By Margaret Atwood. Published in 2009.
I’ve read Oryx and Crake several times, and never once did I think, This book needs a sequel. Without question, there are ambiguities, story elements implied but not confirmed, and an unresolved, open conclusion, but those all work aesthetically. They aren’t holes. They don’t cry to be filled any more than do the rests, the silent beats, in a piece of music. Absence and uncertainty are part of what makes the book so striking and memorable. It’s beautiful on its own.
So as excited as I was to see that Margaret Atwood had written a sequel, of sorts, to Oryx, I couldn’t help wondering why she felt the need to return to that universe. Did she think something was missing from Oryx? Was there somewhere new she wanted to take the characters? Was there something else she wanted to explore? And the thing is, even having read the new novel, The Year of the Flood, I don’t know the answers to those questions. It’s an immersive story, and Atwood’s writing is always enjoyable, but I don’t see the point here. I doubt Year stands alone, and Oryx doesn’t need a companion, and whenever Year pauses to connect dots from Oryx or underline an idea from Oryx, I feel slightly insulted, as though I’m being condescended to. The Year of the Flood is a good book, but it’s superfluous.
Oryx and Crake begins after the near annihilation of humanity. Snowman, perhaps the last human being alive, watches over the Crakers, an oddly placid, guileless new species, humanoid yet dramatically nonhuman in many ways. Interspersed with the story of Snowman and the Crakers are extended flashbacks to time before the apocalyptic event wiped everyone else away, back when Snowman is Jimmy, a feckless young man whose one abiding connection from childhood is his friend Glenn, better known as Crake, a brilliant scientist obsessed with perfecting the human race (make of that what you will). When an enigmatic woman called Oryx enters Crake’s life, Jimmy is jealous—of Crake? of Oryx?—and the relationships between the three tangle dangerously, even as Crake’s genetic work reaches its apotheosis.
Jimmy, Oryx, and Crake each make brief appearances in The Year of the Flood, but the principal characters are Toby and Ren. Toby belongs to God’s Gardeners—a cult, glancingly mentioned in Oryx, devoted to preserving plant and animal life by rejecting all aspects of civilization that would endanger them—and Ren, who spent part of her childhood with the Gardeners, works at a high-end sex club. The Gardeners had long prophesized that civilization would be destroyed by a catastrophic Waterless Flood, but even with that insight, Toby and Ren pull through mostly by chance. Neither knows who else has made it—Ren is most concerned about her childhood friend Amanda—and they struggle to survive in the wasteland left behind. As in Oryx, the narrative jumps chronologically, with flashbacks to life before the Flood, only gradually revealing how Toby and Ren became who they are and ended up where they are.
The best parts of the novel deal with pre-Flood times. Atwood explores in great detail the theology of God’s Gardeners, even writing a number of hymns for their worship services, which blend Judeo-Christian teachings, ideas from Eastern religions, and a heavy dose of scientific thinking on evolution and genetics, to provocative and uncompromising effect. But as fascinating (and frustrating) as the dogma is, even more intriguing are the ways in which the believers often fail to live up to it. Atwood has a compassionate but unblinking eye for human frailty, and her portrait of the Gardener community exemplifies that. Toby, for example, doesn’t so much convert as fall in with the group out of desperation, and her lingering discomfort with that is beautifully realized. So too are the inevitable fissures that arise as the situation outside the commune, in the so-called Exfernal World, grows more dire. The same conflicts can be seen in countless real religious communities, and Atwood’s novelistic study of that is perceptive and powerful. If anything in Year succeeds independent of Oryx, it is the chapters on God’s Gardeners.
I also have a soft spot for Atwood’s portrayal of Ren’s relationships with Amanda and Bernice, her first “best friend,” whom Amanda supplanted. Female friendships, good and bad, have long been a theme for Atwood—Cat’s Eye, about a relatively dysfunctional one, moved me deeply when I was in my teens—but even if this is familiar ground for her, the tensions among the three girls in Year are drawn with touching nuance and sensitivity.
Jimmy, on the other hand, feels shoehorned in to a story that doesn’t concern him. Indeed, the coincidences necessary to tie together the characters from both books only exasperates me, especially since the themes of Oryx and Year don’t fit together that well, despite having the same catastrophe at their center. When Year starts neglecting its own threads in favor of those from Oryx, the second book suffers for it. It’s still an Atwood novel, still beatifully written, still ultimately worth reading, but if Atwood hadn’t felt the need to tie the books together so tightly, The Year of the Flood might have been a more worthy companion to Oryx and Crake instead of an elegant but unnecessary appendage.