“First, I am putting the red hat on my head, the hat of Snowman-the-Jimmy … now I will eat the fish … it is a hard thing to do, to eat a fish … but I must do it … that is what needs to be done … first the bad things, then the story.” —MaddAddam
There are a lot of themes one could choose to focus on when discussing the impact and meaning of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy. We could talk about environmentalism, genetic engineering, and capitalist greed. We could explore gender issues and feminism. We could analyze what makes something “human” versus “non-human.” We could have an endless conversation about personal responsibility, to ourselves, to our fellow humans, and to the planet we occupy. But in this review, I am going to focus on what Atwood has to say about the act of storytelling itself and how the audiobook production of the MaddAddam Trilogy connects the reader to this timeless tradition.
The MaddAddam trilogy starts with Oryx and Crake, in which we are introduced to Snowman who believes himself to be the sole survivor of a pandemic that has wiped out the entire human population. Snowman lives near a group of not-quite-human creatures he calls the “Crakers.” Over the course of the story, Snowman instructs the infantile Crackers by telling them stories about their creator, Crake. The reader learns what has brought about the pandemic about through a series of flashbacks into Snowman’s past.
The next book in the series, The Year of the Flood, takes us along a parallel timeline with the events in Oryx and Crake, but this time from the perspectives of two new central characters, Toby and Ren. Both Toby and Ren are aligned with a religious sect called the God’s Gardeners, whose central tenets are a mixture of survivalism and extreme environmentalism. We find out more about the state of the world just prior to the pandemic and how a small remnant of humans have managed to survive.
The final book of the series, MaddAddam, continues with Toby’s story and brings together many of the characters from the prior books, including Snowman (also known as Jimmy and, to the Crakers, Snowman-the-Jimmy). The story now moves forward into the aftermath of the apocalypse, as the surviving humans work to reestablish some vestige of civilization and forge a relationship with the Crakers.
A central theme in all of these books is storytelling. In Oryx and Crake, Snowman relates to the Crakers by telling them stories. The Crakers were created in a laboratory and released into the world after the pandemic ran its course. They have no connection to the pre-pandemic civilization that Snowman is from, and he in turn has almost nothing in common with their altered biology or community. To bridge the gap, Snowman tells them stories about their origin and the “time before.” It is a perilous journey, filled with misunderstandings, false starts, and failures. But Snowman’s stories allow him to forge a vital (if not always appreciated) relationship with the Crakers.
In The Year of the Flood, we meet the God's Gardeners, a community of environmental zealots who have fashioned a religion around the protection of all living creatures. Something akin to a marriage between Green Peace and the Amish, the Gardeners spend much of their time engaged in the remembrance of various species of animals and of the scientists and environmentalists who studied and protected them. The Gardeners have disconnected themselves completely from technology, so their collective knowledge is maintained through storytelling, primarily during near daily celebrations focused on these species and scientific saints.
In MaddAddam, the storytelling duties for the Crakers has passed from Snowman-the-Jimmy to Toby. By this time, the Crakers have developed an insatiable need for the repetition of the stories of their creation. Toby learns the stories that Snowman has told them and then assumes the responsibility of crafting stories about herself and the others in their little group of surviving humans. The act storytelling, as she learned with the Gods Gardeners, is replete with ritual and repetition.
The trilogy is somewhat unique in that it is told from the perspectives of different characters from book to book to book. Oryx and Crake is entirely Snowman-the-Jimmy’s tale. The Year of the Flood switches back and forth between Toby and Ren. MaddAddam floats from Toby to her love interest, Zeb, and eventually to one of the Crakers who has taken on the role of Toby’s storytelling apprentice. These shifting perspectives allow us to see various characters from different eyes in each book. Where we see Snowman-the-Jimmy though his own memories in Oryx and Crake, we experience him from other perspectives in the following two books. Where Zeb is a somewhat mysterious character (certainly with a very mysterious history) filtered through Toby and Ren’s points of view in The Year of the Flood, we get chapters told from his point of view in MaddAddam.
The central characters for me, though, are the storytellers, Snowman-the-Jimmy and Toby. Jimmy is the old world and all of its now-defunct trappings. Toby is the transition team figuring out how humans will adapt now that everything they have known is taken away. The final voice we hear in the last book is Blackbeard’s, Toby’s young Craker apprentice. Together, they represent humanity’s transition to an entirely new species and civilization.
The audiobook productions of the trilogy assign separate narrators to Snowman-the-Jimmy, Toby, Ren, and Zeb. In each case, the performer is wonderfully suited to the character they are voicing. The consistency of their appearances over the course of all three books gives the reader an invaluable connection to each character and perfectly mirrors the shifting perspectives Atwood is employing. Hearing the MaddAddam trilogy read to you by these narrators connects you to the characters in a supremely personal way. Toby’s voice, for instance, as it is interpreted by Bernadette Dunne, is an indelible presence in my memory.
But the audiobook narration connects us to the story in a much more specific way. When all other vestiges of civilization are stripped away, we are left with one person telling another person a story. In Atwood’s dystopian vision, oral storytelling is the tool with which we keep an extinct civilization alive, teach a new society how to function, and connect the two to each other. Listening to this story makes the audience an active participant in this ritual of survival.