Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

“The earth only endures.”
— Native American chant

For starters, forget that Margaret Atwood is known as a novelist. In the futuristic world of Oryx and Crake, “novelist” is as extinct a creature as it is a word. Not that it is an unfamiliar place. The recollections of kiddie porn websites and viral outbreaks are enough to remind us all we are still in the world of our own benighted Kansases and Canadas, Katmandus and “insert your own place here“.

The problem is, the notion of Atwood as novelist will only lead readers to expect certain things from this book, like an attention to character and plot. As with the human species, such things are conspicuously absent in Oryx and Crake. Surprisingly, it is no great loss.

Atwood has written her share of intricate and entertaining stories before. Her previous novel, 2000’s The Blind Assassin, was a Booker Prize winner. And 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, another international bestseller, was made into a Hollywood film and has recently been transformed into a musical.

Indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale has been cited frequently as Atwood’s closest novel in spirit to Oryx and Crake. Both works have been described as dystopias, although in the case of the latter this is less accurate. Dystopias depict societies, and as we quickly see at the start of Oryx and Crake, there is no society, human anyways, left to speak of. Still, as in all of Atwood’s work, an ever-present social critique runs through both novels.

In the case of the earlier novel, the neo-conservative rhetoric and religious fundamentalism that were sweeping North America in the eighties helped Atwood conceive of a near future where women were solely employed as mere vehicles of male will and control.

In line with that earlier book’s take on the possible direction of modern society, Atwood again casts her eye on today’s current “powers that be”. This time around, instead of religious repression running the show it is the unchecked triple threat of science, technology and corporate power.

The novel begins with a figure named Snowman waking up none too willingly to the prospect of survival in a world devoid of humankind. In restrained and sardonic prose we learn of Snowman’s previous life, before the world was reduced to the post-apocalypse he now calls home. Back then he was still known as Jimmy, and his world was much like ours, only turned up a few notches on the control panels of technology, corporate power and social stratification. The gated communities of today morph into Compounds run by corporations of tomorrow, and inner cities devolve into places called pleeblands where violence and vice run amok.

Throughout the book Atwood takes an array of such current trends to satirical and dire lengths. Cosmetic surgery, genetic engineering, virtual technologies and environmental change, all are upgraded and explored for the reader’s presumably mixed pleasure. (This is a world on the brink of ending after all, it shouldn’t be too much fun to read about).

For the most part, the world that Atwood posits is a possible version of our own. And yet, some developments seem little more than the author’s personal bad dream. For instance, in a world where language is steadily drained of meaning (a phenomenon the reader is reminded of through Snowman’s litany of words that have disappeared in his lifetime) it seems strange there is a popular game called Blood and Roses. In it, an encyclopedic knowledge of history, not to mention literature, is needed to weigh the destructive and creative accomplishments of humanity one against the other. It is an interesting idea, but like many of the other compelling ideas that take up pages in this book, it does little to move the story, such as it is, along.

Which brings up another difficulty with Oryx and Crake. It is basically a one-man story. Granted, Snowman/Jimmy, is engaging in his own Samuel Beckett meets Slacker kind of way. But that is not enough to prevent the depictions of the other major characters from appearing like lifeless caricatures in comparison. This is especially true for Oryx and Crake, the objects of Jimmy’s love and friendship respectively. As pivotal as both characters are, (they are the title of the book remember) they only exist, like the rest of the story, in the wasteland of Snowman’s troubled mind.

That Snowman is the first male protagonist in any Margaret Atwood novel would suggest his perspective was not chosen lightly. As she states on the book’s website, “For this novel, a woman would have been less possible. Or let’s say that the story would have been quite different”.

If, with its male protagonist and skeletal plot, Oryx and Crake is a departure of sorts for Atwood, it still recalls her roots in poetry, the form in which she was first published, with her 1961 collection Double Persephone. It is helpful to remember this when reading her latest offering. A poignancy is at work in sentences like the following, and it is rooted in something deeper than plot or story:

The forest blots up his voice, the words coming out of him in a string of colourless and soundless bubbles, like air from the mouths of the drowning.

Throughout Oryx and Crake such poetic stress on word and rhythm, image and symbol takes priority over novelistic concerns of plot and character. The reason is simple. Like Rilke in his “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, Atwood has something very urgent to say to everyone. And while it takes longer than a poem to get there, it is clear by the end of Oryx and Crake that Atwood wants the world to know, for the sake of us all, we must change our way of life.