Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

SPOILER ALERT: This book is impossible to discuss without revealing a few key details from the book. I don’t reveal the particulars at any point, but I do discuss things that are not fully made clear until much later in the story. If you are the type of person who likes to be surprised by everything, you may want to skip this review.

My favorite dystopian novel of all time would have to be The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It is a brilliant, visionary piece of fiction. I read it every few years just to remind myself why I am a feminist, what it means to be brave, and who I want to be. Yes. It is that powerful.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the book that put Margaret Atwood on my short list of must-read authors. And I can honestly say that nothing of hers has ever disappointed. That being said, when I finished Oryx and Crake this past summer, I set it down feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Because that is not the norm for an Atwood book, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why and I’ve come up with a few ideas and, consequently, developed a greater appreciation for the book.

Oryx and Crake is written from the perspective of Snowman, who is, as far as he knows, the last surviving human on the planet. Despite being the only known survivor of a catastrophic virus, Snowman isn’t a particularly sympathetic character. In fact, if one person had to survive, I don’t think anyone would have chosen him. Nobody, that is, but Crake.

Living alongside Snowman are a group of green-eyed creatures he calls the Crakers (named so after their creator). These human-like creatures look to Snowman as a sort of tribal priest and intercessor. His interactions with them seem to only intensify his lonely existence. It isn’t hard to see why. While they appear human in their near-perfect physical form, the extensive alterations and modifications introduced by Crake into their very DNA, seem to give these simple creatures more in common with the rakunks and pigoons than with humanity as we (and Snowman) know it.

And yet, they still retain this spark of life that is recognizable as human. Despite Crake’s best efforts, in their search to understand–themselves, their surroundings, their interactions–they begin to create stories. Like early humans, their stories are metaphors and myths. They are simple and crude. And they are distinctly familiar. Crake, Snowman tells us, would be so disappointed.

So how did the Crakers come to be? How was the world unmade? Snowman is here to help us, and the Crakers, understand.

Throughout the book Snowman serves as our tour guide, taking us all they way back to his earliest memories and his time living in the gated corporate community of OrganInc Farms, up through his young adult years, and finally ending with his time working for Crake at the RejoovenEsense compound–the place where the world finally began to unravel.

Through his recollections, he builds an image of a future that is both foreign and frighteningly familiar (all good dystopian futures have enough of the familiar to make us uncomfortable). We learn that Snowman and Crake met as teenagers. On the surface, their differences are such that they made unlikely friends, but what binds them together is much stronger.

Crake, it is clear from the start, is one of those people who is almost too smart for his own good. He is thoughtful, speculative, and above all, a master at playing the game. While he is much more daring, dangerous, and subversive than Snowman, he always appears as the model citizen. Crake is the type of person people are encourage to emulate. And because of that, he is given considerably more freedom–a freedom he eventually uses to his full advantage. You wonder if, given some guidance and attention, and a little less emptiness and tragedy, he might have become something better. I think the answer is probably no.

Oryx enters the picture when she appears as a young girl in a truly disturbing reality show that Crake and Snowman are watching. I am not kidding when I say that reality TV has been taken to its inevitable extreme. The numbing results are hard to take. At one point, Oryx looks directly into the camera. This look reaches out and does something to these two young men that they don’t really know how to classify. It’s as if they are momentarily shaken out of their complacency and neither one is sure what has just happened. Snowman becomes obsessed with her. And later we come to understand, so has Crake.

What happens to and between these characters clearly makes for an interesting read. Even so, it didn’t grab me by the guts and carry me along like The Handmaid’s Tale does. At first I thought I just wasn’t connecting with the male protagonist. He seemed so flat. Shallow. Apathetic. But everybody in this book comes off that way to some extent. None of the characters’ reactions are ones you necessarily want to emulate, but I think they are the modern day archetypes for how we deal with the world.

Oryx adopts a cheerful, naive optimism that eschews analysis and opts instead for getting what you can out of this moment. She is a “free spirit” in that she is entirely disconnected from any pain she might feel. Crake imagines what the world could and should be, and in his hubris, attempts to recreate it in his own image. He is a modern day Dr. Frankenstein, playing god. The Snowman, who interestingly enough is the only survivor, settles for hedonism. He is content to follow his mundane desires, going after whatever brings him pleasure–food, sex, entertainment.

This actually adds to the artificial feel of Atwood’s wholly depressing future, but I wonder if that is also what keeps me feeling a bit removed from it?

The sad part is, the more you read and are exposed to the culture of this world–from the genetically altered frankenfood (ChickieNobs Bucket O’ Nubbins, anyone?) to the ultimate dehumanization of their reality TV programs–the more you see that these characters are not capable of becoming the archetypal heroes we might recognize. They simply lack the basic building blocks for it.

In fact, it doesn’t take long for you to decide that the future Atwood shows us in this book is one that really ought to be done away with. That is the master storyteller at work. She actually sets you up to come to the conclusion that Crake himself reaches. But when it comes down to it and you realize he is unmaking this world and recreating it in his own flawed idea of what humanity ought to be, it is so horrifying you wonder how you could have thought it. Maybe you even try to convince yourself that you would have decided something better. Which again, puts you in the position of playing god. And isn’t this the problem that is highlighted here?

Crake is both a hero and a monster. The Crakers, who were supposed to be designed specifically to do away with all that is wrong with humanity, still will resort to the same things we do, the things Crake could not stand. They will have their own mythology, their own gods. The rhythms of sex and reproduction will map their existence.

In his ultimate creation, it seems Crake essentially hoped to engineer the journey out of man. He tried to genetically remove pain from their existence. And in doing so, he removed the things that make life interesting, even in the bleak and empty landscape we are presented with in this horrible future.

But is the landscape really that bleak and empty? Reading between the lines we get glimpses of life with texture–within the pleeblands (ungated areas where the common people lived), through the revolutionaries words and deeds, through Oryx’s sanitized version of her life story. We met artists and activists and we saw how the corporations used the CorpSeCorps to maintain control.

This is the world through Jimmy’s eyes, and to some extent, Crake’s. I think we are meant to question the accuracy of their vision. I think we are meant to understand it as myopic. Incomplete. And I think we are meant to see that in their arrogance, they didn’t know enough to know that they knew so very little. This is the curse of the ruling class, no? And, I suspect, why Oryx found Snowman “funny” and yet was compelled to believe in Crake.

Obviously this is a book that leaves you with a lot to think about, and I suspect it is one I will revisit again someday in the not too distant future. That being said, if you don’t have room in your life for two dystopian future novels from Margaret Atwood (and why wouldn’t you, for goodness sake?!), I still think The Handmaid’s Tale is your better choice.

Also, I’m going to need to read something from Atwood that has a male protagonist I like before I decide if her choices were as deliberate as I am giving her credit for or if she just writes female characters better. Knowing what I do about Atwood, I think she fully deserves all the credit I am willing to lay at her feet and much, much more.

That’s my two cents. Anybody else care to comment?

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5 Responses to Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

  1. I finished this book so long ago that it just has a dream-like quality when I try to remember specific scenes. But then again, it didn’t have that much of an effect on me when I read it.

    I found that I didn’t believe the narrator when he was telling his tale… I wasn’t sure he believed what he was saying himself.

    It made me uncomfortable throughout the book, I don’t like untrustworthy narrators. I never believed that Oryx was who he thought she was.

    But, as I say, I’m really fuzzy on the details.

  2. CountessZ says:

    Great observation! That is EXACTLY it. He was completely untrustworthy. Which means, for all we know, Oryx and Crake were both figments of his imagination and the undoing of the world was all his. (Or maybe I’ve seen Fight Club one too many times?) Ultimately, though, that sense of unease at not being able to trust our tour guide was another layer that made it hard for me to find the book satisfying.

  3. Corvus says:

    I actually really like untrustworthy narrators when they’re done well. One of my favorite Atwood novels, Robber Bride, is relayed entirely through the emotional wreckage of three main untrustworthy narrators–not because they’re lying to us, but because they are all lying to themselves.

    It is only by contrasting the three characters’ accounts that the reader is able to build their own interpretation of events.

    I actually chalk O&C’s failure up to Atwood’s inexperience in writing from the male perspective. I don’t know if I’ve read anyone who can write from such a solid variety of feminine viewpoints, but I just didn’t buy Snowman as anything other than a plot device.

  4. CountessZ says:

    Like you, Corvus, I tend to enjoy books, movies, etc., that feature unreliable narrators–when they are done well (Offred, from Handmaid’s Tale is considered an unreliable narrator, after all). But not so much with this book. Perhaps it is as you say, and as I suspected in the first place, her unfamiliarity working with a male lead? Or more than that, perhaps it was her need for a less dimensional character that led her to her choice?

    When asked why she chose a male protagonist for Oryx and Crake (her first and only male lead–so far), she said:

    “Snowman did present himself to me, yes, dirty bedsheet and all. For this novel, a woman would have been less possible. Or let’s say that the story would have been quite different. If we are writers, we all have multiple selves. Also, I’ve known a lot of male people in my life, so I had a lot to draw on.”

    I find the dirty bedsheet reference particularly interesting, which suggests to me that Snowman is a descendant of one of the greatest unreliable narrators of all time, Ignatius J. Reilly. Unfortunately, he is just not implemented so artfully.

    I also find it interesting that she feels the book would have been “less possible” with a female lead. I suspect she would have had a harder time creating a shallow female character outside of the filter of a male protagonist’s view. Oryx, after all is rather dull, but remember, we only see her through Snowman’s eyes. And he does not strike us as the most enlightened of fellows. In fact, he has that neanderthal protective bullshit going on, and appears to never really believe what she says. For all we know, Oryx was a fascinatingly complex creature, and Crake too, but Atwood chose to give them to us through Snowman, and his unreliable and unremarkable mind flattened them out and made them the simple creatures necessary for this future.

    We find it easy to envision a Jimmy (Snowman’s real name). We know him. He is the default characterization of a “guy” that is in every sitcom, frat house, and corporate office in the Western world.

    Even if she tried to give us this dystopian future through the eyes of a Paris Hilton or Britney Spears, the female equivalent to the shallow male, I think she would have found it hard not to give her some dimension under all the layers of fluff and nonsense. Which is not to say that she didn’t try to give Snowman layers, but in the end, it wasn’t enough for me. I still didn’t care about him on top of not trusting him. The story didn’t reveal anything to me or help me see the world in a different way. It was a classic cautionary tale about technology and science practiced simply “because we can” without asking if we should. This idea has been explored elsewhere and been done better.

    Oh dear, I’ve talked myself back to dissatisfaction.

  5. Catalyst says:

    Well, I’m going to have to go ahead and counter both you and Corvus. Bear with me, I have a number of points I want to address. Let me preface this by saying I’ve read this piece fairly extensively:
    Firstly, I’d say Jimmy is certainly an unreliable narrator. To the same effect that I would argue that all witness statements are at least somewhat unreliable. And, I’ll agree with Corvus that Snowman was definitely meant to serve as a plot device.
    However, where I diverge is the point about it being a failing one, or, one that is lacking substance as CountessZ seems to imply.
    I would premise my argument by stating that an author who is capable of maintaining our interest in the story through a character that is more or less detestable by the general audience is hardly a failing, rather, a glowing review.
    Jimmy is hardly likable. However, he is relate-able. He’s not the frat-house jock implied in the previous post. Nor is he the “unremarkable mind”. Yes, he does possess some of those traits, though, it’s readily evident that Jimmy is remarkable in a society that considers the areas that he is remarkable in, to be obsolete. Much like the books that Jimmy so covets, Jimmy is discarded, and seen to be somewhat of an outcast. In a world of “poly-maths” and scientific geniuses, Jimmy is nobody. However, he still struggles for identity. What Jimmy is, is the slightly above average person, who, existing in a social limbo (not being smart enough to be with the smart kids, but lives a life of social privilege which doesn’t afford him the opportunity to shine amongst the “pleeblanders”) attempts to individualize himself. Thus, he retreats to appealing to people’s base instincts. He lords his sexual conquests to Crake because that is the sole area in which Jimmy doesn’t feel inadequate. So, in that respect, I can certainly understand the characterisation of Jimmy being the stereotypical male, however, I believe that to be a fairly facile analogy of the character.
    As far as Jimmy’s treatment of Oryx, as the reader, we can’t help but feel as though Jimmy doesn’t elucidate enough on her. What must be taken into account, though, is that Oryx throughout the story has an illusory appeal. From the beginning of the story, in his imaginings, his dealings with the Craker’s and even in his understanding of her past, Oryx has a mythos developed. Nothing about her is certain, and, nothing can be pinned down. Frankly, it’s safe to put it as plainly as this: no one really ever truly knows anyone. Oryx especially is presented as a closed-mouth character. Never wanting to reveal anything about her past. Even the chapters describing her eventual sale into the world of sex trafficking don’t really reveal anything about her past. As, we have to be sceptical about the veracity of the story. Not simply because Snowman is an unreliable narrator, no, but because nothing about Oryx seems legitimate. To me, this is the principal reason I feel that Jimmy engages in what you refer to as “Neanderthal bullshit” and “never believing what she says”. It’s as if Jimmy has pieced together what he believes to be Oryx’s history before they’ve met. He’s become obsessed with it from the moment she paralyses him with the look straight into the camera on the web. And, when he confronts her on these things, he cannot accept that what he believes could be anything other than fact. He has spent the better part of twenty years (or more) working on this theory, and has become very attached to his narrative. And, in his defence, Oryx never honestly confirms or denies any of what Jimmy presents her with. Only making backhanded comments like “If I had the chance, it wouldn’t be me on my knees”.
    What I feel makes Jimmy, Snowman, an unreliable narrator is that his story is experiential. Snowman relates this tale to us simply by memory alone. He is essentially tasked with the telling of this story, well, reliving it, and trying to make sense of it. What he doesn’t realise – what we (the reader) are meant to realise, is that Snowman is trying to piece together a puzzle without having the box, and furthermore, that this puzzle is missing pieces. Snowman is flawed and reactionary. He is never fully in control of the circumstances of his life, until the point where we meet him, frankly, not even then – definitely more so than the beginning of the story.
    My theory about Atwood’s choice about the male protagonist over a female is that the recounting of the story would be more influenced by an emotive recalling of events. This is especially true of Handmaid’s Tale. Not to say that how things feel don’t factor into Jimmy’s story, however, like mythology, the story here needs to be the what, and the why and the how. Which is exactly what Jimmy presents, as much as he is able to. A female protagonist, I feel would have to include more minutia regarding how the events of the happenings have made her feel, rather than the detailing of the events as they happened. Giving cause for the reader to focus on the emotional resonance of the events, rather than giving the appropriate focus to the events themselves. Snowman must be male, in this case, as he serves to be the tribal storyteller, the orator of old, who creates and retells the myths: the stories that are told and retold by generations. And, in the oral tradition, these stories must be easy to memorize, so the focus has to remain on the story (see literal events). Also, we can see this opposition to be true, in the sequel The Year of the Flood.
    In summation, I think that it is unfair to characterise Jimmy as the stereotypical guy. It is easy to categorise him as such. In this case though, easy and right are not synonymous. Occam’s razor doesn’t always apply. The focus of the reader is drawn to his baser actions, but one must examine the causes and rational as to why such actions are undertaken. Is Jimmy perfect? Absolutely not. What he is, though, is us. The story wouldn’t work if it were told by Crake for that reason. Like any good first person limited story, the narrator must be someone that the reader can understand, someone whose choices don’t seem to be so different from the ones we would make, or, could see someone in our lives making. Otherwise, the distension between the reader and narrator causes too much strife. It takes us out of the world of the piece. This is why Jimmy is perfect to tell this tale. Why he must tell it. At some point, we have all been Jimmy, or at the very least, known a Jimmy.

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