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.