Monday, November 24, 2008

Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake
By Margaret Atwood

Without Giving Too Much Away: Oryx and Crake is a post-apocalyptic tale recounted by humanity's the sole survivor (or is he?). Snowman is on the brink of starvation and plagued by waking dreams from his past. Piece his ramblings together and the big picture of what went wrong and why becomes all too clear.

Our Musings: What I can't get over after reading this book is its eerie familiarity. This is, of course, Margaret Atwood's trademark. She has an uncanny ability to take all the components of the reality we know and then give them just a little half-turn to the left. Her fictional worlds are chilling in their nearness to our own.

But with Oryx and Crake, not only does it feel like this bleak future is entirely possible, but in many ways it feels as if it could have already happened - hence an eeriness that gets compounded with every turn of the page.

The book is structured almost like a conversation between the events of the past and the present those events created. In the past, we get the story of Jimmy and a world where gene-splicing and businesses with creatively spelled names (OrganInc Farms and NooSkins) are the norm. The rift between the pleebland underclass and the intellectual elites is a given and therefore arouses only cursory and passing interest on Jimmy's part. His life is spent in the guarded, sanitized corridors of the elite Compounds where all his needs are met as if by magic.

The present is the complete opposite. Snowman (who we quickly learn is, in fact, Jimmy) lives in a tree, wears a bed sheet for clothing, and is constantly battling storms, rogue animals, and a scarcity of food. As far as we can tell, he and a band of genetically engineered humans called the Children of Crake are the only survivors of an unknown and catastrophic world-wide disaster. Snowman is something of a prophet to the Children of Crake, who know nothing about the world in which they were programmed to thrive.

In his interactions with the Children of Crake, Snowman inadvertently begins building a mythology for their existence. He tells them stories to explain their origins, why the storms come, how the animals behave. The Children of Crake accept each story as truth without argument or question. And why shouldn't they? Snowman's explanations make sense! They are logical, if greatly simplified, explanations for things that the Children are not yet ready to understand. 

It's here, in Snowman's part of the story, that the feeling of eeriness is most present for me. It's such a small step to go from Snowman's stories to the Children to our own creation myths. And knowing Snowman's back story, you can't help but start wondering about our back story. What were we not told? What were the symbols and what did they really mean? What were we too young and new to understand, back at the beginning of the human race? 

While Atwood does such a masterful job of crafting these two realities that you can practically taste the ChickieNobs, the novel ultimately falls down on plot. Most of the book is just lead-up to the final revelation of exactly what went wrong. The teasers and foreshadowing are exciting at first, but eventually become tiresome and annoying. 

When the big reveal is finally made, I was left with a big cartoon question mark hanging over my head. I just didn't get it. And even after going back and reading it a few more times, the end just doesn't hang together for me. I understand the technicalities of Atwood's End of the World, but it just doesn't make sense to me within the context of the story. After so much build up, I expected a nuanced, complicated, and elegant solution. Instead it was more like a hatchet to a glass door - obvious and over far too quickly.

I think at least part of the culprit is a lack of depth in the other characters, namely Oryx and Crake themselves. From their initial introduction to their final swan song, our narrator Jimmy/Snowman portrays these characters are evasive and impenetrable, which results in a one-dimensional feeling for us as readers. Ipso facto, their motivations and emotions in the final events of the book are a mystery and any real impact those events might have had on the reader are lost.

Perhaps even more frustrating is the lack of resolution in the Snowman thread of the story. The chronological reveal of the past events happens roughly in time with a journey Snowman takes from his tree home back to the Paradice Dome, a.k.a ground zero. When he leaves the Dome, I got the sense that some sort of catharsis was supposed to have taken place. Snowman finally makes peace with his past and his role in the events? He decides to move on and make the best of it as one of the last surviving humans? Who knows. Whatever I was supposed to understand as a reader missed me completely and I was left feeling merely puzzled.

Ultimately, this book is neither completely brilliant nor a complete dud. It is quintessential Margaret Atwood - full of black humor and inescapable truths. 

Recommended: Yes, despite its shortcomings, this book is definitely worth the read. Recommended for Margaret Atwood groupies, sci fi fans, and end-of-the-world junkies.

Note: This book contains some graphic sexual and drug-related material that may not be appropriate for younger audiences.

Did you read this book? What's your take?

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