Friday, July 6, 2012

The Year of the Flood

It's 2012, so it seems reasonable there should be a little bit of apocalypse going on. My sympathies to everyone affected by the storms in the mid-Atlantic who've had to go without power recently. I was lucky and didn't lose mine. But I have been hiding in the bathroom with my cat a lot recently.

So between the crazy heat, the storms, being 6 months away from a pre-Christmas apocalypse, and seeing Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (which was really good and may have made me openly sob in public), reading The Year of the Flood felt right in stride.

The Year of the Flood is Margaret Atwood's follow up to her 2003 dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, which I read about two years ago. The structure of both novels is very similar and they occupy the same timeframe. At the beginning we're introduced to the world after a mysterious epidemic has eradicated the majority of human life. Through flashbacks we find out what exactly happened. It's a tricky structure to pull off, since the reader already knows the end result, and the tension could easily have been lost. However Atwood lets just the right amount of information remain mysterious to make it a page turner.

In Atwood's dystopian vision, the future world is owned and controlled by corporations, predictably corrupt and money-seeking. Humans live either in gigantic walled communities owned by the corporations, "compounds," or outside in the ghetto-esque "pleeblands." Pharmaceuticals and biotechnology are the biggest focus of the corporations (Resident Evil, anyone?), and through experiments in genetic mutation some truly horrifying monsters have been created. Not in the name of warfare as you might think, but in the goal of feeding and sustaining an ever-growing human population. In Oryx and Crake we're introduced to 'pigoons,' pigs bred to grow extra organs so they can be harvested and transplanted into humans. Or even more terrifying, 'ChickieNobs', chickens bred without heads which grow harvestable chicken parts. Imagine a featherless raw chicken growing a ridge of nuggets down its back.

In Oryx and Crake we follow the story of one of the compounders and his experiences before and after the apocalyptic event. In The Year of the Flood we journey to the other side of the fence, following two women and their experiences in the pleeblands, as well as a few anti-corporate movements. One of these is called 'God's Gardeners,' a group dedicated to living in harmony with nature. It's a slightly satirical take on cults and religious groups such as the Amish -- if the Amish were vegan. After reading about ChickieNobs, veganism is looking ever more appealing.

One of my few criticisms of the novel is Atwood's insistence on making all the characters, and all the stories, reference each other incessantly. There were far too many coincidences for it to remain believable. I can believe in lab-created hybrid animal species (lion + lamb = 'liobam'), but not that one of the main characters is going to keep running into her ex-boyfriend every other page -- especially not after the world has ended. Oh hey there's probably only a dozen people left in the world and guess what, one just happens to be your ex! Ack! (I just gave someone in Hollywood an idea, didn't I).

The Year of the Flood ending seemed pretty unfinished, which tells me she'll most likely be writing a third follow-up (just checked, and yup). I'm not sure if I'll read it. There's nothing very fascinating or redeemable about this future world. It's mostly just repulsive and sad. I'm sure in the third book the characters will work to build a new world, and there will be corruption, and people will make the same mistakes again. New genetic hybrids will be introduced that have stupid names I'll have to remember. I think Atwood took some inspiration from Dr. Seuss when she came up with 'rakunk' (raccoon + skunk, obviously).

Not many quotables, but here are two passages I liked:

As with all knowledge, once you knew it, you couldn't imagine how it was that you hadn't known it before. Like stage magic, knowledge before you knew it took place before your very eyes, but you were looking elsewhere.

Glenn used to say the reason you can't really imagine yourself being dead was that as soon as you say, "I'll be dead," you've said the word I, and so you're still alive inside the sentence. And that's how people got the idea of the immortality of the soul -- it was a consequence of grammar. And so was God, because as soon as there's a past tense, there has to be a past before the past, and you keep going back in time until you get to I don't know, and that's what God is. It's what you don't know--the dark, the hidden, the underside of the visible, and all because we have grammar

That...actually makes a lot of sense. In a roundabout way. What came first -- worship of the unknown, or language?


  1. Because I'm boring and I also have a one-track mind, the final quotation and your question reminded me of psychoanalysis!

    According to the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, language indicates a lack: if we weren't lacking what we felt we needed, we wouldn't be talking about it; we would just be and carry on living.

    Lacan also says that once we enter in to the use of language, we limit ourselves. Our desires and actions become restrained by initially hidden rules, we struggle to figure out what we have to do in order to get the undivided attention of our primary caregiver.

    And the words we use and sentences we construct will always be missing something. They'll never fully express what we want them to express, and they'll always say more than we wanted.

    I don't know if Lacan said this, but Slovenian psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek definitely has: those words and sentences that miss lose something to an area known as the Real. The Real is something that is always present, has always been present (milling away in the background, perhaps), but is impossible to discuss using language because language removes us from it. As soon as we use a word to describe it, we miss it.

    The Real is often described as a traumatic kernel that shapes our existence. We catch glimpses of it when our language (Symbolic Order) fails to explain something. When this happens, we need to adjust our understanding/language/Symbolic Order to risk going insane.

    Zizek frequently uses the alien from the Alien movies to describe it. But have you seen the movie "The Midnight Meat Train"? I think that has a better example, but I won't tell you about the ending. Go watch it!

    But... Yes. The dark, the hidden, the underside of the visible. Our languages and symbols shape the Real into something we can deal with. Perhaps our grammar/language protects us from our own mortality. Psychologically, that is. Certainly not physically!

    To answer your question, and to be annoyingly theoretically in doing so: language, probably. I would suggest that language creates the unknown.


    1. I haven’t seen the ‘Midnight Meat Train’, but it’s on my blockbuster queue now. So odd, the title sounds like it would be a 1970s slasher flick, I was surprised to see it was made in 2008.

      I gave google a workout today. Because here’s what I know about psychoanalysis: *the sound of wind whistling down an empty tunnel*

      I was pretty confused until I came up on this article ( comparing Zizek’s explanation of the Real to the Gothic idea of the ‘sublime.’ Gothic I know. My undergrad thesis was on feminist Gothic lit.

      Gothic writers used sublimity -- through landscapes, ghosts, and monsters – to terrorize the mind into accessing its hidden depths: the ideas and emotions that couldn’t be described through language. The entire Gothic movement was a purposeful rejection of the Enlightenment era, when humanity was desperately trying to categorize and classify the unknown.

      That article I linked to starts with a quote from an HP Lovecraft story (which I haven’t read) that reminds me of what you mentioned about insanity and confrontation with the Real:

      “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to
      correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black
      seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each
      straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing
      together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of
      our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee
      from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

      So what do I think came first, ‘religion’ (in the sense of awe or worship of an unknown or incomprehensible force) or language? I think perhaps they developed simultaneously. I know that when I experience a feeling of sublimity, it’s when I’m looking at the night sky. Or at the sun. Or at a body in a casket. And it's not because I don't know what they are. I do. I know exactly how big the sun is and what it's made from and how far away alpha centauri is and that there is no longer any life inside this body. It's the implications behind these objects, the ideas, that causes this feeling. And those are things people have always been looking at, regardless of time. I can imagine language developing as an attempt to explain these phenomena, so that the next generation will come into the world prepared, and have a passed-down explanation, not just for what's happening scientifically, but what these things mean.

      But then as children, with the language for these things pre-ordained, we lose that ability to truly think and decide for ourselves. We end up at catholic school or become extremists and kill people in the name of something someone else tried to explain to us.

      At the same time, I have such an overwhelming sense of awe and respect for language and the symbolic and what it’s meant for the development of human knowledge and progress. Your connecting immortality with language is pretty much my philosophy. Through our communication -- be it via art, literature, spoken word, or blog comments – we find a way to immortalize ourselves in a way beyond just passing on our genetic material.

      So I’m going to go shut myself in a closet for a few days and try to think this all out. Then I will emerge in a euphoric cloud of insanity and everyone will be proven correct. Cheers!

  2. I don't know anything about Gothic literature! Can you tell me more about it?

    I have more to say about what you've said, but I'd like to do that after you watch "The Midnight Meat Train"!