Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale, The Blind Assassin) tackles the economic crisis in her upcoming novel The Year of the Flood with a sprawling tale of social decay and environmental ruin. And hymns.
In an interview yesterday with the New York Times, Atwood laid out the philosophical underpinnings that will play out in her latest novel, which examines the effects of a cataclysmic environmental disaster on an already crumbling society. That last part has quite a bit to do with Atwood's thoughts on the global economic crisis, which she spelled out in great detail in last October's book-length essay Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.
In short, humanity's current troubles are in part the result of colossally mishandling the apportionment of debt. According to Atwood, what had historically been a highly tangible concept of debt - she points to ancient Sumerian tablets that helped pioneer writing systems simply to more concretely record who owed what - has in recent years become hopelessly abstract, with mortgages chopped into tiny bits and sold on to others, making it impossible for people to understand whom precisely they owe money to, or indeed how the system works at all.
This interferes with the human desire to construct debt as a narrative of right and wrong, fairness and unfairness. This lack of narrative ultimately undermines the massive institutions that rely on precisely that assumption of basic fairness in their dealings - banks, for one particularly obvious example - when suddenly people can't pay back their debts. Thus the collapse of a fair system of debt is the collapse of a far larger conception of how society should work, and therein lies the danger of chaos. Keep in mind Payback came out only a month after the financial crisis began. No wonder her book has been called prophetic.
In the interview, Atwood tied together these ideas with her thoughts on the environment:
Humankind will doom itself by taking more than it gives back. 'Our technology has become so clever that it can chew things up much faster than we can replace them,' she said.
This sentiment connects her latest works with themes she's dealt with her entire literary career, including the loss of human agency, excessive commercialization, and uncontrollable technology.
That might be what The Year of the Flood is about thematically, but what's its story? From Amazon's description:
The times and species have been changing at a rapid rate, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly leader of the God's Gardeners-a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, as well as the preservation of all plant and animal life-has long predicted a natural disaster that will alter Earth as we know it. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have survived: Ren, a young trapeze dancer locked inside the high-end sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God's Gardener barricaded inside a luxurious spa where many of the treatments are edible.
Have others survived? Ren's bioartist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers, survivors of the mutual-elimination Painball prison? Not to mention the shadowy, corrupt policing force of the ruling powers...
Meanwhile, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/lamb blends, the Mo'hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue. As Adam One and his intrepid hemp-clad band make their way through this strange new world, Ren and Toby will have to decide on their next move. They can't stay locked away...
The novel will also showcase another of Atwood's myriad talents, as the book will come with a CD of fourteen hymns she has composed and had set to music. These hymns honor some of God's Gardeners' most venerated figures, including Saint Francis Assissi, Saint Al Gore, and Saint Rachel Carson.
Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth is out now in paperback. The Year of the Flood comes out September 22.