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September 22, 2009

Noah's Ark Goes Green in Atwood's Feminist Flood

Six months ago, we were told that swine flu would kill us all. The H1N1 virus failed to destroy mankind (so far, at least), but this year’s looming flu season brings along with it Margaret Atwood’s new novel The Year of the Flood to help feed our microbe-induced hysteria.

The Year of the Flood’s bleak and dystopian setting is similar to those in previous Atwood novels—it’s the same world, in fact, as in Oryx and Crake. A splinter religious group known as God’s Gardeners lives in an unnamed city, along with bands of ultra-violent hooligans and corporate toadies living inside the heavily protected HealthWyzer Compound. The leader of the Gardeners, Adam One, prophesies that the world will be punished for its crimes against the environment and disregard for morality by a latter-day Noah’s Flood, this time coming in the form of a pandemic.

The so-called “Waterless Flood” manifests itself as a mysterious virus, turning those infected into gelatinous pools of melted flesh. This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang, but a puddle.

Not everyone dies, though. Thanks to fortunate happenstance, two women who formerly belonged to the Gardeners survive—Toby in the AnooYoo spa and Ren in a detox chamber in the kinky Scales and Tails nightclub. The novel’s narrative alternates between the voices of these two characters, who recall their pre-flood world in rich, disturbing detail.

Orphaned at a young age, Toby finds employment at SecretBurger, a fast-food joint that gives new meaning to “mystery meat.” (Let’s just say that corpses in the vicinity tend to disappear.) While being attacked one day by her sex offender of a boss, Toby is rescued by Adam One and a group of Gardener children. Toby becomes an accomplished botanist and beekeeper inside the environmentalist-hippie commune, eventually rising to the status of an Eve, as Adam One’s most devout female followers are known.

Ren, on the other hand, is a bit of a wild child. Brought into the cult by her flaky mother, she never quite fits in with the Gardeners: “They smiled a lot, but they scared me: they were so interested in doom, and enemies, and God.” She escapes as a teenager, only to become an exotic dancer who works in a form-fitting bird costume.

Although the Gardeners are mostly interested in environmental concerns (Adam One sees his mission as “push[ing] popular sentiment in a biosphere-friendly direction”), the novel itself deals with hot-button feminist issues: prostitution, sexual violence, equal opportunity. Is it a coincidence that those who survive the Flood are women? Or is there something special about these women that makes them tough enough to escape an unstoppable virus? While environmentalism is the more obvious focus of Atwood’s novel, there is an equally powerful story told about the inner strength of women in an oppressive society.

The feminist agenda becomes so readily apparent partly because the Gardeners’ environmentalism is so heavy handed that it forces the reader to dismiss it. Atwood includes hippie-dippy hymns to nature in between chapters, along with loony sermons from Adam One. The Gardeners rail against the genetically modified creatures of the forest (fluorescent rabbits and liobams, which are half-lion and half-lamb), promote evangelical vegetarianism, and refuse to wash their clothes. It’s hard to sympathize with a group you just know would hate you.

The last straw comes when we are finally presented with the next generations of humans: perfectly sculpted, mad scientist-created specimens with bright blue erections that “wave from side to side like the tails of happy dogs.” If this is utopia, count me out.