Monday, September 28, 2009

On Atwood's dystopia

Today on my lunch hour, which isn't quite over yet, I finished reading Margaret Atwood's new novel The Year of the Flood. I had not read her earlier Oryx & Crake, to which this one is apparently a prequel of sorts, because I just couldn't get into it, found the writing somehow off-putting. No such difficulty here. I liked this book a great deal. Yet when I think about it I can't help conclude that I really shouldn't have.

From my political perspective, the big problem with all these speculative fictions whose speculation consists primarily of prophesying doom is that when they look at the current state of human society and conclude that it's all downhill from here, they don't take into account the most important variable of all: the class struggle. It's as though the workers and oppressed have no role in the world's future, whereas in fact the opposite is true--we have the decisive role. The fate of the planet, of the many species threatened with extinction, our own above all, is in the hands of working class, the oppressed and all those who end up as allies. Will we succeed? In time? No one can foresee the future so no one knows. But to simply omit the possibility of real revolutionary change seems to me to be a failure of the literary imagination. A failure to recognize workers and poor people as central to the story, as, not to put too fine a point on it, the agents of history. Which failure is to be expected, sure, from any but the most explicitly class-conscious writers, and can be chalked up to the death-grip bourgeois ideology has on most, but still registers as a disappointment each time I come upon it.

Especially with a writer as good as Atwood, and one so obviously political in her own well meaning way. This book is a warning. Here is what capitalism has brought the world to, or rather what it will bring the world to if things continue this way, she's saying, here are the results of the rule of profit, here are the even worse horrors to come. Yet she doesn't delve all that deeply into the implications of what she does clearly identify as the cause of the crisis. Nor does the fact that capitalism is the root of the problem seem to have set off any light bulbs for her about what direction to look for the solution.

Given this major failing, it's not surprising that page by page there are lots of littler ones. Like the names of those she chooses to have named as saints by the more-or-less heroic grouping at the center of the story, "God's Gardeners." Why in tarnation, for example, would she include the Arctic and Antarctic "explorers" Shackleton and Crozier? They ought rather to be included in a tally of those whose colonialist exploits helped lead the way to the mess the planet is now in. Then there's the fact that the main rebellious faction, the locus of most of what little hope is on display, is an at least partly religious sect. Curiously, though, this didn't bother me all that much. Partly, I think, because it's so silly, so manifestly silly, and such an unoriginal trope for this sort of story, that I was able to sort of shrug off its godly aspects. But also partly because at several places late in the book she has several key characters rather undermine their own ostensible supernatural beliefs with some more sensible talk about the human brain, so I wasn't all tied up in fuming knots over the goofiness of it all. The bigger issue is why this sort of grouping, rather than a militarily and politically organized class-struggle-oriented mass movement, is the only scenario that occurred to her. Ah well, I know the answer.

I started this post by saying I liked Atwood's book a lot. How so, despite all these objections and frustrations? Well, it's a darned good read, and, again despite all the protestations above, despite, that is, my efforts to maintain revolutionary optimism, the truth is that I'm disturbingly susceptible to this kind of creepy scary sad all-is-lost story. At least when it's this well written, this compelling--and, and here I think is the key, as imbued as this book despite everything is in an odd, contradictory way with undercurrents of sweetness and hope.

UPDATE: Please check out the post of May 16, 2010, on Margaret Atwood's shameful embrace of Israeli apartheid in defiance of appeals to her by Palestinian artists and students. I'm leaving my note on her book here but I do urge everyone to stop buying her work as she has aligned herself with racism.