Book review: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood’s finale to the trilogy of the same name – has a lot to say about the process of storytelling.

The trilogy revolves around the events that led up to the ‘Waterless Flood’ – a plague engineered by the genius Crake to wipe out most of the Earth’s population and sweep the slate clean for his genetically engineered ‘perfect’ humans. The few survivors of the plague – former gene scientists and the remnants of a disbanded religious order called the Gods’ Gardeners – tell stories to each other and themselves to make sense of their past in a society atomised and finally destroyed by the ambitions of mass corporations.

The process of storytelling is embedded in the very structure of all three novels, which circle, at times frustratingly, between the present and the forever-gone past. The process of telling stories forges a link between humanity’s undoing and its tenuous survival – not only in the novels themselves, but also in the form of the Crakers.

Engineered to live free from ‘faults’ such as sexual frustration, shame and the desire to form hierarchies and amass wealth, these innocent beings in their not-quite-Paradise wilderness still need stories to make sense of the dangers and mysteries of the world around them. Unlike Adam and Eve in the Genesis story, however, the Crakers have a cast of reluctant custodians to teach them what it means to be human. We know they have been taught successfully when Blackbeard, in the final chapter of the trilogy, finally puts pen to paper and takes over as the teller of humanity’s story.

Open-ended questions

The trilogy’s circling between narrated past and immediate present begins at the outset of Oryx and Crake, where Jimmy-the-Snowman’s grief-induced recollections present the reader with a lot of unanswered questions.

How did Jimmy end up in his treetop shelter on the beach, fed fish by perfectly beautiful specimens of sort-of-humanity that regard him as some kind of alien with divine connections? What happened to destroy the world of his reminiscences, with all of its uncomfortable resemblances to the world of today? How did this world come to be manipulated so completely by a small number of biotech corporations whose level of surveillance and social control borders on the absolute? And for that matter, how did the discourses – and possibilities – of science come to be privileged above all other frameworks that might have provided them with a critical outside?

For the most part, these questions remain unanswered at the end of MaddAddam. The world destroyed by Crake never has the chance to redeem itself. And what the new world offers is unclear, beyond the promise that life will go on – albeit in slightly unfamiliar forms that include blue penises, telepathy and the possibility of alliances (as opposed to purely instrumental relationships) between humans and other species.

The open-endedness of the questions raised by Atwood is reinforced through her refusal to lead her protagonists to any kind of epiphany at the end of the trilogy. Characters such as Jimmy and Ren never manage to draw any moral conclusions about, or rise to action against, the injustices around them. Even Toby insists on defining the problems facing first the God’s Gardeners and later their little group of survivors in individualist, practical terms, without recourse to any kind of metanarratives.

At first, this makes the trilogy a frustrating read – especially in Oryx and Crake, where Jimmy never outgrows his nature as a wilfully blind consumer – of pornography, the material perks of living in the corporate compounds, Oryx’s stories. But reading to the note of uneasy hope at the end of MaddAddam, I saw this repeated denial of the expected trajectory of growth and realisation as one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

Atwood’s refusal to provide a clear answer to the questions she asks in the MaddAddam books keeps those questions relevant. Denied a neat sense of closure, the reader cannot relegate these questions into ‘just a story’ – an unpleasant but temporary escape into a world that, we hope, could never become our own.

From equality in exploitation to biology as destiny

Yet the present-tense story of the MaddAddamites and the Crakers is far less open-ended, and also, I think, a lot less original. This is particularly so when it comes to the question of what future the post-apocalyptic world might hold for women.

Before the Waterless Flood, men and women appear to have achieved a kind of mock equality in their mutual exploitation by mass corporations. Their bodies, for the most part, are equally capable of being turned into objects of consumption. Boys and girls are sold by desperate village families to become ‘actors’ in pornographic films, while an entire industry has developed to cook up genetically perfect children for wealthy infertile couples. There are streets in the Pleeblands where scores of brothels cater to every taste, quirk and kink, while the bodies of Pleebland brawl victims and CorpSeCorps enemies are literally fed back to the consumer in SecretBurger patties.

But the most valuable commodity of all is the brain, and in this respect the intellectual – or at least, numerical – abilities of men and women are equally sought after. We see women as high-level scientists and senior corporate personnel – and also as political activists and urban guerrillas. But their near-equality does not equate to liberation. It is merely the mock equality of ultimate commodification, where gender roles and identities join the multiplicity of options to be desired, shopped for and acquired by consumers. Such choices are limitless – so long as they fit within the rubric of compulsory consumption.

Atwood’s vision of the world before the Waterless Flood is a bleak one, but for women at least, it does not exactly improve when its structural trappings – and most of its population – are swept away.

The relationship between women and their biology in Atwood’s writing has often been described as a dystopian one. Atwood portrays women as being caged by their bodies  or at least, as made vulnerable to being caged by patriarchal networks of power.

If this description is true of the world before the Waterless Flood – when the body parts, reproductive functions and aesthetic features of women were all marketable commodities – it applies even more so to the world that comes after. For the women of the series, being plunged into a not-quite-wild wilderness bristling with dangers instantly repositions them as dependents on male protection, potential victims of sexual assault, and (presumably more optimistically) those responsible for the repopulation of humanity.

By the end of MaddAddam, four of the seven female protagonists have become pregnant; the particularly enthusiastic Swift Fox is pregnant for the second time. Perhaps these women’s move to embrace motherhood is understandable in a world where few other kinds of creativity remain relevant or useful. But then, the old MaddAddamites – Swift Fox, Lotis Blue and White Sedge – were once highly qualified gene scientists, whose forays into bio-resistance activism also provided them with at least some degree of political experience. Amanda was a successful artist-activist, while Toby and Rebecca were in the senior ranks of the God’s Gardeners. Presumably these tough, street-smart and educated women have more to offer what remains of humanity than just their capacity to increase its numbers.

Well, not according to Swift Fox, for whom reproductive rights very quickly become synonymous with reproductive duties.

“We owe it to the human race. Don’t you think?” Her question takes a double swipe at the infertile Toby and also, indirectly, at Amanda and Ren, whose unwanted but ultimately accepted pregnancies are the result of a “cultural misunderstanding” with the Crakers that looks and sounds a lot like rape.

Even Toby, who acts as the recorder of the group and the main teacher to the Crakers, is sucked into the tangle of sexual rivalries and petty jealousies that soon comes to dominate the MaddAddamite dinner table.

For Toby, the fear that her lover, Zeb, will be drawn away by the charms of the “voracious” Swift Fox leads her to think – at times consciously – in terms heavily coloured by internalised misogyny. She resents Swift Fox for wanting to “have it both ways” – to be active and assertive in terms of her sexual desire, but also to remind the men that she “isn’t just a pretty body”. She calls her “girl” and “slut”, likening her to “some outdated cut-rate prostibot commercial.”  At the same time, the way she talks about Zeb is also very problematic: there is no possibility of trust, of “truly knowing” what he might have been up to, now that “there is no ownership” in relationships.

But what makes the tensions among the MaddAddamites particularly unsettling is how one-sided they are. Though the men make up the majority of their group, only the women appear to be competing for their favour. In fact, the men don’t even see it, according to Toby – “the silent mud-wrestle in the air.” But then, how could they? “They’re not on the progesterone wavelength.”

I’m all for rounded female characters who are not put on an intellectual pedestal above supposedly petty or base emotions and desires. But by excluding the men from these contests of attraction, Atwood reinforces some very stale stereotypes about the way women behave towards one another, particularly when any eligible male is on the scene.

Just as unsettling is the way the women of the group – with Toby as the sole exception – slip further and further into the role of passive bystanders as the group prepares for its final confrontation with the violent ex-prisoners known as the Painballers.  In the circumstances, this is not exactly a matter of common sense. Both the MaddAddamites and the Painballers are armed with sprayguns; the outcome of the fighting is never dependent on physical strength. The dangers besetting them are serious ones, and greater numbers would clearly have increased their chances of success (and potentially helped avoid the deaths of Jimmy and Adam). So why these women unquestioningly accept their reproductive systems – in early pregnancy for Amanda, Ren and Swift Fox, and during menstruation for White Sedge – as disabling?

Well, perhaps “unquestioningly” is a bit unfair. Swift Fox, in a very short-lived protest against the division of labour in their little group, declares that “gender roles suck” – but neither she nor any of the other women seem able to stop playing them.

Contests of attraction and gender games: will we really never stop playing them?

Ultimately, I found MaddAddam to be a disappointing read. Atwood’s vision of the role of women in a post-apocalyptic world seemed all the more simplistic given the richness of her writing about the world that came before it.

I was particularly unconvinced by the repeated references to biology as the cause of the women’s reversion to gender stereotypes after the Waterless Flood.

There is no clear line between our ‘real’ biological experience and our subsequent articulation of it through the structures of language, with all the gender baggage that they carry. Atwood is very conscious of this, and to some extent, so are her characters.

But all the same, MaddAddam does nothing to refute the conclusion reached by Crake while still a boy, during the nascence of his God complex. The only way to liberate ourselves from our learned, and therefore socially and historically contingent, behaviours is to build a new kind of human. Thus positing symbolically conditioned biological experience as something no more (and perhaps less) escapable than ‘real’ biology, the novel effectively does suggest that biology is destiny. This pessimistic vision is only reinforced by a cast of characters for whom, even in the absence of the structures and institutions that hold up the hierarchies between the genders, character traits – such as preparedness to take risks, competitiveness, jealousy, passivity – continue to be performed along gender lines.

Perhaps this could be called realistic. But to me it seemed like a bit of a failure of the imagination.The complications offered by the human survivors’ burden of learned behaviours did not necessitate a conclusion where – particularly after the death of Toby – there is no character left to deviate from a heteronormative, reproduction-oriented future in which women’s place is very much assured. As part of their education in being human, the Crakers are taught to construct their own narratives – to tell humanity’s story. Yet at the close of the trilogy, there seems to be only one kind of story left to tell.

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