Friday, January 11, 2013

Margaret Atwood's ORYX AND CRAKE #OneBookAtATime

Idiocracy meets Twelve Monkeys meets The Elementary Particles. That would be my elevator pitch for Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood's bleakly lovely double-dystopia.

Double dystopia? Why, yes, for Atwood is nothing if not economical as she spins out a dual narrative of the life and times of one Jimmy, later known as Snowman, the last known surviving member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens. From the reader's perspective, Jimmy merely exchanges one dystopia for another; the world he remembers and regrets is a corporatist nightmare in which each suburb is a wholly-owned corporate "Compound" -- a gated community with fierce, even lethal security, private education, private everything -- and the rest of the world, the cities and the rural areas, are simply "pleebland", where the ignorant customers live as best they can. One can easily picture those pleeblanders lining up in the morning for their gentleman's latte, but of course we never get to see them until the very end of Oryx and Crake. They are merely faceless victims of the Crakepocalypse.

Crake (just a code-name, after an extinct-in-the-novel/rare-in-real-life Australian bird*) is Jimmy's best friend, a misanthropic scientific genius who rises to be king of the lab even as Jimmy, not so numerate, not so scientific, sinks to a job in the PR industry, the last refuge of the liberal arts being the writing of copy to advertise the products of the Compounds' geniuses. The story of their friendship is a little bland, but that's part of the point; Jimmy's and Crake's world does not value human connection, and so the pair grow up barely knowing what it is, until Oryx comes along relatively late in the narrative. Oryx is a beautiful, possibly Asian, girl, a survivor of various sex trade horrors, whom Crake more or less rescues from his life and puts to work as a teacher for his very special creation: nothing more and nothing less than a replacement for human beings.

The post-apocalyptic narrative zeroes in on these replacements as observed by Jimmy (the Compound life is told in flashbacks), the only ordinary human left alive that anyone knows of, who has let himself be manipulated into serving as guardian and caretaker of the "Crakers", a new species of human that eats like rabbits, lives for exactly 30 like Edenic noble savages straight out of Rousseau, mates like baboons, and has been taught, mostly by Jimmy, whom they call Snowman though none of them has ever seen snow, to revere Crake as their creator and Oryx as the goddess of all animal and plant life.

As a relatively simple but still-tense (the Crakers aren't the only genetically engineered new species amuck in the world, after all. There be monsters in their paradise) supply-run plot unfolds and sends Jimmy traipsing through the world of the Talking Heads' "Nothing But Flowers" back to the remains of the Compound from which the Crakers came, Jimmy/Snowman's flashbacks tell us how the Crakers came to be the new dominant species -- and it ain't pretty. For Crake was all but a supervillain, so angry at humanity for what it had done to the world that he hatched and implemented a truly sinister plot against it. Yes, this apocalypse is all the deliberate work of one man, whose girlfriend and best friend were too busy getting it on behind his back to notice what he was up to until it was too late.

Romantic sort of subplot aside, if you're a reader who needs strong characters to get you through a story, this might be tough going for you. Jimmy is a stock hero-victim of a kind Atwood uses a lot -- her point of view characters tend to the passive, the disbelieving, the innocent only because deliberately ignorant. Crake is similarly one-dimensional, and as for Oryx, she is barely there, and when she is, she is elusive to the point of annoyance. But what is lacked in character is made up for in other ways; Atwood manages (in, as ever, delicately glorious prose) to keep the faceless billions who stand to suffer if/when Crake succeeds ever in the reader's thoughts, and her main trio's bland opacity gives the story the feeling of archetype and mythology, as if we, too, are getting the filtered and sanitized and misremembered version of events the Crakers might have, if Jimmy had been more honest and deliberate with them. There is, perhaps, a wry commentary on the importance of the liberal arts buried here, as Jimmy gets the last laugh, to a degree. It's a pity that by novel's end, one wants to slap him.

This looks to be at least a trilogy before Atwood is done. I have The Year of the Flood on deck for a future read, and a third MaddAddam book is due out this fall. I'm in.

*This novel is very big on extinction, here treated via a videogame released by an entity calling itself "MaddAddam" that is pretty much an early rehearsal of what Crake is going to do to the world.


  1. Nice review. I tend to treat Atwood rather gingerly. Haven't read this one, but the point you make about her characters vs. her prose is familiar.

  2. I love these books, and I can't wait to read the third one. I need to revisit Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood before it comes out.


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