Sunday, October 6, 2013

Notes From the Nightstand: MaddAddam

Wendy friend, librarian, bookworm, and giver of lit-gifts sent me my copy of Oryx and Crake, the first book in Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam Trilogy, as a Christmas gift several years ago. It's even signed (to me, personally!), which makes it that much more special. Atwood is one of my favorite authors, which is not so surprising because she's simply one of the best writers currently publishing. Some of her books, like The Handmaid's Tale, are already classics. And her more recent work like The Blind Assassin and this current trilogy are brilliant and visionary.

I was immediately swept up in the world and the characters in Oryx and Crake. Atwood is often called a science fiction writer, but I have read that she prefers to call her work speculative fiction, in that everything she writes has already happened, has already been invented, or could easily occur based on current events and research. She simply imagines modern day conflicts carried out to their possible (speculative) logical conclusions, rather then inventing technologies that don't currently exist for a fantasy future world.

The MaddAddam world, for example, is fairly recognizable: it's an America where gated, elite biotech research corporations rule a society that has relinquished it's democracy and public safety in exchange for consumerism and technology. The environment is in serious trouble, the food people eat is barely even food anymore, and god forbid you ever express any dissatisfaction with the status quo. Just play some "reality" computer games and go have your epidermis resurfaced and you'll feel fine!

However, in the very beginning of the beginning of Oryx and Crake, a plague wipes out most of humanity and it's ethically destitute civilization. One of the survivors, Jimmy, tells the story in retrospect of his best friends, the Aspergers-y genius Crake and beautiful but damaged Oryx, in the time before the collapse.

The three books do not have a typical series-style storytelling arc. Most of the criticisms I have seen of this final book, MaddAddam, have to do with people's disappointed expectations that it did not contain some dramatic grand finale plot event. The entire arc of the story is outlined in the first book, which could stand on its own without the other two (and probably was originally intended to). But there's so much more to the story, and I assume Atwood just couldn't put it down without telling the other parts. If the first book is Jimmy's Version of the Story, then the second book is Ren and Toby's Version of the Story, and the third is mostly Adam and Zeb's Version of the Story.

The second book, The Year of the Flood, revisits the catastrophe now known as the Waterless Flood from the viewpoint of a few other survivors. Toby, Ren, Amanda, and Zeb are members of God's Gardeners, an environmental-religious group led by Adam One who come from the urban wastelands that lie outside the walls of the corporation compounds where Jimmy and Crake grew up. The book is fascinating as it gives a view of the world before and after from the other side of the tracks and shows how other people managed to survive the meltdown.

In this new third portion of the story, the recently released MaddAddam, you get all the survivors coming together to try to start putting the world back together. Once again, there's a lot of backstory for some of the characters, particularly Zeb. You also get to see what happens after the point where most apocalypse stories have the hero ride off into the sunset. It's basically all denouement (the resolution portion of a story after the climax wherein all the loose ends are tied up), which is unsatisfying to some people. I, on the other hand, am so in love with the characters that I wanted to see just exactly how they got on with the rest of the world happily/unhappily forever after. It's definitely not a perfect book and not as good as Oryx and Crake or The Year of the Flood, but it served a very specific and important purpose for me, who had read and loved the other two. But it isn't really all tied up neatly in a perfect little trilogy package.

My copies of these books, on the other hand, are tied up neatly in a perfect little trilogy package, because this book is also signed by Margaret Atwood, a matching bookend to my copy of Oryx and Crake. My friend, Amy, to whom I had given The Blind Assassin as a gift - ah, the literary karma! - invited me to go see Margaret Atwood speak in Cambridge last month. Atwood is deadpan and hilarious, both when reading from her work and when answering questions from the audience. She also wore her purse on her shoulder the entire time and had to borrow reading glasses as she had forgotten hers, which cracked us up. She reminded me of Agatha Christie's author character, Ariadne Oliver - a little scattered and eccentric, but very likeable.

So, like author, like book: MaddAddam is also deadpan and hilarious, scattered and eccentric, but very likeable. If you haven't read any of them, start with Oryx and Crake, of course. And if you can't put the story down and walk away from it afterwards, keep going. It's worth it.

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