What always draws me into Margaret Atwood’s work is her sense of humor. Yes, there’s no denying her abilities as a storyteller. From the speculative fiction of the Maddadam trilogy to the epic historical fic of The Blind Assassin, the Canadian has proven to be a masterful craftswoman when it comes to plot and is about as insightful a judge of character as you’re going to find.
But for me, what really keeps me reading Atwood, is her sense of humor. The Blind Assassin is a dark tale: Child sexual assault, possible incest, abortion, political and economic malfeasance, families broken and alienated, etc. It’s a long book and not an easy read. However, when Atwood shifts the perspective to that of elderly Iris, the narrator who is looking back on her life, the book finds its funny. Iris’s recognition of her own aging process and how it’s affecting her life is both stark and hilarious, sometimes at the same time. What really tickled my funny bone was Iris’s “hobby” of using public restrooms, in part to read what the kids have carved or marked into the stalls. It’s oddball in an endearing way, it works for the character and it really helps break up a hard story with an occasional chuckle.
In Maddadam, Atwood creates her own theology and mythology. By design, the Crakers were bred and raised apart from the corrupt world Crake eventually destroys. However, Crake misjudged what the post-floodless flood world would be. Yes, genetically, the Crakers are designed for the post-civilization landscape: No need for protien means eating pretty much anything that grows from the ground keeps you alive, no jealousy to drive wedges into the group dynamic, a rapid reproduction cycle, etc. But because some hard people fought through the global pandemic, the Crakers can at best be taken advantage of, at worst used, raped, tortured and killed.
So what do the Crakers need? Guns? Training? Nope, good, old new-fashioned religion, courtesy of Jimmy/Snowman and Toby, an ad man and an abused woman turned post-apocalyptic leader. Both to answer the questions about what has happened and how the Crakers now need to behave to live safely, Jimmy and Toby create their a mythology origin story casting Oryx and Crake as the all-knowing deities.
And while it sounds ludicrous – and in many ways, it is – it is precisely how religion began: An attempt by humans to explain the world around them without scientific knowledge or the necessary tools to examine the universe. In some cases, it worked. We see in the Bible in Numbers that Moses orders the soldiers who have conqured the Midianites to stay out of the camp for seven days to cleanse themselves. Think of battle then: Face to face, nose to nose, slicing off limbs, crushing skulls, breaking bones, all very personal and up close. After that sort of fighting, many of these soldiers were at least borderline PTSD. They need the silence, the prayer, the time to heal mentally before returning to society. It wasn’t called that, it wasn’t interpreted as that by the people of the time, it was framed as spiritual purification, but that’s what was really being observed and “treated.” On the other hand, belief in the power of the devil led lunatics to order the murder of girls in colonial Massachusetts.
Writer’s note: This was an unfinished post that I thought I had scheduled for a few weeks down the road. But apparently that was not the case. I’ll re-visit Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy at some point.