Book review: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

A surreal image from a trailer promoting the conclusion to Atwood's trilogy
A surreal image from a trailer promoting the conclusion to Atwood's trilogy
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THIS final novel in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy is as elaborate as a fractal and weighs as much as a small child.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

Bloomsbury, £18.99

The world Atwood depicts is an unstable mix of science and superstition – of hi-tech novelties so varied and deranging they have inspired a counterbalancing return to tribal values and pagan rites. As if giving life to this fantasy had produced the same skewed balance in the mind of Atwood the artist, MaddAddam is all ritzy content – and primitive form.

For the main part, the story is told in a terse third person: “Over the coffee they discuss other food options. Protein variety is lacking, they’re all agreed on that.” The static present tense is intended to reflect the tone of life, the dead-end realities of surviving in a world, “now that history is over”. But this stylistic choice has an impact on other elements of the novel, particularly on the degree to which the characters achieve an inner life.

Atwood has imagined every sharp edge of her comfortless world, from its food shortages to its genetic experiments and repulsive consumer choices. Computer games serve to imply the widespread human state of mind: “Some atrocities turned up by the virtual Blood and Roses dictated that babies be tossed into the air and skewered on swords… others that their brains be dashed out against stone walls.”

But realising her comic vision places Atwood under tonal restrictions and these make it hard for her to switch to a more naturalistic mode in scenes which call for depth of characterisation. When Zeb contemplates the murder of his abusive father, The Rev, he thinks – to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy – “My Dad loved walloping little kids,/He loved it more than nooky,/I hope he bleeds from every pore,/And chucks up all his cookies.” Hamlet watching Claudius at prayer this is not, and it is hard for the reader to know on what level to engage with a scene which portrays a sort of cartoon psychosis.

The least emotionally dissonant – and most engaging – element of the book is Toby’s interaction with the non-human Crakers, who beg her to observe their central ritual: “eat a fish… and put on the hat and listen to this Crake thing and say the stories of Crake.” Atwood shows Toby attempting to supply this need, absorbing the Crakers’ pesky innocence into her responses to them: “Yes we do have breasts. The Women do. Yes, two. Yes, on the front. No, I will not show them to you right now.”

Though Atwood’s imagination gives rise to many high-octane passages – “he could play the code the way Mozart played the piano… he could waltz through firewalls like a tiger of old leaping through a flaming circus hoop without singeing a whisker” – a heap of inventiveness does not amount to a meaningful experience for the reader. Atwood has approached her novel like the Hollywood film studio which splashed out on special effects and forgot about everything else.