Story Time: A Reflection on Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy

Trilogies are odd. They’re not always big enough to span the sort of time and adventure that longer series do, but they’re split into parts for a reason, right? So sometimes in reading trilogies I find myself wanting the whole scoop all at once. I want to have the bird’s-eye-view so I know what I’m dealing with. I suppose you could say I’m a greedy reader. THUS: Drew and I finished the MaddAddam Trilogy at the same time, so while his excellent reviews for each of the books (Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam) are all up, here are some thoughts about the work as a whole.

“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.”

Atwood is often hailed as a great storyteller, so it’s no surprise that the MaddAddam trilogy is as much a consideration of why we need stories–and how we create mythology–as it is an excellent story itself.

We set out sometime in the not-too-distant the future, where a massive plague has wiped out most of the population, and throughout the three books we hear the story of how it happened over and over. First through the lens of Snowman (known in his past as Jimmy), holding on to the last shreds of his humanity as a faux-prophet to the Crakers, a tribe of genetically modified proto-humans. Then from Ren and Toby out in the seedy pleeblands and their encounters with the God’s Gardeners, an ascetic religious cult. Finally we meet Zeb, a rugged sort-of-hero who has tangled with more than his share of loathsome people. Ultimately, they are all gathered in the post-Flood world grappling with the idea that they–worn down and afraid though they are–need to lay the foundation for what comes next.

So this is not sprawling, action-packed sci-fi (or if we’re being good Atwood disciples, “speculative fiction”…spec-fi?). Chronologically, it doesn’t progress much from the moment the first book starts. Each book’s telling refers to a very short span of time in the present, but mostly through flashbacks explaining how we got here. Explaining why this is our present. I have a tendency, maybe, to justify weird things like this in books by authors that I love, so I could be making this up, but it seems very intentional that Atwood chose to tell the story by looping back over and over from different points of view. I read somewhere that Atwood didn’t set out to write a trilogy. She wrote Oryx and Crake, a gripping read which, towards the end, leaves you sort of lurching and horrified, and enough people asked her what happened after the end of the book that she decided to keep writing. BUT, she didn’t continue forward. She started at the same place with different characters. She started filling in gaps, and building out the world. The cyclical pattern of her storytelling reflects the overwhelming theme of the trilogy–rebirth. Starting again. How to make it in a new world.

Beneath that structure is a lesson in myth-building. It’s not an uncommon thought that myths and religions are created out of a need to explain things we can’t understand. But while it’s always seemed easy to chalk that sort of dismissive speculation up to lack of scientific or social enlightenment, Atwood presents the occasion of myth-creation in terms that feel unsettlingly relatable. We could, in the near future, have the need to piece together our entire history and extract meaning from it. Atwood suggests that we desperately need our stories–our histories and how it all happened–because we might very soon need to create new myths.

This concept is alluded to throughout the books – notably through some healthy satire about organized religion. Our modern day mythology. Atwood draws a poor picture of religion (read: Christianity) in capitalist America via the pretty hilarious Church of PetrOleum. There are the nominal references–The Flood, the Adam & Eve nomenclature of the God’s Gardeners, Adam One’s Hymns in The Year of the Flood (which, by the way, someone adapted into an actual album and it’s really weird). There’s the structural idea of telling the same story from multiple points of view (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John anyone?).

And then there’s that suspicion that the trying-to-make-sense-of-things-in-a-new-world that the characters spend the whole post-Flood part of the story immersed in is just how religions get created anyway. Jimmy and Toby telling bedtime stories to the Crakers reminded me a whole lot of Sunday School Bible Stories – using stories (generally a shade or several from the truth) to explain difficult things. Our brains are wired to understand things through examples. The Crakers demand stories to understand the things they cannot comprehend in this world they have inherited. And Atwood writes their curiosity so sweetly, a sort of affectionate reminder of our human need for fiction–that it’s okay not to understand. Jimmy, Toby et al do their best to explain things, but they also see the opportunity to shape the Crakers view of the world–to color it more positively than the reality they’ve known.  Consequently, they use a lot of scapegoat deification to explain the rough parts. In MaddAddam at one point, Jimmy says to Toby, “I hear they’re fanboys for Zeb these days. Stick with that plot line, it’s got legs. Just keep them from finding out what a bogus fraud everything is.”  Call me irreverent, but I can imagine a couple of guys in the 6th century BCE mulling over their work…“Hmm how do we make the Book of Exodus compelling? Let’s stick with the Moses plot line. I think people will really get behind his journey!”

In MaddAddam, Atwood takes us a step further and considers the impact and consequences of memorializing our myths, fact or fiction. At the end, there’s a shift from narrative to written word storytelling, which on one hand gives the reader the sense that everything is settling down–we’ve got The Way Things Are written down, we’re doing okay. There’s a settling in of a new structured society–a transition from chaos to peace. On the other hand, we know how that goes. Atwood, not to mention our real-life-world, shows us that when society reaches a tipping point–when we think we understand everything–there will inevitably come a big upset. The characters know it too. When the little Craker boy Blackbeard begins to really understand writing and reading, Toby worries ““What comes next? Rules, dogmas, laws? The Testament of Crake? How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret?” Here, Atwood is sending up a warning against taking myths and religious texts out of context. That’s how fundamentalism is born, no? Taking things literally? Just nodding in agreement rather than analyzing. It’s why we, as a culture, don’t understand satire. It’s also why it’s getting more and more difficult for modern society to get on board with religions based on ancient texts. Maybe this is Atwood’s suggestion that – if you want to a person of faith and have it make sense in this day and age – you’ve got to actually use your brain. 

And though we do get a new beginning in each of the novels, it’s not until MaddAddam that Atwood really digs in to the theme of starting over. The end of the book feels anti-climactic in some ways, but I think that might be the point. The end of the trilogy is really the beginning of a new story. A gentle reminder that these waves of human nature/society don’t end in fire and brimstone and big dramatic battles. It’s more hopeful than that–it’s circular, with each end fading into a beginning, painfully and slowly and beautifully.

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