Guided Reading Group Part 2- 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.

Last night we had our 2nd reading group about Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy – the focus was on environmental catastrophe and environmental activism. We had another wide-ranging discussion and I got so involved I kept forgetting to take notes! So what I am hoping to do here is to sum up some of the main issues we considered.

We began by reflecting upon our focus on a set of issues – were we tempted to focus on the issues because Atwood is more concerned about these than she is about developing characters? This discussion was influenced by Atwood’s own remarks about the fact that characters don’t have to be (and often it is not desirable for them to be) likeable. All the main characters in the MaddAddam trilogy have major flaws – Jimmy and Crake being the most obvious examples. While Jimmy is often self-centred and weak, Crake manifests a fatal self-importance and is a very cold character (as observed by the God’s Gardeners in The Year of the Flood). More than that, though, it was suggested that perhaps Atwood was so concerned with dealing with such a large and challenging range of issues, that she doesn’t always give us convincing, complex characters and relationships. Not everyone agreed with this, but we did have a think about Toby and Zeb’s developing love in MaddAddam – is their happiness convincing? Is Atwood trying too hard to give us some kind of happy ending? Or is Toby and Zeb’s relationship (and the demise of Zeb) a good way for Atwood to indicate the threat to this new world (the painballers and other humans seem to see themselves as at war with our group of God’s Gardeners, Crakers and pigoons – they are going to continue causing pain and conflict).

This led to a discussion about the painballers  – do they represent past human evil? Or – more than that: is their survival and continual threat there to remind us that this new world cannot escape the horrors and mistakes of the pre-Plague (and dystopic) world: the painballers are ‘criminals’ who, as a punishment, are doomed to play a particularly violent version of Paintball until they kill each others – this means they are produced psychopaths (their psychopathic tendencies coming directly from their punishment). There is a lot to think about here in terms of the Atwood’s potential critique of current methods of punishment and policing.

We kept returning to the question of whether these books can be categorised as environmentalist – are they aiming to put forward an environmentalist message. On the one hand, it was suggested that they definitely seem to function as a warning –   Atwood herself has said ‘if nothing changes and we keep doing what we’re doing, we are heading for the perfect storm’ (Waltzing Again, 2006:260). Oryx and Crake is full of accounts of past environmental disasters – and these are often skipped over in order to get to another point (in a pretty alarming way). For example, when discussing whether pigoons ever were turned into meat products (despite the obvious ethical problems with this – it would be cannibalistic), the narrator informs us:

As time went on and the coastal aquifiers turned salty and the northern permafrost melted and the vast tundra bubbled with methane, and the drought in the midcontinental plains regions went on and on, and the Asian steppes turned to sand dunes, and meat became harder to come by, some people had their doubts [about the assertion that pigoons were never turned into food]. (O and C: 27)

However, we also talked about the fact that  – especially in The Year of the Flood – she parodies much environmentalist discourse, especially through Toby’s reactions to The God’s Gardeners. She finds them sanctimonious and inflexible – and they fit many of the stereotypes attached to environmental activists today: the women wear their hair long, they all wear dreary sackcloths, life is taken very seriously, only handmade toys are allowed and they celebrate their bodily waste (it is a natural smell!) and believe it would be an honour to become compost and so contribute to Life after life. While some of this is written tongue-in-cheek, though – we also consider how serious Atwood might be about some aspects of Adam One’s philosophy. For example, in one of his sermons he preaches:

‘Ours is a fall into greed: why do we think that everything on Earth belongs to us, while in reality we belong to Everything? We have betrayed the trust of the Animals, and defiled our sacred task of stewardship. God’s commandment to “replenish the Earth” did not mean we should fill it to overflowing with ourselves, thus wiping out everything else. How many other Species have we already annihilated….We thank Thee, oh God, for having made us in such a way as to remind us, not only of our less than Angelic being, but also of the knots of DNA and RNA that tie us to our many fellow Creatures’. (Flood: 53)

This key idea – that we are not only connected to animals, but that we are animals, and we should see ourselves as sharing the earth with fellows, rather than owning the Earth (and plundering it with no thought for others) is a dominant one among environmentalist movements and fits with the collaborations in MaddAddam between humans, Crakers and pigoons – it seems like a good way to think to me – what do you think?

It was in this way of thinking that I/we found hope in the novels – but our discussion at the end was dominated more by a feeling of despair. There are many sections in the novels which seemed to suggest nothing could be done to change the direction of environmental crisis – we discussed the Bearlift enterprise which Zeb works for in MaddAddam – this involves feeding polar and grizzly bears garbage (now that their food sources are running low). Of this, the narrator Zeb says ‘Bearlift was a scam…It lived off the good intentions of city types with disposable emotions who liked to think they were saving something – some rag from their primordial authentic ancestral past, a tiny shred of their collective soul dressed up in a cute bearsuit’. (59).

We were left thinking about how we could avoid being these naïve irresponsible city types, and I posed the question: can literature help contribute to a more socially responsible world?

This feels like a good place to stop – please do join in the discussion picking up on any of these points or any others you are interested in.