Close Reading 2 of 12 (Maddaddam Trilogy, Atwood)

Well, I have just finished Module One of my MFA, and I am taking a little time to recover from that and from the final formatting and proofing of Compendium, which I also finished up this week. I am really excited for how Compendium looks in paperback. The cover looks spectacular, and, although I have read from others that they don’t like the paper Createspace uses, I absolutely love the fact that it’s a nice, heavy paper stock. It gives even a paperback some weight and presence, and it makes you feel like you are reading a book that someone put thought and care into. Honestly, I love physical books (even though I love my Kindle Voyage as well), but a lot of paperbacks, even trade paperbacks, have a disposable quality to them. That is not the case with Compendium‘s proofs.

Anyway, my point was that I want to share on this blog the general material for all of the close readings that I am doing for my MFA. Because I didn’t do a “thoughts” post on my second close reading, I am just going to reproduce it here in its entirety. I decided to do my second one on the Maddaddam Trilogy, focusing on voice and perspective, particularly with respect to each character’s interaction with the “central” character (really, I probably mean catalyst more than character) of the series, which is Glenn/Crake. Anyway, read on to learn more about what I’m talking about. Also, for my next close reading, I will probably do Octavia Butler. Yes, I know I seem to have a theme of women writers in speculative fiction, so I will throw the guys a bone and say that I just read Scott Lynch’s short story from Rogues (edited by George R.R. Martin), and I absolutely LOVED his story “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane.” It even prompted me to pick up The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I am about 15% through. I will say, I think that so far I like the characters Amarelle, Sophara, Brandwin, and Shraplin even better than Locke and Jean, although I might get more attached to the Gentlemen after further reading. I REALLY, REALLY hope that Lynch writes more with the Duchess Unseen, because that story was great and had me laughing my butt off. I still can’t get over “You foxy bag of tits and sugar!” The language is incredibly colorful and hilarious.

Anyway, on to the main event…

Through their Eyes: Examining Character in Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy
By Alia Luria

I exist in two places, here and where you are.

– Margaret Atwood

The above quote embodies a thesis Margaret Atwood spends a lot of time examining in her work. It is a succinct argument for the multiplicity of identity. Each person exists not only independent of every other human but also in relation to others. Is that existence built from observation, perception, and interaction a wholly formed existence? Is it a whole separate person? Perhaps it has to be. It is a challenging notion, and one that many people do not feel comfortable with. Is the “me” created in the mind of another any more or less real than the “me” in my head? This premise is one that Atwood examines repeatedly in her work, but it forms an integral part of the Maddaddam trilogy, comprised of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and Maddaddam.

This trilogy does not follow a standard chronological format. Instead, it tells the same story from multiple perspectives, each adding to and extending the understanding of the reader as more voices weigh in with respect to the events in the book—namely the end of humanity as the dominant life on earth. All of the stories to some degree revolve around the, by now, mythological figure of Glenn, also called Crake, who is individual primarily responsible for wiping out all but a very limited number of humans and simultaneously installing genetically modified people in their place. One of the key aspects of this trilogy is that, while the cataclysmic events on Earth and the lives of all of the remaining survivors discussed in all three books revolve in some way or another around Glenn, there is no single scene in any of the three books from his perspective.

What the reader knows about Glenn, he or she learns from other characters, either through direct interaction or through the character’s recollections or opinions. Always, these glimpses into Glenn are distorted, filtered through minds varying greatly in intelligence, naiveté, and political and social worldviews. These varying perspectives each reveal new facets of Glenn and the situation he created on Earth, but even after three novels, the reader never gets the story directly. In this instance, the versions of Glenn that exist in the survivors are more important. To Atwood, perhaps they are the only versions of Glenn that matter.

The primary point of view character in Oryx and Crake is Jimmy, also known as Snowman, who is Glenn’s childhood best friend and often patsy. Jimmy is intellectually inferior to Glenn, as well as emotionally needy and generally weaker than Glenn. Ultimately, like everyone else, he becomes one of Glenn’s tools, even to the point where Glenn manipulates Jimmy into helping Glenn commit suicide. Jimmy is also an unreliable narrator, constantly fluctuating between the past and his present post-apocalyptic situation. Thus, even an astute reader is thrown into the jumble of Jimmy’s mind, leaving Glenn’s motivations veiled.

This just in. The JUVE killer virus has broken out in Fiji, spared until now. CorpSeCorps chief declares New New York a disaster area. Major arteries sealed off.

Brad, this item is moving very fast. Simon, it’s unbelievable.

‘Change can be accommodated by and system depending on its rate,’ Crake used to say. ‘Touch your head to a wall, nothing happens, but if the same head hits the same wall at ninety miles an hour, it’s red paint. We’re in a speed tunnel, Jimmy. When the water’s moving faster than the boat, you can’t control a thing.’

I listened, thought Jimmy, but I didn’t hear.

Atwood, Oryx and Crake, page 341-42.

It is only after the fact that Jimmy recalls these important nuggets of information about Glenn. At the time, the deeper meaning to Glenn’s statement eludes him and is not conveyed to the reader until Jimmy understands their significance. Jimmy is not perceptive, he’s wrapped up in his own despair, and this selfish, immature point of view confines the reader’s understanding of Glenn to Jimmy’s limited perception of the situation. Jimmy blames Glenn, and thus Glenn is cast solidly as the villain in Oryx and Crake.

The Year of the Flood follows the story of Toby and Ren, both of whom are swept up as members of the religious organization called the God’s Gardeners, and both of who know Glenn in different contexts. The Year of the Flood focuses much more on the environmentalists and what is going on in the pleeblands (free cities). Essentially, where Jimmy was inside the machine looking out, the God’s Gardeners are outside the machine looking in. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, Glenn acts in both of these worlds.

Glenn was vague about what they were working on. Immortality was a word he used – Rejoov had been interested in it for decades, something about changing your cells so they’d never die; people would pay a lot for immortality, he said. Ever couple of month’s he’d claim they’d made a breakthrough, and the more breakthroughs he made, the more money he could raise for the Paradice Project.

Sometimes he’d say he was working on solutions to the biggest problem of all, which was human beings – their cruelty and suffering, their wars and poverty, their fear of death. ‘What would you pay for the design of a perfect human being?’ he’d say. Then he’d hint that the Paradice Project was designing one, and they’d dump more money on him.

Atwood, The Year of the Flood, page 305.

Ren is an exotic dancer and prostitute working at a club where she encounters Glenn as a customer, years after they had gone to high school together. She overhears his plans, but they are presented to the reader as an afterthought. Ren is describing Glenn as a big shot at Rejoov and sees his boasting as a money grab. Without the context of Oryx and Crake, the sinister reference to humans as the “biggest problem of all” means nothing, and Ren, at that point in the novel, has less information than the reader about what is at stake for humanity. Ren’s perspective enhances the reader’s understanding of Glenn, even in its limited scope and knowledge. The reader begins to see what Glenn’s underlying motivations are, and his character becomes more complex to the reader as he or she is exposed to different facets of Glenn’s personality and inner conflict through these snippets.

Maddaddam continues to follow Toby from The Year of the Flood, but it weaves in Zeb’s perspective, as one of the Maddaddam hackers. Yet again, Glenn has infiltrated this sub- group of humanity and uses the scientists and hackers who are part of the group as recruits to his cause, both voluntarily and involuntarily. He even obtains the basis for the super virus that wipes out humanity from a pill smuggled out of one of the major corporations by Zeb at the behest of other researchers and eco-conscious people.

‘He must have, later,’ says Toby. ‘With some additions of his own. That must’ve been the core of the BlyssPluss pills: what you got after you’d experienced the bliss.’

‘Do you think Pilar knew what he’d make of those microbes or viruses or whatever they were?’ she asks. ‘Eventually?’ She remembers Pilar’s wrinkled little face, her kindness, her serenity, her strength. But underneath it, there had always been a hard resolve. You wouldn’t call it meanness or evil. Fatalism, perhaps.

‘Let’s put it this way,’ says Zeb. ‘All the real Gardeners believed the human race way overdue for a population crash. It would happen anyway, and maybe sooner was better.’

Atwood, Maddaddam, page 330.

In some ways, it is the most shocking and revealing part of the story. Glenn, a cold, calculating, potentially sociopathic individual cast as the villain from the very beginning and the ecology-driven, peace-loving God’s Garners colluded—in a fashion—to bring about humanity’s “population crash.” One’s distain for humanity intersected with the other’s love for the Earth and the animals inhabiting it. Neither ideology left room for humanity in its current state. This is one of the most important pieces of information that the reader learns, and it comes almost near the end of the trilogy, long after Glenn and almost all of the God’s Gardeners have been killed. The reader can no longer look at Glenn as having operated in a vacuum, as solely the “villain.” As usual, life is much more complex than good and evil. Morality and ethics exist on a spectrum, and right and wrong are a matter of perspective. Although Glenn was the catalyst for humanity’s downfall, all of other characters enabled him in his quest for destruction.

The Maddaddam trilogy is an excellent example of multiplicity of identity. Each character sees Glenn independently of the others, attributes different motivations to his goals, and ultimately, their opinions are the only ones that survive his actions. Ironically, ultimately, as humanity eventually dies out and the Children of Crake (genetically altered humans) assume leadership of society, Glenn will be remember by the Crakers as “good Crake, kind Crake,” the god that made them and protected them. Glenn’s identity will be entirely subsumed in this adoring fervor and the reality of him will fall into total irrelevance.

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