Fairy-Tale Catastrophe Reborn

By Nick HubbleSeptember 22, 2013

Fairy-Tale Catastrophe Reborn

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

REGARDLESS OF ALL the discussion of Margaret Atwood’s relationship to science fiction, and regardless of her own insistence, in her closing acknowledgments to this book, that everything it depicts is possible as an extrapolation of existing bioscience, MaddAddam — the much-anticipated conclusion in a trilogy that includes The Year of the Flood  (2009) and Oryx and Crake (2003)ultimately works by utilizing fairy-tale devices. As Walter Benjamin observed, “The liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man.” Despite MaddAddam being a much more uneven and messy book than the satirically pure Oryx and Crake, it achieves something that its predecessor could not, which is to move beyond the mere identification of a “zero hour” and enable Atwood to develop her satire into the projected history of a transformed and liberated humanity.

There is a running gag at the heart of MaddAddam involving the Crakers, the childlike replacement species for humanity engineered by Crake in the first volume of the now-completed trilogy. Toby, the principal viewpoint character, has assumed the storytelling role that Jimmy created for himself in Oryx in Crake. After completing what have now become the ritualistic elements of donning the red baseball cap, “listening” to Crake on Jimmy’s broken wristwatch, and eating their undercooked offerings of fish, Toby attempts to impart a meaningful worldview to the Crakers by translating the past events involving the main human protagonists into simplistic fables. These stories are constantly interrupted by misunderstandings, the need to answer questions, and the Crakers’ propensity to break out into collective “singing,” which is not only indicative of a state of happiness but also, as becomes apparent further on in the novel, seems to demonstrate a direct connection with the wider world surrounding them — a link unavailable to alienated humanity. In “The Story of the Egg,” which opens the novel, Toby breaks her narrative to announce, “Please stop singing or I can’t go on with the story.” Variations on this injunction permeate the next 350 pages or so, ranging from the polite request, “please don’t sing,” to the outright threat, “I will stop telling this story if you sing.” Such exchanges are familiar to us from the everyday travails of harassed parents struggling to deal with young children who have yet to be socialized. They are funny precisely because they illustrate the gap between what Freud called the pleasure principle and the reality principle. Only by learning to postpone instant gratification, will we achieve the greater pleasure of a sustained socially symbolic interaction with the world.

The irony of this situation in Atwood’s fictional universe is that the Crakers shouldn’t need this kind of social interaction, having been designed by Crake to be at one with the world. It was only Jimmy’s need for fish as sustenance in Oryx and Crake that led him to initiate the storytelling ritual. But, once started, this is a process that follows its own logic. Noticeably, by the closing chapters of MaddAddam, when the identity of the storyteller has changed again, there is a shift in the nature of the admonishments given to the Crakers for singing. “Please don't sing yet,” they are told. “You can do the singing later.” It has become clear that their time will come. But what kind of time will it be?

In answering this question, it is worth pausing to consider the genre of apocalyptic disaster fiction and the degrees of political intent that have historically animated it. Comparing two classic examples from the midpoint of the twentieth century, one British and one American, gives an indication of what may be at stake in representing catastrophe. John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids first blinds the global population with satellite weapons and then subjects them to genetically-engineered, walking carnivorous plants with predictably gruesome consequences. George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, from 1949, is more restrained in its depiction of a natural disease that returns the world and its human inhabitants to a state of harmonious ecological balance. However, while Stewart’s central character fights against, fails to stop, and eventually comes to terms with, humanity’s regression to a more primitive state, Wyndham’s protagonists persist against the odds to build a new society that is more progressive than the one it replaces. The contrast between these two approaches has sometimes been represented as the product of a national difference: the gap between an American sense of spectacle and a grittier, more political, British realism. 

So, we can ask ourselves, which tradition does the famously Canadian Margaret Atwood favor? When reviewing The Year of the Flood for the London Review of Books, Fredric Jameson mischievously suggested that from her perspective the nature of the catastrophe is America itself, in all the glories of its infantile mass production. The narrative voice Atwood uses, however, whether in the form of Jimmy or Toby, is distinctly American and MaddAddam is marked by direct allusions to American literary culture, such as Sylvia Plath’s poetry or Gone with the Wind. Therefore, one may consider that she is using features from both disaster traditions in order to invigorate an American approach. Thus, the disaster in the MaddAddam trilogy is both natural − in the sense that human-caused climate change affects nature − and the product of germ warfare, while humanity is shown both to regress − in the sense that the Crakers represent a more primitive tribal existence − and nonetheless to have created a progressive new society by the end of the third novel. The relentless satire at the expense of American and Americanized society that permeates the trilogy is not as nihilist as it appeared in Oryx and Crake but instead linked to a reformist political agenda. If Atwood’s multi-coloured Crakers, with their pre-programmed behaviors, seem to lack either the dignity of Stewart’s reborn native Americans or the purpose of Wyndham’s utopians, then this should be offset against the improbability that novels such as Earth Abides or The Day of the Triffids could be written today without some form of ironic distancing.

Even so, the opening chapters of MaddAddam have an uneasy, disconcerting feel as the millennial impetus of The Year of the Flood is dissipated. Whereas that novel seemed to end on a note of high anticipation, with dispersed parties being reunited, Toby sparing the lives of the Painballers for the feast of “Saint Julian and All Souls,” and the approach of a singing, torch-lit procession, which might even be Adam One leading the God’s Gardeners into their inheritance, MaddAddam immediately collapses these expectations. The marching masses turn out to be the Crakers, who instantly wreak havoc upon arrival at the scene. Overwhelmed by the female hormones they sense, four male Crakers commence their mating ritual with Amanda, still traumatized from days of brutal captivity with the Painballers, and then proceed to drag both her and Ren, who tries to intervene, into “a flickering thicket of naked male limbs and backs.” At the same time, other Crakers are upset by the use of rope to tie up the Painballers and so release them. Somewhat improbably, the Painballers don’t take violent revenge on Toby but run off into the wilds to fulfill the role of unseen but vaguely menacing bogeymen. Subsequently, the novel quickly falls into the pattern of a cartoonish sitcom, as the MaddAddamites and Crakers set up home together back at the ranch. While Toby, locked into battle with the younger “tit-thrusting” Silver Fox for the affections of Zeb, has to remind herself that “this is not High School,” a subplot develops around the issue of the paternity of the babies that Ren and Amanda are expecting. Are these pregnancies the result of their rape at the hands of the Painballers, or of their equally non-consensual sex with the male Crakers? And should we see this latter act as being mitigated by the Crakers’ genetically-engineered traits and lack of cultural knowledge? The question is certainly raised as to how or even whether the Crakers and remaining MaddAddamites can co-exist.

When Toby starts crying at one point in the opening chapters, it is ostensibly because she thinks that she should have cut the Painballers’ throats when she had the chance, but we might equally see it as her general frustration at the sudden lack of meaning that has invaded her and her friends’ lives in the newly born post-apocalyptic world. This lack of meaning might also lead to an uncomfortable experience for the reader, unsure perhaps of where the story is going. If so, Atwood provides reassurance when she tells us: 

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”  

 This implies not only that there is more to come, but also the possibility that what we are being told in the opening chapters of MaddAddam is precisely that part of stories most frequently left out: the collapse of meaning after the apparent climactic ending. The remedy for this condition is the resumption of the story. Therefore, both Toby’s and the reader’s discomfort are assuaged by the commencement of a sequence of installments of Zeb’s back story, which satisfyingly tie up many, if not all, of the loose ends left over from the previous two novels. Furthermore, these sequences add something to the trilogy that has previously been missing: a sense of the external pre-apocalyptic human world as a place of excitement rather than merely a site for bland consumerism or urban squalor.

In particular, some engaging passages are set in a half-flooded Santa Monica, squatted by transients and bohemian hipsters; home to gambling, street acrobatics and water-taxi-borne tourism. Here Zeb finds work as an assistant to a stage magician, the very artifice of whose act provides his audience with a welcome sense of “reality” in a world increasing mediated by digital information. In a nice touch, the magician always refers to the latest of his ever-changing cast of female assistants, who provide glamor in counterpart to the brawn of their male counterparts, as “Miss Direction.” The particular Miss Direction who coincides with Zeb turns out to have a wider significance within the novel and raises questions about the artifice and staging of the whole plot that, while never explicitly spelt out, adds an implied complexity to the events by which he subsequently comes to know characters from the prequels such as Crake, Pilar, and Lucerne.

As Toby learns more of Zeb, there  eventually comes a point when, in obvious reference to the earlier statement about stories quoted above, she starts to anticipate the re-emergence of meaning. As she observes to the Crakers: “I’m waiting for the story of Zeb to join up with mine. The story of Toby. The story I am in right now with you.” Integral to this recovery of meaning is the process by which the Craker Blackbeard learns to write and eventually comes to take over the role of storyteller from Toby. His gradual emergence as a viewpoint character heralds the possibility of MaddAddamites and Crakers combining into a new human society; eventually it does become apparent that they are not separate species and can have children together. The humans become at one with the little folk, the Crakers, and through them become able to communicate with the pigoons, or “Pig Ones” as the Crakers call them. In this manner, MaddAddam stages the process, best described by the critic John Clute, in which a story remembers itself through the act of being told; an alchemy that redeems the more melodramatic shortcomings of the plot – such as the cardboard-villain nature of the Painballers – and sets up a concluding sequence that is far more satisfying than seemed possible from the perspective of the opening chapters.


LARB Contributor


Nick Hubble is a writer and academic who lives in Aberystwyth, Wales, UK. Nick is the author of Mass-Observation and Everyday Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; second edition 2010) and (with Philip Tew) of Ageing, Narrative and Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and the co-editor (with Aris Mousoutzanis) of the Science Fiction Handbook (Bloomsbury, 2013). Nick is currently writing a book exploring the relationship between proletarian literature and modernism.





LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!