Volume IX, Number 2, Fall 2013

"Review of Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam" by Vera Benczik

Vera Benczik is assistant professor at the Department of American Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary. Her research interests include various topics related to the fantastic in the arts—currently the use of space in postapocalyptic SF— and the fiction of Margaret Atwood. Email:

Atwood, Margaret
London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013.
394 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-4088-1970-8

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”
(Atwood, MaddAddam 56)

The publication of MaddAddam in the fall of 2013 marked the completion of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, set in a post-apocalyptic environment where most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus bioengineered by Crake, a reincarnation of the archetypal mad scientist. Rather than presenting successive linear accounts of life after the “waterless Flood” interspersed with analeptic snapshots of the world past, Atwood in her trilogy opts for a three-piece puzzle. The narratives remain in constant dialogue with each other: plotlines only touched upon in the second volume come to fruition here in light of the first book, and certain elements and episodes of the preceding volumes are explained in hindsight.

This is both the advantage and the limitation of both the trilogy and the individual novels. In order to complete the puzzle, Atwood reworks some of the rough edges into smooth connective surfaces, which in MaddAddam results in the semblance to a soap opera universe: everyone of narrative importance—even the villains who have been haunting certain characters for decades—magically survives the virus, and coincidentally soon crosses paths with each other. The bickering within the group of survivors is labored and rather comical instead of sheding light on deep interpersonal drama. The final fight is also somewhat surreal, and leaving the villains alive nothing more than a plot contrivance to allow for the forced ethical argument that eventually leads to their execution. The contrast between such romantic elements and the otherwise cruel and realistic dystopian vision sometimes seems too much, and the clash between the two diegetic forces—the fragmentation of reality inherent in post-apocalyptic narratives versus the postulation of a possible epistemologically and ontologically holistic world—at times threatens to unravel the narrative unity.

Like the previous volumes—Oryx and Crake and The Year of the FloodMaddAddam also works with two temporal diegetic levels, one recounting events before, and the other after the Apocalypse. The novel starts at the point where Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood both terminated: the clearing where the life stories of the two books’ protagonists—Jimmy, Toby and Ren—finally intersect each other in the world after the Fall. The plot set in the narrative present recounts the survivors’ first attempts at re-establishing a functional community after the shock of almost complete human annihilation. They not only have to come to terms with a world changed forever, but also face obstacles from the past posing a threat to their existence in this seemingly idyllic pastoral environment, in which even the rainstorms occur on a regular basis. These threats involve rogue superresistant bacteria, escaped murderous convicts and new candidates as possible successors to human civilization—the anthropomorphism of the pigoons’ intelligence is an elegant and humorous nod to Orwell’s Animal Farm, especially in juxtaposition with the Crakers, whose human form only amplifies their underlying cognitive divergence from homo sapiens.

The plotline set in the pre-apocalyptic past is the story of Zeb, but also his brother Adam, the leader of the God’s Gardeners group, both of whom feature in The Year of the Flood, but their sketchy outlines are fleshed out here. We learn how their upbringing by an abusive and controlling father, the Rev, led to their respective rebellions: Zeb, a talented hacker ran away in his teens and lived most of his life under fake identities in the grey zone between the legally accepted and the criminal world. Adam, similarly in hiding, became the leader of the eco-religious group God’s Gardeners whose ideology stands in stark opposition to the tenets of the Rev’s fundamentalist Church of PetrOleum. The trilogy comes to a full circle here: their life and endeavours lead to Extinctathlon and the eco-terrorist group behind it, whose activities in turn steer Crake onto the path of destroying humanity. While Zeb is carried by the events, Adam is unmasked as the manipulative force behind them.

Like most of Atwood’s prose, and also the previous two volumes of the trilogy, MaddAddam focuses on private histories and interpersonal relationships. Childhood traumas produce wounded human beings on the quest for happiness, yet the intrinsic determinism that drives the plot towards its conclusion often prevents these characters from crossing the boundary between stereotype and three-dimensional depth. The sketchiness of the characters effects parody where drama is intended, such as the post-rape apathy of Amanda, the self-destructive depression of Jimmy, or even the romance between Toby and Zeb. Even the manifestations of alterity—like the pigoon’s intelligence, or the Crakers’ prelapsarian innocence—frequently serve merely as comic relief, and the nagging feeling remains that the novel may have suffered from Atwood’s attempts at humor.

Although the story is a rather conventional post-apocalyptic narrative with lightweight characters, there is one element which stands out, and distinguishes it from other specimens of eschatological fiction, and this is its reflection on the process of trauma-narration. Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with the famous line “[w]hat we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” (89), and this is mirrored in the way in which traumatic events negate attempts at being narrated, yet also constantly invite attempts at doing so. Storytelling thus may become the key to outlining the wound cataclysmic events tear into the personal or general social psyche. This is the point where individual and collective traumas in MaddAddam seamlessly combine into a commentary on the act of narration, and reflect on the extent to which the trauma of the Apocalypse is tellable. But the questions tackled point way beyond the “simple” process of memorialization via the many levels of how stories are approached in the novel—Zeb telling his story to Toby, Toby’s euphemistic version of Zeb’s deeds which is canonized into the Story told to the Children of Crake, oral history versus the written canon, historiography as fiction, just to mention a few of the many aspects of the issue. This is the point where Atwood’s narrative is at its strongest.

MaddAddam as metatext—both to the trilogy and trauma narratives in general—broaches such sensitive questions as the responsibility of the narrator in creating a mythology which deliberately falsifies the events: “Toby later made two stories. The first story was the one she told out loud, to the Children of Crake; it had a happy outcome, or as happy as she could manage. The second, for herself alone, was not so cheerful.” (9). Is such misrepresentation justifiable by the seeming vulnerability of the audience? Does it aid the (re)integration of the trauma into cultural memory? Or does it lead to reiteration, one of the basic symptoms of unprocessed trauma? Toby’s narrativized illness and death at the end of the narrative—entitled “the Story of Toby” (89)—points to the pitfalls of narrative suppression, and presents a disturbance to the post-apocalyptic fairy-tale ending, which shows humanity metamorphosed but surviving.

Despite the unevenness in plotline and character presentation MaddAddam, a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, presents a perceptive extrapolation of present-day economic and ecological hazards into a post-cataclysmic future. Atwood mediates her social criticism through the eyes of the survivors of the Apocalypse, combining personal and collective trauma into an array of ways to narrativize the unspeakable. The death of almost all major antediluvian characters, the interbreeding between human and posthuman, and the rise of a new intelligence all point to a world that “has been changed utterly” (25), a world which feels just fine after getting rid of its human parasites.

Works Cited

  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. 1961. Transl. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.