When a plague nearly wipes out the planet, a religious/environmental group springs up.
If Hieronymus Bosch were to paint the ills and troubling trends of our day, the world he'd create might well look like the one in "The Year of the Flood."
This novel revisits the dystopia that Margaret Atwood conjured in her last work of speculative fiction, "Oryx and Crake," with its all-powerful corps and compounds and their security forces, the CorpSeCorps; its ecologically disastrous companies like Happicuppa and HelthWyzer; the good school and the mediocre, Watson & Crick and Martha Graham, and the gene-spliced creatures like rakunks and many-colored Mo'Hairs.
In the not-too-distant future, a manmade plague has destroyed most of a human population already utterly degraded by commerce and science run amok. Amid the nightmarish, outlandish and often waggish scenarios, entities and creatures that give the book its baroque texture, an environmentally minded religious group, God's Gardeners, gives it its shape.
The novel is divided into sections devoted to the group's saint days (among the saints are Euell Gibbons, Rachel Carson, Dian Fossey [martyr] and E.O. Wilson), each introduced by a generally trite sermon from spiritual leader Adam One and an equally trite number out of the Oral Hymnbook. This tiresome setup, which serves to explain much of the story's background, is leavened with Atwood's characteristic brainy humor and sheer goofiness.
Adam One tempers his pronouncements with remarks such as "Or not as a rule" and "or close enough." He describes the Corporate perspective on God's Gardeners thus: "They view us as twisted fanatics who combine food extremism with bad fashion sense and a puritanical attitude towards shopping." Religious sects divide over whether the lamb will lie down with the lion or the wolf when the peaceable kingdom arrives. It's all very wry in the midst of such wholesale rottenness.
Against this background, the story follows the criss-crossing fortunes of two characters, both orphans of a sort: Ren, who spends a good part of her youth with the God's Gardeners; and Toby, who finds shelter with them until a former boss and brutal abuser forces her to flee and hide in a spa called AnooYoo. Ren ends up in a SeksMart called Scales and Tails, where she is fortunately quarantined when the plague (or "waterless flood") breaks out.
Through the histories and post-plague adventures of Ren and Toby, the story unfolds in both directions, before and after the waterless flood, which, like the biblical flood, cleanses the world of most of its human dross. Coincidentally enough, all the main characters in the book, including the chief villain, seem to have survived. More coincidentally still, in the vast wasteland left by the "flood," they manage to run into one another.
For all its futuristic razzle-dazzle and cutting social commentary, the story, finally, is a familiar one of lost souls finding one another, families reconfiguring, thwarted love redeemed. But where it's familiar and where it's wildly inventive, "The Year of the Flood" consistently does what one expects of any work by Margaret Atwood: It entertains, spins out suspense and rewards a reader's basic impulse, all the while subtly and expertly maintaining its literary respectability.
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Cornucopia, Wis.