The Way Forward

Nigel Dickson
Margaret Atwood, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, 1999. This photograph is on view in the exhibition ‘Canadian Content: Portraits by Nigel Dickson,’ at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Institute for Contemporary Culture, Toronto, through March 21, 2010.

Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, announced on her Facebook page that she didn’t want the lives of her elderly parents or her Down syndrome infant to be judged before Barack Obama’s “death panel.” It may be that Palin has been reading the works of Margaret Atwood, the distinguished Canadian writer, northerners alike in their mistrust of the Lower Forty-Eight. Palin’s conception of health care reform might come from any of Atwood’s chilling dystopias, most recently The Year of the Flood, a continuation of her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, a postapocalyptic tale about the end days of a totalitarian, corporation-run America, collapsing after a laboratory-engineered virus has begun to kill almost everyone on earth.

Atwood has long had America in her sights, and who is to say she is wrong? Her fictional warnings since the 1970s —about our corporations, biotechnologies, greed, sexual mores, rising fundamentalist right-wing ideologies, loony lefties, and the pollution of the environment—have been confirmed with a regularity that ought to give pause. Oryx and Crake uses an epigraph from Swift: “my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you.”


Atwood has reigned for forty years in Canada’s pantheon of intellectuals and great writers, with Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, and several recently gone: the late Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields, and Robertson Davies, to name those best known in the US. Born in 1939 and educated at the University of Toronto, Radcliffe, and Harvard, Atwood has received the Booker Prize and the Order of Canada and innumerable other honors, and has written twenty-one acclaimed novels and distinguished works of nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature. She has plenty to say.

Joyce Carol Oates, in her review of Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake in these pages,1 recapitulates her career in more detail and calls attention to her idea that the dominant symbol of Canadian literature is Survival. (America’s is The Frontier, England’s is The Island.) She quotes from Atwood’s 1972 Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature:

Our [Canada’s] central idea is one which generates, not the excitement and sense of danger which The Frontier holds out, not the smugness and/or sense of security, of everything in its place, which The Island can offer, but an almost intolerable anxiety. Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else. The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival.

Some critics now find this a bit simplistic, but certainly, along with women’s issues, survival turns…

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