In The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, the world has gone bad: the rich live as in castle towns while the poor eke out their livings in more-or-less lawless ghettos called “pleeblands,” which are run by street gangs, “pleebmobs,” controlled by the CorpSeCorp corporation which also owns the police. The corruption in government seems inextricable, and the violations of ethics are wholesale gruesome. For example, HelthWyzer purposely infects the poor with genetically designed illnesses, then profits from selling them the cures. In a world without accountability for big-enough businesses even for crimes as egregious as this, who cares about environmentalist concerns?
I am struck by the implicit relationship between Atwood’s fictional, oligarchic, feudal society and our real, modern trend toward less regulated, more out-of-control, more oppressively big business and wider gaps between rich and poor. It’s as if she is challenging our perspective, prompting us to take a wider, longer view—to consider how our day-to-day lives, our values and priorities, and our most fundamental beliefs might be affected by the onset of such a dreadful dystopia.
Atwood supposes that people who live deliberate, conservationist lifestyles will likely be seen as outsiders. In The Year of the Flood, they’ve assemble into persecuted cults, e.g. the militant Wolf Isaiahist or the pacifist God’s Gardeners. The book follows the God’s Gardeners, who are a bunch of hippies on Jesus, basically, who count prominent scientists among the saints for their secular contributions to humanity. Their point of view is relayed through three narrators.
The youngest (and most fun, in my opinion) is Ren, who tells her story of move-around adolescent rebellion in the first person voice.
Toby is callused, stern, and unapproachable, an unwilling matriarch; true to character, her story of willful resistance is told in the third person.
The third and least frequent narrator is the spiritual leader of the Gardeners, Adam One. Through his sermonizing, Atwood manages to conflate Christianity, science, and socio-economic commentary into a worldview that is surprisingly cohesive—surprisingly especially because it is incomplete, as revealed by the unresolved debates over matters of doctrine and faith at the councils of Adams and Eves. It makes me wonder, are our own worldviews any more cohesive? What am I forgetting when I inform and adjust my own outlook upon the world? What don’t I know? What do I take for granted? And also, why does it always sound silly, eccentric, or insane to attempt a new, holistic worldview? Did we evolve as spiritual animals, like Adam One says, or as materialistic brutes who are naturally inclined to bully and discredit the peaceful, spiritual thinkers amongst us, like Zeb seems to believe? “Wherever there’s nature, there’s assholes,” he says (186). Either way, or both, we can be sure that we are struggling. This existential struggle is what, I believe, Atwood is trying to evoke. She gets it.
The book is chopped up into sections, oddly—by theme, by time? (Years pass)—and each section is introduced by a sermon from Adam One paired with a weird hymn. It does cohere, but not right away. The structure makes the book off-putting early on, but ultimately works to convey a wider perspective, a range of viewpoints, all rich with Atwood’s unique insights into people, society, and religion.
So playfully presented, the plot is almost undetectable until well into the story, but the characters are so sympathetic, the book is gripping nonetheless. I would recommend The Year of the Flood to all readers over age 15, just for the experience of such a wild book, though it’s too full of peroration (blunt, however artful) to ever be a favorite of mine, personally. It is a vast, ludicrous, character-driven, good novel, which raises questions worth asking.