Review of The Year of the Flood
“We should not expect too much from faith,” he said. “Human understanding is fallible, and we see through a glass, darkly. Any religion is a shadow of God. But the shadows of God are not God.” Enter the world of Oryx and Crake according to Adam One, a self-appointed prophet of God, preaching green and some impending doom, a Waterless Flood that will someday wipe out all of humanity. In this particular instance, Atwood suggests a religious analogue to René Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,” in which the artist demonstrates that an image is a poor projection of reality, a mere reflection of truth (see picture below).
But she does not limit herself to one or two theological points in her commentary of religion throughout the book. Each section begins with a sermon from Adam One, which is heard by the two main characters: Toby and Ren. Perhaps her most poignant suggestion is one that pervades the entirety of the piece, which Adam One sums up here: ” ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ That is the point: not seen. We cannot know God by reason and measurement; indeed, excess reason and measurement can lead to doubt.” This demonstrates Atwood’s concept of the relationship between science and religion. Using the Biblical text of Hebrews, Atwood asserts that religion involves an element of faith that transcends our ability to comprehend. She presents a worldview, here, through Adam One that embraces a truly empirical and scientific understanding of the universe but likewise realizing a degree of mystery in the nature of religion and the belief in God. Beyond a theological standpoint, this theme of faith in the unseen (and fear fear of the unseen, for that matter, in the case of the Waterless Flood and the haunting persona of Blanco) rests beneath Toby’s service with the Gardeners and Ren’s time at school and at the Scales and Tails club.
There are, again as in Oryx and Crake, very pertinent issues in our society that Atwood addresses in the book, like women selling their eggs on the black market and corporations forcing people into perpetual indebtedness (somewhat akin to the days of factory work during the Industrial Revolution). Like its predecessor, The Year of the Flood contains a large underlying discussion of environmental issues, mostly demonstrated through the Gardeners’ religion and practices of recycling, growing organic food, and appreciating the natural world.
Perhaps one of the most compelling issues within the novel is Atwood’s commentary on civil disobedience. Adam One and his Gardeners are defiant of the ways of the corporations by means of lifestyle, a non-violent protest of the materialism, avarice, and disrespect for nature. This seems reminiscent of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in which he wrote, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience…” This embodies the nature of the Gardeners that Atwood develops. Whether she agrees with this perspective or not is certainly a matter of question considering the MadAddam terrorist group that branches off from the Gardeners.
Later in Civil Disobedience, Thoreau says that “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong.” And it is regarding this point that the Gardeners experience a great divide. Those remaining with Adam One agree with Thoreau’s second point while others disagree and leave, forming the MadAddam group for whom the entire trilogy is named. MadAddam attempts to eradicate the evil of the corporations, resorting to violent measures in the process. Atwood thoroughly examines the nature of civil disobedience through the experiences of Toby and Ren, providing a compelling commentary on violence, murder, and their place in the survival both of morality and of the human species.
Beyond these deep thematic elements, Atwood does something stylistically in this piece that sets it distinctly apart from Oryx and Crake. She changes voice. Not one, but three times. First, she changes voice from the limited third person perspective of Snowman to that of Toby. Then she switches person from third to first for the narrations of Ren, which is keenly distinct from that of Toby. And there are the intermittent sermons of Adam One (obviously these are in first person as they are his spoken commentary) that present not only the theology of the Gardeners but some of the nature of Adam One himself. These three separate voices serve not only to characterize the protagonists of Ren and Toby but also to develop different perspectives of the thematic issues discussed above. Each voice helps to draw you into the piece and make for a suspenseful plot. Indeed, there are cliff hangers from one voice to the next, and we are left wondering at many points if the characters will even survive.
Ultimately, this makes for an even more compelling read than Oryx and Crake and serves to further our insight into Atwood’s commentary on issues within our society.