Friday, 11 May 2012

Revisiting J. B. Bouson – The Year of the Flood

Here is yet another article by J. Brooks Bouson (who I think I have now determined to be a she), this time on the The Year of the Flood. I need to re-read her earlier article on Oryx and Crake, I believe, but even without re-reading it I can tell she is more or less still talking about the same things – utopia and hope and a call to action amidst a narrative laden with the most awful predictions imaginable.

Bouson speaks at length about how Atwood equates the various carnivorous things happening in Year (her short form, which I might as well use) to the state of women in the novel. She invokes de Sade’s musings on predator-prey relationships and how only the predator can enjoy sex because “pleasure belongs to the eater, not to the eaten” (Bouson 2011: 12). This is seen particularly in the character of Blanco, who not only operates a SecretBurger chain (which literally minces human meat into burger patty) but also treats all of his female employers as meat to be sexually exploited. This of course also ties into the other kinds of meat-eating going on, like the Rarity chain that regularly serves the meat of endangered species as a specialty – in fact this whole meat-eating theme is quite strong indeed when looked at it from that point of view. The Gardeners, naturally, are vegetarian.

Another thing she discusses is postfeminism, in particular the characters of Ren and Amanda who have chosen or accepted “[their] own sexual commodification and humiliation” (Bouson 2011: 14) and who use their female bodies as tools and trading goods. This contrasted with Toby who, Bouson contends, is a more traditional feminist (mainly because she protests against this sexual objectification). Atwood, Bouson says, is afraid that “the recent gains women have made as a result of the feminist movement may be short-lived and that there is a thin line, indeed, between the postfeminist’s embrace of her sexuality and the sexist world of the prefeminist past.” (Bouson 2011: 15).

Furthermore, she discusses what she strangely calls ‘Americanism’, “that is, the American culture of violence and corporatization and commodification and unbridled consumption” (Bouson 2011: 15). This seems to me to be rather unfairly directed at a specific nation, although there is no doubt some merit to this term (although others have seen this not as an expression of Americanism, but rather a universal human tendency). Global capitalism? Postmodernism? Globalization in general?

Bouson evokes the idea of ‘degeneration’ when Atwood “gives voice” to the “fear” that “scientific advances will lead not to a progressive utopian future but instead will result in humanity’s reversion to a savage dystopian (even pre-human) past” (Bouson 2011: 16). That is to say, the post-Darwinian idea that despite the rhetoric of progress civilization itself generates degeneration inevitably – perhaps an evolution of the idea that capitalism (which drives progress) must by necessity create haves and have-nots, and that the (degenerate) have-nots must again by necessity outnumber the haves. Thus, the dark pleebland cityscapes that Year is set in.

This, Bouson thinks, is the background Crake comes from and which inspires him to create the Crakers, “noble savages that are environmentally friendly, peace-loving and socially and economically egalitarian” (Bouson 2011: 17) – the replacements of the degenerate 21st century humans. However, as we have seen time and time again, Year also offers an alternative to this: namely the God’s Gardeners.

They too “see the need for a cleansing renewal of humanity and the creation of a new social and moral order”, however their vision is a “counter-vision and counter-narrative of sweetness and light” to the “dark vision of a corporation-controlled, consumer-driven and morally corrupt elite class” (Bouson 2011: 17). The idea seems to be (much like Bergthaller argued) that “environmentalism will not work if it does not become a religion” (Bouson 2011: 18). There is the tension here between nature as good and nature as ‘bad’, nature as prey and predator, and the combination of the two (for instance in Toby’s vision animal being a liobam, a genetically spliced lion-lamb creature). This same duality is reflected in human nature, between the Painballers who torture and kill, and Toby and Ren who selflessly set out to rescue Amanda from their hands. The feminist statement inherent in having only men on one side and only women on the other is perhaps a little too on the nose, but I personally don’t mind.

Bouson finishes with a call to the phronetical (or in common parlance, art not for art’s sake, but for some other, practical sake) in Atwood’s work:

Atwood, who has long talked of the moral imperative that drives her work, also believes in the transformative – and ethical – potential of imaginative literature, and indeed, Year, like Oryx, is a feminist, anti-corporate and radically ecological work in which Atwood, in sharing her fears of and outrage against current trends in contemporary society, also wishes to prod her readers to meaningful political thought and action.                                                                                                                                                                     (Bouson 2011: 23)

Perhaps a fair enough assessment of Atwood’s oeuvre; it is after all difficult to read this kind of literature in any other way, I would contend! Bouson reaffirms her belief in the ultimately utopian vision of Atwood in the very final scene of Year, where they hear singing voices arriving through the trees – whether they’re the Crakers or the Gardeners however Atwood leaves unsaid. Either, I suppose, offers its own version of utopia.


Bouson, J.B. 2011. “’We’re Using Up the Earth. It’s Almost Gone’: A Return to the Post-Apocalyptic Future in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood”. In The Journal of Commonwealth Literature

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