MaddAddam By Margaret Atwood, Bloomsbury, Rs 699
Trilogies have a tendency of ending with a whimper. It seems that even a writer of Margaret Atwood’s stature cannot prevent such an eventuality, if the disappointment one feels over MaddAddam, the last in the series of her three books set in a dystopic future, is anything to go by. But in this trilogy at least, the decline had set in right from the second book, The Year of the Flood (2009), which had started taking the writer’s ingenuous speculations about the effects of irresponsible scientific experiments that made up the first book, Oryx and Crake (2003), to the realm of the banal. In The Year of the Flood, the sect of the God’s Gardeners, with their hymns for a green world, prayers for revitalizing man’s innate powers which have been forgotten in the euphoria of technological progress, had a righteous sweetness to it that would have been harmful for health had it not been kept in check by Atwood’s wicked humour. MaddAddam continues the story of The Year of the Flood, and here the sweetness has curdled into downright silliness. Since the author is Atwood, one can still race through the novel without being bored, but at the end, one feels startled, and a little sad, about the fact that she has produced such a book.
Atwood calls her genre of writing ‘speculative fiction’: in MaddAddam her speculations are evidently losing steam. So this one repeats what we have already read in the two preceding books. There is Toby of the God’s Gardeners, who was at the centre of The Year of the Flood, still trying to piece together a life in a world left derelict by the manmade dry flood, which has obliterated almost the whole of the human population, leaving behind legions of hybrid animals as proof of man’s past inventiveness. So there are these fantastic creatures we have met before: pigoons — carnivorous, brainy pigs once bred for supplying humans with organs, now running wild; Mo’Hair — sheep with yards of hair in different colours reared for providing wigs; and, of course, the Crakers. The last are the bio-engineered humans designed by the master scientist, Crake, who features here as a creator god in the imagination of his ‘children’, these Crakers.
In Oryx and Crake, the Crakers appeared for the first time in their naked, unselfconscious glory. Each of them — with enhanced immune systems so that no epidemics can harm them, programmed to ritually copulate at specific seasons so that they are left untroubled by the mess of love and its follower, violence, and with an inbuilt mechanism to make them die at 30 so that they know no old age — is a perfect being. They purr to heal themselves, eat shoots and leaves, and sing in a high-pitched voice whenever the mood takes them. Although Crake tried to make his children human without human follies and without needs that can potentially lead to follies — like the necessity to love and the desire to create art out of life — he could not take out the singing gene. The Crakers’ song had a philosophic dimension to it in the last two books — it performed a function similar to that of art by symbolizing felt experience and filling up the vacant space where the soul is supposed to be, even if the Crakers themselves were unaware of what they were doing. Their choral songs, spreading out like the briny waters of the sea, softly touching the horizon, as the Crakers walked in a procession along the beach with flickering torches at the end of The Year of the Flood, seemed to heal the rotting wounds of the sickened world. In MaddAddam, Atwood appears to have lost interest, or worse, started getting irritated by their persistent singing. So Toby, as she moulds stories out of life to make reality comprehensible to the childlike Crakers, constantly requests them to stop breaking into song. The music has been so eroded of its magic that now it is likened to “digital-keyboard theremin sounds”, coming out of vocal cords made of “organic glass”.
This downgrading applies to the general character of the Crakers as well. For the gravity of the role they are given to play here — as they mate with humans, they emerge as the progenitors of a future race of mutated beings who will populate the earth — they appear simply ridiculous, with their stupid questions and dangling bright blue cocks. Yes, they can communicate instinctively with the pigoons, and so offer the possibility of animals and humans living together in pre-lapsarian bliss again in future. Besides, they are learning language in MaddAddam, a development that may result in the Crakers learning to curse as well, although that option is not explored for the time being, probably for the sake of the happy ending. Whatever the case may turn out to be, if a race of mixed Crakers constitutes the future, then the future does not seem to be particularly bright, in both senses of the term (in a very apt description by one of the humans who designed them, the Crakers are called “walking potatoes”). Perhaps Atwood wants to make the point that since cleverness has led us to ruin, it may be beneficial to be foolish. After all, interpreters have always suspected that Adam and Eve, Adam in particular, before the Fall were rather dim. So the restoration of paradise may involve — however laughable all these might seem to our corrupted minds at present — worshipping pigoons, happily munching kudzu vines, urinating in circles, bringing about loud baby booms by putting potent blue genitals to good use, and recording every mundane detail of quotidian life in a journal, as Blackbeard, the emergent Craker chronicler, does.
Besides, the alternative to the Crakers, the surviving humans in this novel, do not seem to be a very promising lot either. All that they, especially the women, do is sit around the table and bitch about one another. Since men have become rare, the women pitch furiously for the remaining few, sexing up their talk with references to “girl stuff” like tampons, tweezers, nail polish and pregnancy tests, “the kind where you pee on sticks”. Toby, recording the thrust and parry of the conversational game while standing outside it because she is middle-aged, with the added distinction of being an ex-teacher, rallies herself to ignore the healthy feminine ambience by thinking, “This is not high school.” Atwood, or the omniscient narrator, adds, “But in some ways, it more or less is.” The author, who is known to harbour feminist views, seems to be acknowledging, in a fit of annoyance, certain unglamorous aspects of femininity in MaddAddam. The wry observations about “breast weaponry” and “girly-girl pigtails” are undoubtedly schoolmarmish, coming as they do from Toby, but are also singularly apt given the way the younger women in the novel pout and preen, claw and hiss for male attention.
The author of MaddAddam seems to have two selves, one tired and cynical and the other trying hard to cancel out that side by believing in a future where objects will fit their names and emotions their response, as may just happen in the Crakers’ paradise. But the belief lacks conviction, and the reader is left unconvinced, no matter how much he may be attracted to the idea held forth by Atwood of a lush green earth with fluttering moths, murmuring bees, daily afternoon showers, and innocent, unselfish beings. The Year of the Flood had ended with the Crakers’ song, as does MaddAddam. But whereas in the former the music had offered a balm to jagged nerves, Blackbeard’s final declaration here, “Now we will sing”, sounds like a threat, given the way the characters had been running for cover whenever that music had started. Judging from the swiftness with which Atwood kills off the only two tolerable characters in the book — characters who are also the protagonists — Toby and her lover, Zeb, one after the other as the Crakers and their half-human progeny take over the earth at the end, one suspects that the author herself would be glad to flee the brave blue world.