Saturday, 1 February 2014

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

A clever package with a nihilistic core
Reviewer: Gabrielle Mathieu

What we thought: Perhaps, as one reviewer said, dystopian fantasy and literary fiction are not that compatible. The characters, Oryx and Crake, that together transform the world from a dystopia to a post-apocalyptic disaster, remain enigmatic throughout. (We have only Oryx’s word that she wasn’t a part of Crake’s plan.) Our narrator, Jimmy/Snowman, seems too caught up in his own misery and pursuit of unfulfilling pleasure, to display much curiosity about the inscrutable Crake, and though he’s fixated on the details of Oryx’s early exploitation as a child-prostitute, other details of her remain unexplored.

In intriguing dystopian fiction, we experience the narrator’s fight vicariously, as he or she fights against the odds to survive an unjust and violent society. However, it would be difficult to know which of the three central figures could earn our sympathy here. We’re given needlessly detailed backstory about child prostitution, at a level of detail that is almost exploitative in itself, but there’s no hint of how it affected Oryx. Her character remains implausible, almost a parody of the submissive Asian woman. Does she identify with animals herself; is that why she teaches Crake’s genetically engineered humanoid creations to treasure animals. If so, it’s ironic, as most animals in this book are themselves genetically created mutations that are dangerous. (Snats-part snake and part rat.). The insipid dialogue that Snowman keeps reenacting in his head (oh, honey) is supposed to be her voice, but it’s annoying after a while.
Speaking of Jimmy/Snowman and Oryx, I’ve read that this book is referred to as a love story. How exactly does a puerile obsession with an eight-year old prostitute become love? It’s also difficult to explain the adult Oryx’s attraction to Jimmy, when Crake, his best friend, is already her lover. Is that perhaps Margaret Atwood’s point: that the future is so bleak that what passes as friendship is hours of shared web-surfing, watching executions and child pornography, and what passes as love is passionless sex with a mysterious woman who seemingly has no interior life, judging from her trite conversation.

If the relationships function to expose the nihilism of modern life, a life built on consumption and escapism, the nihilistic core does nothing to propel the dystopian novel forward. In the end, what do I really care what happens to Jimmy/Snowman, an exhausted, self-indulgent sad sack who sits around clad in various sheets. (I fail to see why the sheets survived, but no other clothing can be found.) Nor is there much to engage me with the Crakers, the green-eyed perfect race that Crake engineered. With their waving blue penises and their purring, they are too freakish for me to care about their fate much.

What I really want to know is why Crake did what he did, and how much Oryx was a part of the plan. And I really want to know why Crake would do what he does at the end.

That unfortunately, is never answered. Even in a nihilistic world, his actions make no sense.

I admire the novel’s cleverness and the world-building. I understand how that came to be too much for some people, because there was such a strong anti-science basis, but I still enjoyed it. The Jan. 6th, 2014 New Yorker issue has an interesting article about a firm in China that is researching the genetics of human intelligence. They have four thousand employees. As Ms. Atwood says, her work is not necessarily science fiction. The ability to genetically splice organisms will leave us with many complex and difficult choices. On that level, the novel succeeds for me. I just wish it had a stronger and more comprehensible set of characters and motivations.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Speculative fiction, Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, the Sonmi section of Cloud Atlas

Avoid if: you’re squeamish about genetic-engineering or child prostitution, you’re easily depressed, you dislike multiple timelines

Ideal accompaniments: reconstituted chicken nuggets, whisky with Irn-Bru and The Plastic Ono Band

Genre: Speculative fiction, literary fiction

1 comment:

  1. I loved her book The Handmaid's Tale. Will have to get this one now!