The flood referred to by the title of Margaret Atwood’s new novel isn’t the biblical deluge, sent by God to wipe out wickedness and sin, but a waterless one: an uncommon pandemic that cannot be contained by “biotools and bleach,” and that sweeps “through the air as if on wings,” burning “through cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs, terror and butchery.” This flood has killed millions upon millions, and electrical, digital and industrial systems are failing, as their human keepers die.
In The Year of the Flood we are transported to a world that is part Hieronymus Bosch, part A Clockwork Orange. “Total breakdown” is upon the land, and a private security firm named CorpsSeCorps has seized power, taking control where the local police forces have collapsed from lack of financing. The Corps people not only use brutal tactics like internal rendition to enforce their will, but they are also conducting sinister experiments, monkeying with human and animal genetics and creating strange new mutant species.
A kind of companion piece to her lumpy 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, this book takes us back to that post-apocalyptic future and it does so with a lot more energy, inventiveness and narrative panache.
Like Oryx and the author’s 1986 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, this is another dystopian fantasy that’s meant to be a sort of cautionary tale about the wrongs and excesses of our own world — be it antifeminism, denial of global warming, or violence and materialism. But while those earlier books were hobbled by didactic asides and a preachy, moralistic tone, Atwood has loosened up in this volume and given her imagination free rein. Having already mapped out the basic geography of her futuristic world in Oryx, she dispenses here with exposition and focuses on her two heroines’ efforts to survive in the wake of the Waterless Flood.
One woman, Toby, has survived inside an upscale spa, where she subsists on supplies from a storeroom and the garden, where they used to grow vegetables for customers’ organic salads. She eventually ventures out, journeying back to her parents’ old neighborhood to find a rifle she’d buried under some patio stones. Her father had used the rifle to commit suicide, after his wife died of a mysterious illness that consumed all their savings.
Toby later learns that her mother was most likely a guinea pig for a drug company named HelthWyzer that was “seeding folks with illnesses” via souped-up supplement pills — “using them as free lab animals, then collecting on the treatments for those very same illnesses.”
After her parents’ death, Toby is forced to take a series of demeaning jobs, culminating in her employment at a revolting fast-food chain called SecretBurgers, which is rumored to run human corpses through its meat grinders. There, she becomes the sexual toy of a violent, piggish manager named Blanco — until she is unexpectedly rescued by a group of demonstrators known as God’s Gardeners, a hippielike sect pledged to preserve all animal and plant life. Over the years Toby will rise through the ranks of the Gardeners and eventually become one of their elders.
When she realizes that she is one of the few survivors of the Waterless Flood, Toby wonders why she was chosen: “Why has she been saved alive? Out of the countless millions. Why not someone younger, someone with more optimism and fresher cells? She ought to trust that she’s here for a reason — to bear witness, to transmit a message, to salvage at least something from the general wreck. She ought to trust, but she can’t.”