Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 434 pp., $26.95
Lady Oracle has been quiet the last six years. Yes, there have been half a dozen books, an opera even. But no novels, and it is in her novels that Margaret Atwood spins the most arresting alternate mythologies to our hell-bent world. From 1972's "Surfacing," a virtuoso rewriting of the Demeter myth, to "The Handmaid's Tale," with its baroquely imagined future in which women are slaves, Atwood's best books are dream capsules in which greed, destructive anti-environmentalism, religious fundamentalism and the constant desire to subject the will of women combine into a proto-fascist force.
Because Atwood thinks deeply on these matters, her vision is often bleak. So it's a welcome surprise that her new novel, "The Year of the Flood," is a slap-happy romp through the end times. Stuffed with cornball hymns, genetic mutations worthy of Thomas Pynchon (such as the rakuunk, a combined skunk and raccoon) and a pharmaceutical company run amok, it reads like dystopia verging on satire. She may be imagining a world in flames, but she's doing it with a dark cackle.
The tone here couldn't be more different from that of "Oryx and Crake," the 2003 Man Booker finalist that this book rewrites and retells. That novel was the apocalypse done in dour tones and mythopoetic images, part Doris Lessing, part H.G. Wells. A new race of beings called the Crakes wanders a blasted moonscape, trying to decide whether it is worth rebooting the planet after it has been decimated by a brutally swift plague. The source of the holocaust was a pill called BlyssPluss, which didn't cause happiness, but rather death. Two characters, Jimmy the Snowman and Glenn, dominate the telling.
"The Year of the Flood" chronicles the same story from a female point of view. Again, two survivors, Toby and Ren, form the crux of the tale. Toby waits out the plague in a former spa, where plastic surgery was to mask her identity from a sadistic rapist. Ren, a sex worker, ducks the damage in an isolation room at Scales and Tails, a strip club where she wound up working because it had good health and dental benefits.
Jumping back and forth in time, Atwood evokes the women's jagged journey to this grim end. Their stories are parables of survival, in which the simple desire to subsist means going with the system, even when the system is designed to grind them up. At one point, Toby works at a fast food joint called SecretBurgers, which is rumored to use cat flesh and worse in its patties. When she is rescued from the work -- and her sexually abusive boss -- by a group of back-to-the-land radicals called God's Gardeners, it seems a reprieve, except that the Gardeners have equally damaging ideas of a woman's role in society.
Unlike "Oryx and Crake," which deliberately shaded away from specifics, "The Year of the Flood" is littered with clues, many quite amusing, about the seesaw between invention and perversion that led to the end of the world. As in all science fiction, part of the fun is seeing what could have worked and didn't. Junked-up solar cars litter the landscape, and pigs with human brains dig through rubbish. Other threads strike a deeper vein. Toby's memories of her mother's slow death from a disease most likely manufactured to help sell a pharmaceutical company's cure gives us a glimpse of a world in which profit has outstripped any desire for medicine to heal.
The greatest tinkering and mulching in Atwood's lost world involves belief systems. God's Gardeners read the Bible as an environmentalist tract, and Atwood splices the sermons of one of their prophets, Adam One, into her text, alongside hymns and other homilies. April Fools' Day and the story of the loaves and fishes, for instance, are combined into April Fish Day: "On April Fish Day, which originated in France, we make fun of one another by attaching a Fish of paper, or, in our case, a Fish of recycled cloth, to the back of another person and then crying out, April Fish!"
Juxtaposing this gobbledygook with the chronicles of Ren and Toby, Atwood creates the novel's spookiest effect. Here is a world in which the reigning mythologies aren't just wrong-headed but have absolutely nothing to do with the real lives of those living in their shadows. And the coming plague only serves to vivify the advocates of these beliefs.
Meanwhile, Ren and Toby suffer in silence, where pain is just pain, not prologue or premonition. It is a wonder that so many in this world and ours turn to pills to numb it. But as "The Year of the Flood" boldly shows, that has its perils too.
Freeman is acting editor of Granta and the author of "The Tyranny of E-Mail," due out next month.