Because Maddaddam is the last work in a trilogy, it’s appropriate to consider the author’s comments on endings.
They are hard, she says, in interview with Martin Halliwell in 2003, the same year that Oryx and Crake, the first volume in this trilogy was published.
“Life doesn’t end. People’s lives end. But other lives keep going from that and the dance goes on. So whenever you come to a point in the book where you have to say ‘the end,’ it is always like snipping off a piece of ribbon. It’s always a bit arbitrary.”
So, here, with Maddaddam, she snips off the ribbon. And it is a bit arbitrary. For if one could conceive of telling another story after Oryx and Crake, one could definitely see telling another after Maddaddam.
And, yet, the shape of the trilogy, in the context of the whole, is deliberate, intricately crafted, honed and polished. Nothing arbitrary about that.
(I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers; if you have read the book jackets you know that Snowman is not truly the last human alive as he fears in Oryx and Crake and although I do mention other characters’ names in the discussion below, the references are not specifically sourced, so that it remains unclear how long – or if – they survive and reconnect with other narratives rooted in later days.)
It would be possible to read this third volume as a standalone, and possible, too, to read it without revisiting the first two volumes, published four and ten years ago, but reading the final work as a close companion makes for a richer and wholly absorbing experience.
Read as an isolated volume, I doubt the emphasis on the role of narrative, the vital importance of language and storytelling, would insist on centre-stage.
As a single work, the tendency would be to focus on the plot elements, on whether there is hope remaining for the characters whose threads have not yet been snipped. The looming question might seem to be the twin of “what happened”: “what next”.
As the third of three works, the looming question is “how”, the focus on the process of assembling the puzzle rather than on the imagining of what the final assembled puzzle might look like (a vision which isn’t finally and firmly created at the end of Maddaddam, for the “dance goes on”).
The rhythm of each book in and of itself, in this simple detail, is interesting, but as a whole, the broader rhythm is something else entirely.
Like the wish-wash of the waves for Snowman, the journey up-and-down stairs for Toby, the in-out-in-out of Ren’s breath: there are rhythms to Margaret Atwood’s storytelling which are both ordinary and remarkable.
“Why is it always such a surprise? thinks Toby. The moon. Even though we know it’s coming. Every time we see it, it makes us pause, and hush.”
These simple and extraordinary events in life are what we seek to explain with stories.
Perhaps fairy tales (there’s talk of ogres and magic beans).
Even nursery rhymes (there’s talk of the dish running away with the spoon).
Certainly myths (all of the characters mythologize their experience, to varying degrees, sometimes openly and consciously, other times intuitively and reflexively).
Oryx and Crake is one man’s story, one man’s mythology. “People need such stories, Pilar said once, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”
I read somewhere that in an earlier draft of Oryx and Crake, Snowman acknowledges that he is telling his story to Oryx, that she is his listener. But, regardless of his intent – which readers can only guess at as his story stands in its published form – Snowman populates his darkness with voices.
And, yet, the first volume of the trilogy still leaves the reader feeling the silence, the void.
(I think many readers experienced Snowman’s isolation and anxiety so profoundly that they chose not to finish the work, whereas, had they continued with the next volume, they could have experienced the same events from a slightly different perspective in The Year of the Flood and felt Jimmy’s pain from a distance before more fully inhabiting it, in his own personal narrative.)
“How potent was that word. With.”
Here, too, there is a synergy between the three volumes, which is best appreciated in the context of the whole.
The first volume is one man’s story; the second volume adopts the perspectives of more than one character; the third volume unifies these two approaches.
Indeed, some of the greatest satisfaction for readers is in the assembly of meaning.
“How long had it taken him to piece her together from the slivers of her he’d gathered and hoarded so carefully?”
Particularly given that a character can adopt a series of names, sometimes for amusement (e.g. names of avatars they possess in games) and sometimes for survival (e.g. aliases adopted when someone enters the resistance movement), the ways in which narratives intersect is essential to the reader’s understanding of the intricacies of the plot.
“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”
Related to the unravelling of multiple identities, readers must shuffle and grapple with a shifting chronology.
The third volume situates the entire series in the context of storytelling, where words like ‘always’ and ‘forever’ hold peculiar meanings.
“Important things often come into stories later, but also at the beginning. And in the middle as well.”
From back-to-front, from front-to-back, like the word ‘Maddaddam”, the trilogy’s stories can be read from more than one direction.
(From a simple plot perspective, it is greatly satisfying to assemble the pieces laid out before readers from the earliest pages of the first volume. But just as satisfying? Realizing, towards the end, that something from the beginning was deliberately obscured with such a delicate movement, slight-of-hand indeed, that one didn’t even recognize that the question was there to be asked, even though the need for the answer was, simultaneously urgent as soon as the answer was revealed.)
This technique is deliberately disorienting; much has been said about the plot of this series – the underlying question of where the human race is headed and what direction that course will take if current behaviours continue unchecked – and it is obviously appropriate to have an unsettling structure for a disturbing tale.
“I’m not in this part of the story; it hasn’t come to the part with me. But I’m waiting, far off in the future. I’m waiting for the story…to join up with mine. The story…I am in right now, with you.”
Each reader is part of this story, in it right now, but simultaneously, the act of having a reader ensures that the events of the tale have already unfolded.
“Any reader he can possibly imagine is in the past.”
How can we tell stories that matter?
In this world, “books could be burnt, paper crumble away, computers could be destroyed”.
In this world, words can be written in syrup and body parts; they might be devoured by ants and vultures.
In this world, it’s “only me, holding it all together. It’s only a handful of fading neural pathways. It’s only a mirage.”
Maddaddam holds it all together.