following books and it is the most compelling read. The characters and the situations beg further telling and there is more than enough material to invest in two more books but neither lives up to the promise of Oryx and Crake. The responsibilities of forging a new world with the Crakers is never fully explored. I think I had hoped there would be more contemplation of what kind of world those left might want to nurture. Instead there is mostly apathy, or making do, but perhaps that is just realistic. Or perhaps it is in how the second and third novels are delivered: there is more telling, less showing, less room for the inner workings of the mind. Though the story is fleshed out, access into the individual experience of the characters is made more difficult. Perhaps the idea of entering into the thoughts and feelings of a Craker was a direction Margaret Atwood was unwilling to take, but at the end don’t we read for as full an access to others minds as possible? I don’t want to just pick apart the written artifacts of this new Genesis, I want experience it. Jimmy, in Oryx and Crake, allows me to experience, but as the books go on there is more and more intervention of text: the sermons of Adam One in The Year of the Flood and the diary and stories of Toby and Blackbeard in MaddAddam. I miss Jimmy because I miss the feeling that I live in that world. In Oryx and Crake I experience the new world with Jimmy. In the following two novels I am more of a witness as the characters themselves become taken up by baring witness. However inevitable that trajectory, I can’t praise The Year of the Flood or MaddAddam in the way I can Oryx and Crake.

Next week I’ll be reading The Drift by Hester Musson. Please do send in your suggestions for books to read in the coming weeks.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I really enjoyed Oryx and Crake (see previous post) and had high hopes of The Year of the Flood. Oryx and Crake leaves you on the edge of a clearing, as Jimmy stares at the first normal people he has seen since the outbreak of the manmade virus that wiped out, he thought, all of mankind but the Crakers, the super-hybrid men built by his friend Crake. But The Year of the Flood does not take Jimmy’s story much further than an afternoon and we have to wait most of the book to join him at that clearing.

Instead, The Year of the Flood follows Ren and Toby, two women involved in the religious group, The God’s Gardeners and the more violent splinter group, MaddAddam.  Interspersed between Ren and Toby’s stories are worship sessions given by Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners, that always end in hymn singing from the God’s Gardeners Oral Hymnbook. Everyday in the calendar commemorates a creature, a group of creatures or a saint. The religion is deeply environmental and encourages its followers to recite the names of extinct creatures to keep their memory alive, to avoid eating meat and to prepare for the coming of the waterless flood that will erase most of mankind (who have failed to care for God’s garden) and allow the earth to regenerate.

Most of the characters are linked to Jimmy and Crake in some way and one could see The Year of the Flood as background to their story, for despite enjoying a greater understanding of how Crake’s story unfolded, I was never as taken by either Ren or Toby as I was by Jimmy. Perhaps their preparation for disaster makes them less empathetic? Certainly their less than straightforward belief in God’s Gardeners should make them more empathic. They aren’t crazy, they are people on the run: Ren is a child dragged to the Gardeners from a compound when her mother runs away with a Gardener and is then dragged away again when her mother gets fed up with him; Toby was saved by the Gardeners when they freed her from abusive boss at SecretBurgers, a restaurant chain with a very dubious meat supply. In a way, the Gardeners provides a haven for many who have simply pissed off the corporations in some way, placing its doomsday predictions into a more scientific context – they can see the danger in the corporations attempts to outwit nature: how can you truly control DNA splicing outcomes if God couldn’t control man?

I enjoyed some of the other ideas in the book: the skin suits that sort of stick to your skin and then become breathable, allowing women to dress up in sparkly scales or bird feathers.  Painball, a place where convicts are sent in lieu of a death sentence to fight for their survival is not dissimilar to the arena of The Hunger Games. In the end though, I was reading for the connections, looking for references to Jimmy and Crake, waiting to find out how Jimmy’s story would link up to Ren’s and to Toby’s. This has by no means diminished my eagerness to read MaddAddam however. As with Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood ends on a cliff-hanger. Ren, Toby, Amanda, Jimmy and two painballers sit around a campfire waiting for the singing people, who are marching towards them, to arrive. Are they the Crakers? We assume so given that the assembled characters had to pass through their territory, but they could be another group of people. After all, The Year of the Flood has shown us how many more people survived than Jimmy imagined in Oryx and Crake. Perhaps they are the Gardeners, who we know from Adam One’s sermons, are still alive. I will look forward to finding out next week. So whilst The Year of the Flood doesn’t feel as tight or as thought provoking as Oryx and Crake, it does create a more comprehensive world, one from which the final book in the trilogy will undoubtedly benefit.

After reading MaddAddam next week, I will be moving on to an unpublished novel, The Drift, by Hester Musson. Please do send in suggestions for the following weeks.

Blood Fugue by Joseph D’Lacey

I was really looking forward to reading Blood Fugue and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m a huge fan of one of D’Lacey’s other novels, Meat, and whilst Blood Fugue doesn’t inspire me in the way that Meat does, it is still easy to see why Stephen King said ‘Joseph D’Lacey rocks!’ His writing is beautifully crafted and teeming with thought-provoking ideas.

Blood Fugue centres around the life of James Kerrigan who lives in a cabin in the forest above Hobson’s Valley. He is a writer who occasionally does strange and miraculous things that he struggles to remember. He makes binders, wood carvings of an equal-sided cross within a circle, and gives them to all who ask his advice about the forest trails. He performs rituals on people who say they have lost themselves, cleansing them with forest spring water despite wetting his bed almost every night, paralyzed by a terror of the dark and the many tongued creature of that dark. As the novel progresses his status as guardian of Hobson’s Valley and hunter of the Fugue, the disease that turns people into monsters hungry for the liquids, but blood most particularly, of all living creatures, is made clear. Kerrigan is a Lethe: the antidote to Fugue lives in his blood and allows him to hunt the Fugue.

Because Kerrigan was a baby when he was infected with Lethe, he had no apprenticeship. All he does is a response to the instincts of his blood. His real enemy is the man who fathered his destiny, the old man whose Lethe qualities turned Fugue and then Rage, a crazed development of the disease that twists the human form into multiple protrusions of spikes and tongues, ripping and sucking at everything around them, who roams the forests and plans new ways to send the disease beyond the valley.

In a way, the plot follows expected forms: a quasi-vampire killer who has to awaken to his own calling and who must then face the biggest challenge to any killer for many moons; a lone fight against evil; an abundance of sex and sexually charged encounters where penetration and the exchange of fluids is paramount; even a virgin whose deflowering could lead to a new bread of monster that can conquer the day. However, that doesn’t make the journey any less exciting and the greatest fears are the primal ones that repeat and repeat throughout history (I was very pleased to discover a traditional Tahitian story, ‘Rona Long-Teeth’, about an evil she-monster who sprouts fangs all over her body when she grows angry). We fear that the thirst for power over others will consume and destroy us until civilisation no longer has meaning and even a contemplation of free will becomes laughable. We fear that a longing for immortality will lead not to godliness but to the most mindless bestiality. It is easier to defeat that fear by shaping it into a monster that we can kill, than to recognise it, as Kerrigan does at the end of the novel, within ourselves.

This is how Blood Fugue is akin to Meat: it is all about consumption. What we hunger for is at the base of who we are and in a world of consumption this is a message we need to pay more attention to. What do we really hunger for and what are the implications of our hunger? The novel ends as Kerrigan realises he should have been less complacent about the implications of his own desire.

If you like horror, Blood Fugue is a fierce and racy ride. Meat, as one of my favourite novels, remains the book I would recommend, but D’Lacey’s writing is compelling and his themes fascinating, he rocks in a way that Stephen King rocks, he reminds us how important it is to admit and examine our fears and our desires.

Next week I’ll be reading the second in Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction trilogy, The Year of the Flood and then the following week, the third, MaddAddam. Any suggestions for further reading would be very welcome.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías

Although violent death hangs over the narrative from the very opening of The Infatuations, this is a book whose action happens in remembered and imagined conversation with the living and the dead. Though this can be disconcertingly circumlocutory, there is a beautiful talking heads art to the narrative.

The narrator, María, works in a publishing house dealing with pompous modern novelists and breakfasts everyday in a café close to work where she observes a couple who also breakfast there everyday. She calls them the Perfect Couple (it later transpires they had named her the Prudent Woman) and although they don’t ever exchange words, María finds comfort and hope in the happiness they project and looks forward to seeing them as some kind of good omen for her day. Then, one day, the husband is stabbed to death by a homeless man and María’s expression of condolence to the widow compels her into a world of infatuation far from perfect. She falls in love with the deceased husband’s best friend and sees quite clearly his infatuation with the widow. The apparently random death of the husband starts to look more like an orchestrated crime passionnel.

However, romantic infatuation is only part of the story. Most of the main characters have a passion for literature. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert are the most frequently mentioned literary references and their stories impinge upon the plot until ‘Everything becomes a story and ends up drifting about in the same sphere, and then it’s hard to differentiate between what really happened and what is pure invention.’ This beautifully salacious idea about the compelling nature of narrative – it has recently been proved that we experience the lives of the characters we read about, see – to shape our reality is pleasingly offset by María’s scathing opinions of modern writers and her belief that ours is an age in which we are compelled to listen to others ‘regardless of what they have done, and not just in order to defend themselves, but as if the story of their atrocities were itself of interest.’ We have to conclude, in the end, after all the talk and contemplation that opposing truths can exist at the same time and that, unless something directly impacts upon us, it is easier to allow things to fade into the background. This makes María the embodiment of the Prudent Woman and an unnerving example for our age.

The Infatuations is spellbinding novel, feeding our desire for plot with a diet of thought. I thoroughly recommend it. A paperback edition comes out this March.

Next week I’m reading Blood Fugue by Joseph D’Lacey and then The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (because I’m keen to know what happens next). As before, suggestions for further reading are very welcome.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I’m glad I’ve read this book. There is no doubt that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a significant achievement. Surrounding five days in the life of a little girl, Havaa, who loses her father in a late night Russian raid, we follow a few men and women connected by her village in Chechnya as the war for independence unravels and remakes them, creating a book as much about the nature of family as war. ‘You are mine. I recognise you. We twist our souls around each other’s miseries. It is that which makes us family.’ (p307)

Akhmed, Havaa’s neighbour and the local doctor, wants to save Havaa from her father’s fate and takes her to the city hospital where he’s heard of a female doctor, the only name outside the village he knows. Sonja, the only doctor and surgeon left at the hospital, begrudgingly takes Havaa in creating another event in a series of phenomena that slowly form a constellation, a connection between these people that projects some kind of life or hope into the future. ‘Life’ being what the title of the novel describes in one of Sonja’s medical text books, and something that Sonja’s sister, Natasha, circles in red as she attempts to make a life for herself in the ruins of her city.

Both Natasha and Akhmed are artists of disappearance. Akhmed is better at drawing portraits of remembered dead than he is of healing the sick and Natasha creates a mural in the hospital that recreates the city skyline before war turned it to rubble. The art is pleasing – early anatomists were artists – but there is something in the neatness of these artistic expressions that holds true of the whole novel. There is an all-seeing authorial voice, whose authority – phrases like ‘She would die at the age of one hundred and three’ or ‘In sixteen years, when glass replaced the plywood boards’ or ‘three days after Dokka disappeared, when Ramzan closed the satellite phone and ended the last of the three conversations he would have with the Cossack colonel’ – is both pleasing and faintly reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Louis de Bernieres, and unnerving: the possibility of neatly tied endings feels as full of the magical realism that Marquez and Bernieres have and Marra lacks. Could it be that Marra’s authority is consciously reminiscent of magical realism? That is, mocks it’s own certainty? The sense of an over-arching narrative that makes sense of it all is poignantly fiction’s domain and perhaps I’m more of a fan of the messy ending, even if it is strangely less brave.

I would recommend this book and I admire it, but even though it had me weeping in parts, I think I prefer something messier, something more raw. Then again, it could just be my jealousy talking. I can’t claim anything so accomplished as my first novel.

Next week I’m reading The Infatuations by Javier Marias and the week after I’m reading Blood Fugue by Joseph D’Lacey. Feel free to send in suggestions.