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Guided Reading Group Part 1- Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Triology

Dr. Catherine Bates led the 2014 Guided Reading Group through a series of discussions about Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Triology.

So: we had our first Ilkley LitFest reading group about Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy yesterday before going to see Atwood herself – what a fantastic writer, reader, speaker, comedian! The discussion was pretty lively too, and I am afraid I got too involved to make comprehensive notes about the event, but I will do my best to sum up some of the key points made – do join in the discussion by adding a comment!

Being thrown in at the deep end

Snowman

First of all we compared the beginnings of the three books – many of the group felt disorientated when first reading Oryx and Crake. Our introduction to Snowman raises many more questions than it answers and we agreed we get a sense of unease and forboding from the start. The eastern horizon is lit with ‘a rosy deadly glow’, Snowman consults his watch, which no long works but just shows a ‘blank face….zero hour’; and while Snowman feels a ‘jolt of terror’ at this ‘absence of official time’, we are told ‘Nobody nowhere knows what time it is’ (3). A feeling of doom is upon us! This first section is imbued with Snowman/Jimmy’s despair – by the end of this first section we find Snowman screaming at the ocean and in the process emphasizing the emptiness of the world he is now in.

Toby

In comparison, Toby seems to be coping quite well at the beginning of The Year of the Flood. While she is alone (we agreed – at the same time as Jimmy, but in the pleeblands), she has better coping mechanisms to draw upon and just seems to have a healthier attitude! For Jimmy, the birds ‘screech’, for Toby, they are a reminder that she is surrounded by life despite the lack of humans: ‘THe abandoned towers in the distance are like the coral of an ancient reef – bleached and colourless, devoid of life. There still is life, however. Birds chirp; sparrows, they must be. Their small voices are clear and sharp, nails on glass: there’s no longer any sound of traffic to drown them out. Do they notice that quietness, the absence of motors? If so, are they happier?’ (3). There is a thoughtfulness about Toby which fits well with her general resilience. This led to a discussion in the group about her childhood – which was a lot happier than Jimmy’s. It involved developing survival skills, which are topped up significantly by The God’s Gardener’s – but it also involved love. See my summary of our discussion about parenting below.

The Story of the Egg, and of Oryx and Crake, and how they made People and Animals; and of the Chaos; and of Snowman-the-Jimmy; and of the Smelly Bone and the coming of the Two Bad Men

We all loved the beginning of MaddAddam which begins with Toby telling the story (entitled above) to the Crakers. We talked about the way Atwood’s interest in storytelling is really highlighted here – we have Toby crafting the story for the Crakers (who play their own part in their crafting through their constant interjections which we become aware of: Toby’s response to them become part of the story). The title of this story is a parody of the chapter titles of an 18th/19th century novel, and then we get another version of the story in the following pages. This led to an interesting discussion about the way stories in the trilogy are constantly celebrated (they are way for people to form and reform their identity) and undermined (we are always reminded there is another perspective). This adds to our own entertainment, but continues to disorientate us as readers – we are continually asking ‘what did happen’?….

Parenting

And so to return to the subject of parenting – Jimmy’s childhood is presented in a pretty miserable light. His parents are both distant – and his mother, when she is still at home seem depressed and neglectful. We do get this all from Jimmy’s perspective, however (think about Oryx’s response to Jimmy when he is reflecting upon his abandonment by his mother – Oryx sees much to admire in Jimmy’s mother’s activism….and we are reminded then, that Jimmy’s perspective can be pretty self absorbed). Anyway, in the group we thought about all the different parents in the trilogy and it was difficult to think of any good parenting (beyond Toby’s). Consider:

– Jimmy and Crake

– Ren

– Zeb

We talked about whether Atwood was really interested in parenting, or whether she was using parenting to emphasise just how dystopic the world had become – is it that the world has become so full of violence, corporate self-interest, paranoia, and unnatural creations, that this is affecting everyone’s relationships at ‘home’? Is there any comfortable idea of ‘home’ any more (the Compounds – while being the ‘safe’ place for the elite are portrayed as paranoid glass cages; no one seems to be safe from CorpSeCorp and the numerous cults and gangs in the pleeblands). Is this Atwood’s real point?

The ‘invention’ of the Crakers

Finally, we talked about the Crakers. Are they the ideal parents? The whole community looks after the children (kind of like the God’s Gardeners) – and the Craker children seem happy. Is this a better way, or are the Crakers like programmed robots set to ‘parent’ in a practical way but with no real idea of love beyond nurturing? We discussed the fact they are the brain child of Crake – and so initially seem fixed into set patterns of behaviour and ways of thinking. But that actually, they begin to change – with Jimmy’s help they develop a mythology; their life rules begin to come under question through contact with Jimmy, Toby and the other ‘humans’ still alive; they learn to adapt their behaviour (e.g. no-means-no with regards to sex). And so they are much more flexible and adaptable than Crake planned (and they were created in collaboration with Oryx and the other MaddAddamites, anyway).

As a final thought, we considered the Crakers as a kind of text – a metaphor for Atwood’s novels. A writer can’t control what happens to her novels – they will always change, adapt to a particular context, become alive in a different way for different readers. And that seems like a good place to end and hand it over to you.

What do you think about the difference between the beginnings of the novels?

What are the main differences between Jimmy and Toby?

What do you think about the way parenting and childhood are represented in the trilogy?

And what do you think about the adaptation of the Crakers?

We would love to hear what you have to say.