Post-apocalyptic novel ‘MaddAddam’ mythologizes humankind

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When the apocalypse on Earth is retold from the mouths of a flawless, green-eyed, human-like species, the history of humankind becomes a drastically different story. It becomes a tangled fable of epic proportions, told from a naive perspective unaware of the suffering endured during the old civilization’s closing moments. “MaddAddam,” the final installment in Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction trilogy of “Oryx and Crake,” plays with the anthropological functions of storytelling and human language to warp time and deliver another solid literary performance.

In classic Atwood fashion, “MaddAddam” sheds its skin slowly and in layers, revealing only the necessary knowledge required to understand specific moments in the story. Instead of making all character identities, relationships and storyworld histories explicit from the start, Atwood leaves much shrouded in mystery and prefers to filter details through her characters, most often selecting to write from the perspective of those who know the least. Such writing simultaneously conceals, reveals and describes, creating a somber, yearning tone that leaves one entranced by the novel’s most ethereal characters, such as Oryx, and perplexed by others, such as Jimmy.

Such a skill is a challenge to master, especially in sequel novels that tend to exhaust the mystique of their primary characters relatively quickly. In most series, the reader can predict, given the protagonist’s handful of traits, what he or she will do next. With Atwood, this is never the case. Despite the placement of “MaddAddam” as the final book in a trilogy, Atwood’s honed character filtering technique leaves her with plenty of world details, character secrets and anecdotes to unfurl until the bittersweet end.

Like in the first two novels, “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood,” Atwood plays with time and frequently embeds lengthy flashbacks and past scenes into a present frame, adding a new depth to the story that places the reader into a character’s state of mind. Because Toby, the novel’s protagonist, lives in the post-apocalyptic world with weighty memories of a traumatic past encumbering her sense of the present, she is frequently forced to relive the past in the present. As Toby reflects, Atwood sends the reader back in time, often for a significant number of pages, distorting one’s standard perception of time and life as a flat plane with a beginning and end. Like the characters in “MaddAddam,” the reader comes to see life at the end of the novel as something timeless and eternal.

“MaddAddam,” unlike its predecessors, is structured around the function of meta-storytelling. Throughout the novel, the reader experiences the majority of key plots events through the frame narrative of one character recounting an experience to another. This series of nested frame narratives within a larger, more chronological timeline gives Atwood the freedom to delve into the past and show us more of what happened before the infamous Year of the Flood, the airborne “flood” apocalyptic event.

The novel begins with an emphasis on oral communication for storytelling: The pseudo-human, green-eyed “Craker” people sing incessantly and human characters exchange information verbally instead of through written communication. While oral communication proves the most effective way to interact with nature — as the Crakers sing to nature and human Toby speaks to the bees she keeps — there is a sudden shift at the end of the novel, emphasizing the paradigm importance of the written word for human interaction that transcends time.

Considering that she’s an author, it’s no surprise Atwood provokes this rather moralistic shift in favor of literacy and event-recording near the end of the novel. This shift from verbal immediacy to a more onerous written form of communication appears representative of the calming down and “settling” of a new structured society as the novel moves from chaos to peace. As the Craker people slowly acquire knowledge of human customs, the concepts of creationism, storytelling and literacy stick.

Throughout the series, Atwood incessantly thrusts questions upon readers that are exceptionally relevant to American society. Over the course of three novels, Atwood offers a dystopian form of capitalism, a world of science without ethical bounds and a “waterless Flood” that evokes biblical meanings and a rebirth of the human species, laden with a surprising hint of optimism typically absent in works of dystopian literature.

Kate Irwin covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].