Atwood’s Apocalyptic ‘Year’ More Fun than Flood

'The Year of the Flood' by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese)

Alternative futures call for alternative language. “1984” had Newspeak, “A Clockwork Orange” had Nadsat—each distorted, disorienting vocabulary a warning of possible ills. In “The Year of the Flood,” her most recent novel and the second in a series of three, Margaret Atwood similarly invents a dictionary for her post-apocalyptic world. But her words are amusing than ominous—the lexicon for a dystopian vision at once entertaining and insubstantial.

Atwood’s way with words should come as no surprise. The Canadian author has dozens of works (novels, books of poetry and even a libretto) to her name and a basket of prizes in her honor (a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2000 Booker Prize for “The Blind Assassin”). A blend of genres—pulp, sci-fi, revelation—has distinguished her writing as among the most imaginative of the last half-century.

But it is above all her affection for language that makes her fiction interesting. Atwood picks at words, she turns them over, she peers at them, she reshapes them, as if searching for some secret behind the letters—“It’s daybreak. The break of day... What breaks in daybreak?”—Atwood won’t let words rest. In the “The Year of the Flood”, she unravels and warps them, so that the surrealistic world she creates seems to stem from a perversion of its own language.

There are pigoons (pigs with human organs) and mo’hairs (sheep which grow human hair for wigs) both products of the “Corps”—an alliance of corporations (among them, Happicuppa, HelthWyzer, CyroJeenyus) whose laboratories and workers live in gated communities. Outside the Corps are the Pleeblands, a proto-Gotham, but with grosser food and nastier crime. There’s something revolting and enchanting about Atwood’s creations—a fast food chain called “SecretBurgers: Because Everyone Loves A Secret” or “Painball,” a security facility in which convicts shoot at each other with corrosive paint—perhaps because they are so playful. But Atwood never loses her edge. When the titular flood wipes away humanity, it comes not in sheets of rain but as a plague contained in the inoffensively named pill BlyssPluss.

The Flood is at the heart of the story—its imminence dictates the actions of God’s Gardeners, a religious environmental group to which survivors Ren and Toby once belonged. A “plural Noah”, the Gardeners consider themselves as destined to survive while the wicked are destroyed. “We must be ready for the time when those who have broken trust with the Animals… will be swept away by the Waterless Flood, which will be carried on the wings of God’s dark Angles that fly by night, and in airplanes and helicopters and bullet trains, and on transport trucks and other such conveyances,” says Adam One, their leader, in one of his sermons.

The fringe Gardeners are more conscientious than the residents of the “Exfernal World” around them: Much of the action of the novel takes place on their rooftop plots, where they prepare “Ararats” and teach each other foraging skills while singing hymns or praying to a pantheon of beatified scientists (Dian Fossey, Rachel Carson, Euell Gibbons). As a result, they are also more boring. Even with intra-cult intrigue, and Atwood’s skillfully crafted futuristic sermons, the Gardeners simply don’t rival the garish inhabitants of the Pleeblands. Even Ren complains of her lackluster surroundings. “The street kids—the pleebrats—were hardly rich, but they were glittery… I envied their gaudy freedom.”

Atwood is better at inventing things than at setting them in motion and, at times, her plot does not live up to her creations. The pacing is uneven. Ren and Toby each spend much of the novel isolated from the rest of the world, so often there’s more memory than movement. Towards the end, the action becomes rigid and rushed—a confusing wrap-up of the first two novels in the series and an off-tone set-up for the third. The arrival of characters from “Oryx and Crake,” the trilogy’s first, that make the situation especially untenable. All at once, too many characters are butting up against each other in the post-apocalyptic desert.

This may be a blow to the book’s faint cautionary undertones. For a novel about a plague that kills off our depraved progeny, “The Year of the Flood” is too colorful and too absurd to carry weight as a warning. The soft cries of distress “We’re using up the earth. It’s almost gone,” can’t stand up to Atwood’s showy vocabulary. Without a strong foundation of action and emotion, the novel comes across as more of a literary burlesque than a dystopian drama. There’s no real meat to Atwood’s novel and even the witty funhouse creations leave one hungry for something more substantial than a SecretBurger.

—Staff writer Madeleine M. Schwartz can be reached at mschwartz@fas.harvard.edu.