‘Good enough to leave you wondering whether you shouldn’t in fact go back and gorge on the trilogy like a DVD boxset’ – Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
Maddaddam, as you probably know, is the third book in the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake, a trilogy, you probably further also know, that has seen Atwood try her hand at speculative fiction (but not – but never – sci-fi) for the first time since The Handmaid’s Tale, which many Atwood fans regard as one of if not the best of her novels.
Coming in with a reader friendly ‘story so far’ catch-up prologue that brings you up to speed with the previous books if you’ve gone somewhat cloudy on them (as I had), Maddaddam takes up the action where both Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood left of (each of the previous books running in tandem with one another) and so we find ourselves in the company of Toby, the genial older lady from Flood, as she transports a feverish Jimmy (or Snowman-the-Jimmy as he is known this time around), the narrator of Oryx and Crake, back to a makeshift camp that is also home to a dozen or so characters we have chanced across before in various guises.
Maddaddam employs a dual narrative much like Year of the Flood, switching between the present (in which Toby looks after Jimmy, begins a relationship with Zeb and gradually comes to loom large in the world of the Crakers, the softly spoken gentle species created by Crake) and the recent past (in which we follow Zeb, who also comes to loom large in the world of the Crakers) – but whereas Flood suffered as a result of the ‘present’ narrative being largely static until the climax of the novel, Maddaddam has a pair of narratives that are each enjoyable and compelling enough in their own way. Readers familiar with the trilogy will by this point have become used to Atwood’s way with portmanteau words (Atwood’s future is a portmanteau future – or should that be porture?) and understand the way in which she takes current thinking (the visionary articles you see in the pages of New Scientist) to skilfully map a possible future world.
Toby is a genial narrator, and her interplay with Zeb is nicely handled (the heart of Maddaddam, in spite of all of the outlandish techtalk, is actually a love story of sorts and it is charming and true and sweetly funny); as is the construction of life within the camp. Certain portions of the back story come to resemble elements of Back to the Future 2, in that there are times when it feels like scenes are being revisited with one Marty McFly while the other Marty McFly plays Johnny B Good up on the stage. But that isn’t to say that there are not great scenes – Zeb as junior hacker, Zeb as a geek, Zeb as a bouncer – all of these interludes make for a great read. There are questions – whether the crinkly eyed geniality and the playfulness of the prose occasionally subverts the seriousness of her message (Cormac McCarthy didn’t play The Road for laughs after all), for instance, whether the climax of the book would have been improved if Atwood had played it straight (the thing with literary authors sometimes, they can’t just tell a tale, they have to have it filtered through a new device – it can get a bit wearing) and, for that matter whether it all ends too quickly and is wrapped up rather too neatly for a climax that has taken three books to reach… These are all questions that linger, doubtfully, over the trilogy.
Maddaddam is a better read, though, than Year of the Flood, a more intellectually satisfying novel, and Atwood plays her cards, for the most part, in a way that will give readers, particularly her fans, much to admire. Is there a corresponding sense of relief that she’s got it all out of her system now and will hopefully crack on with something fresh and new and different again? Between ourselves, yes. A little bit. At the same time, is Maddaddam good enough – as the end books of all trilogies should be – to have you wondering whether at some point the whole thing shouldn’t be gorged upon, like a DVD boxset, to see what new pleasures are to be had from examining the books in closer detail? The answer – and I’m surprised to say this because I wasn’t completely bowled over by Year of the Flood – the answer is a resounding yes.
Any Cop?: It’s playful but poignant, comic but cataclysmic. Maddaddam might disappoint the hardcore sci-fi peeps who have seen all of this done countless times before, and it might disappoint Atwood’s legions of fans who prefer her in Alias Grace / Blind Assassin mode – but for all that it’s a good novel that stands alongside the best of her work and so warrants the attention of serious readers.
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- September 5, 2013 / 5:49 am