This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 12, 2009
Atwood: The Year of the Flood (Book Review)
The audience looks just like a Margaret ATWOOD crowd should. A CanLit casual mix of grad students, people carrying bike helmets, the hard of hearing, and older women who bear an uncanny resemblance to the country's marquee author. Tilley hats stowed safely in backpacks, they sit shoulder to shoulder in the pews of a deconsecrated Ottawa church, clutching glasses of white wine and trying to avoid the disapproving gaze of Christ still nailed high on his cross. It's an atmosphere of anticipation - downright giddy by Upper Canadian standards - as they await the North American debut of the buzzy road show promoting Atwood's new novel The Year of the Flood. A book tour like no other.
The lights go down, a cowbell sounds, and a choir starts a shabby procession down the aisle. Dressed in tattered robes, they carry chalkboards emblazoned with slogans like "Animals R Us," and "Don't Eat Death!" Their sweet voices are united in a mournful, minor-key hymn. " 'Twas once the finest Garden / That ever has been seen / And in it God's dear Creatures / Did swim and fly and play / But then came greedy Spoilers / And killed them all away."
Atwood, dressed in a pink and black hemp shirt and trousers, brings up the rear. If she's singing, you can't hear it - and sadly there is no repeat of the "jazz hands" dance moves the Guardian reported she busted out in London - but it's a dramatic entrance nonetheless. Taking her place behind a lectern on stage left, the choir at centre stage, three actors on the right, she drawls the explanation. "Like many of the animals in the novel, this evening is a hybrid."
If Atwood's new book covers some familiar ground - a dystopian vision of a future earth, ecologically ravaged and in the grips of a flesh-melting pandemic, featuring the same setting and many of the same characters as 2003's Oryx and Crake (a "simultaneouel," she calls it) - its public rollout does not.
In the place of the time-tested formula of writer on stage, reading, there is a 17-page script and seven songs (culled from the 14 nature-themed hymn lyrics Atwood created for the Gardeners, the survivalist eco-cult at the centre of her new work, and set to music by Orville Stober, the partner of her literary agent). The 70-minute performance casts the author as guide, filling in the gaps between dramatic readings from the book's three narrators, "Adam One," "Ren," and "Toby," and the music. It's a high-literary church service - albeit one where someone bellows "Bitch, I'll slice off your tits!" from the altar - with a dash of Andy Hardy "Let's put on a show" amateurishness; the cast and crew are all local, left to their own devices for staging and musical arrangement, and given little or no time for rehearsal with the author. But somehow it works.
The show drew sellout audiences in Edinburgh, Manchester, London and four other U.K. stops, and (mostly) rapturous reviews. After a swing out to Calgary and Vancouver, it will carry on down the U.S. West Coast. Then back to Europe, New York, Washington and Chicago. In all, 20 performances in seven countries, before coming to a stop on Nov. 19 in Sudbury, Ont., the day before Atwood's 70th birthday.
The proceeds from the events are being shared with local community groups and not-for-profit conservation organizations - Bird Life International in the U.K., Nature Canada, and the American Bird Conservancy among others. ("Help us save the albatross. It can be done," Atwood pleads from the stage in Ottawa.) Along with the new book, you can buy a CD of the Gardeners' hymns. Ron Mann, the Oscar-nominated Toronto filmmaker, is shooting a one-hour documentary for TV. There's a companion website (www.yearoftheflood.com), and Atwood is keeping a tour blog. She's even on Twitter. A green-themed, multi-platformed marketing juggernaut that taps into both community activism and the do-it-yourself ethos. Eat your heart out, Bono.
At the conclusion of the Ottawa performance, the line of people waiting to have their books signed - sometimes multiple copies of The Year of the Flood, selections from her 40-deep title catalogue, even the odd purloined library book - stretches from the altar to the steps outside. Each one eager to grab a few seconds with a cultural icon. "I've entered a new phase," Atwood says of the ardour. "Instead of scary guys, I now get people who say, 'I wish you were my grandma.' Or, 'I love it when old people tweet.' "
On the train to Kingston, Ont., Atwood is busy sharing miscellany from the morning papers: the story of a woman mistakenly implanted with someone else's embryo, sex toys for dogs, our horoscopes. When the steward comes, she takes only hot water, reaching into her own handbag for the tea. Coffee is out unless it is shade grown and organic - the only type deemed friendly to the birds she loves so passionately. And in keeping with the book's themes, this tour is resolutely green. Atwood took the Queen Mary 2 to the U.K., and travelled around the country by rail, to keep carbon emissions to a minimum. She is staying at only the most environmentally conscious hotels. The event programs are printed on ancient-forest-friendly paper. And like her Gardeners, the author has taken the "Veggie Vow" for the duration, allowing a weekly exception for gastropods, crustaceans, or "ethical" fish.
At the fundraising dinners before each performance, the food is local, organic, and awash in granola-y goodness. In Ottawa, the organizers created a fantasy menu from the book - Adam Thirteen's Warm Lentil Salad, Ren's Brown Butter Smashed Potatoes and Roasted Root Vegetables. ("They wanted a lot of mushrooms," says Bridgette McLean, the caterer. "It was a challenge. I usually do weddings.") The next night in Kingston, there are "Secret Burgers" - unlike the novel, certified human-free - and AnooYoo Spa Lemon Meringue Facial Cream tarts (after the apocalypse you can't afford to be choosy).
It's all tongue-in-cheek, but Atwood is serious about the underlying message. "I grew up amongst the biologists," she says. "My dad [an entomologist] was among the first to say don't spray forests, it's counterproductive, insects can evolve faster than we can poison them." The Gardeners aren't necessarily the heroes of The Year of the Flood, but they are the best prepared for the wrenching future. It is environmentalism as fully fledged religion, with all of the good and bad that entails. "All of these things are made up of human beings. Show me a perfect human being," says Atwood. The real world's great faiths all share roots in nature, she says, and are slowly moving back toward them. (She cites The Green Bible, a new edition of the Good Book, printed with soya ink on recycled paper, with God's words about nature printed in green, and an appendix filled with tips on how to be at one with the earth, as one example.) The Gardeners have their saints and martyrs - St. Dian Fossey, St. Al Gore, St. David Suzuki, St. Farley of the Wolves. As to where Atwood's own opinion lies, she is positively Delphic. Selfish creatures that we are, we need to believe that there is some sort of "inner virtue" in saving our own souls, or the planet. "We need an emotional connection - to believe that there is something worth saving," says Atwood. "That's why they use baby seals and panda bears, rather than baby snakes and beetles, in environmental campaigns."
After so many books, she has learned that it is useless to try to point the reader in one direction or the other - they will take away exactly what they want to. "You're not in control of how people read a book. They're doing their own interpretation," she says. The same que sera, sera attitude is extended to The Year of the Flood tour. The script gets sent ahead, and Atwood arrives onstage, as much in the dark as the audience as to how it will all turn out. The choir in Ottawa, the Calixa LAVALLÉE Ensemble, were precise and professional music school students. The next night in Kingston had a far looser vibe, with the accompanying guitar, accordion and stand-up bass placing the hymns somewhere between Jacques Brel and Lawrence Welk. In Edinburgh, a former bishop played Adam One, dressed in a leopard skin. In Bristol, the roles of the three narrators were played by two local booksellers and a customer who wandered into the shop and volunteered to give it a go. Manchester featured the local Lesbian and Gay Chorus. Toronto had Micah Barnes, formerly of the a cappella group the Nylons, singing along with Taylor Lezzaza, a woman who waits tables at Atwood's local espresso bar. "Most of the singers have been better singers than the Gardeners," says the author. Onstage, as she claps along in herky-jerky time with the music, grinning wide, her delight is evident.
Is this the future of the book tour? Another case of Atwood surfing the zeitgeist - releasing Payback, a book about debt during the height of last fall's financial meltdown, turning her hand to environmental themes in Oryx and Crake just as the green movement gathered steam? "I do not predict the future," she says. "I just have a creepy way of appearing to."
With three narrative voices, The Year of the Flood lends itself to a theatrical reading, says Atwood. But she's unsure if she will go this way again. The blog is fun, but work, not something she'll keep up when she's home, her days filled with writing and trashy TV.
During the walk-through before the performance in Kingston, the director, Jim Garrard, a founder of Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille and president of Rochdale College, the U of T's infamous hippy enclave, looks around at all the hoopla and makes a dry observation. "It's kind of like a Rolling Stones tour," he says. Atwood shakes her head and smiles. "To me, it's been a bit like falling down the stairs," she says.
Maclean's October 12, 2009