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Margaret Atwood's apocalyptic humor

September 27, 2009 | 10:00 am


With "The Year of the Flood," Margaret Atwood presents another story of our apocalyptic future.  Reviews of "The Year of the Flood" all seem similarly amused (for the new novel has many touches of humor), admiring, perhaps also a little lukewarm.
Our reviewer John Freeman, in this Sunday's section, is satisfied with the story -- and happy that the long wait for a novel from Atwood (six years) is finally over. Though the new novel revisits the same catastrophic situation in her 2003 novel "Oryx and Crake," Freeman says the tone of the new book couldn't be more different. Where the early book gives us "the apocalypse done in dour tones," Freeman writes, "The Year of the Flood" is:

a slap-happy romp through the end times. Stuffed with cornball hymns, genetic mutations worthy of Thomas Pynchon (such as the rakuunk, a combined skunk and raccoon) and a pharmaceutical company run amok, it reads like dystopia verging on satire. She may be imagining a world in flames, but she's doing it with a dark cackle.

Why does Atwood, at 69, turn to this genre as readily as, say, William Trevor mines the same Irish soil and social strata or Nick Hornby immerses his characters in '70s and '80s music? She explained her fascination in 2005 in the Guardian. Among several reasons, the Canadian author said then that novels in the science fiction and fantasy genres enable us to imagine technologies as real, lived experiences -- something far more vivid than a scientific text can do:

They can explore the consequences ... in graphic ways, by showing them as fully operational. We've always been good at letting cats out of bags and genies out of bottles, we just haven't been very good at putting them back in again.

It's an attitude that hasn't changed for her. There is one genie, she recently told the New York Times, she is preoccupied with now:

We’ve just opened the biggest toy box in the world, which is the genetic code.... We can tinker and produce great things; we can tinker and produce horrible things.

--Nick Owchar

Illustration: Renee Nault / For The Times