I bought Oryx and Crake in the fall of 2005. 

I was a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh and must have thought that it would make a great first “college read.”  I’d heard that Oryx and Crake was both smart and dystopian.  What more do you need?

I’d first been introduced to Atwood in a high school literature course, where I did my senior paper on her works.  I remembered being blown away by how different her works were.  She wasn’t the Jane Austens we’d read in American Lit or the Shakespeares we’d read in Brit Lit.  Her style was different and darker.  And as I came to learn later, that’s precisely why we hadn’t studied her…or other CanLit authors, for that matter.

So, I tried to branch out and bought Oryx and Crake.

I remembered trying to read it and being immediately turned off by the characters’ names.  Petty?  Sure.  But I’d just gotten done reading Dostoyevsky and didn’t feel like trying to figure out why the hell the main character’s name was Snowman.

I put it down, and didn’t pick it back up for 11 more years.

Get over it…what’s the gist?

Oryx and Crake is a slow-to-pick-up science fiction novel that predicts the destruction of both nature and mankind as we know it through the bastardization of capitalism and science.  While the ideas are well developed enough, it’s not a particularly enjoyable read, for, as Sven Birkerts puts it in his review in the NYT, “science fiction will never be Literature with a capital “L,” and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character.”

That feels absolutely true in this story.

While Atwood’s goal seems to be to warn us of what we are doing to ourselves, the attempt seems rather heavy handed, like a mother’s doom-and-gloom analogy of what will happen to you if you drink too much or an gay marriage protester’s idea that if we start letting men marry other men, next thing you know they’ll be marrying trees and goats and moats too.

She exaggerates some of our current follies to the extent that they have been all-consuming.   Consumerism preys on your hopes and fears with obnoxious names like NooSkins and CorpSeCorps.  Social stratification has led to a juxtaposition of “pleeblands” with locked, gated communities centered on one’s college or career.  Genetic modification has become the norm.  Children are over-exposed to porn (HottTotts) and violence (BrainFrizz) in a way that has numbed them to reality.

And all of it reads as a pushed agenda.  The names are so silly and the metaphors are so staunch that it seems like Atwood spent more time devising the minor details than developing the characters and refining the prose.  I wanted it, in some moments, to read more like Animal Farm or A Modest Proposal, and yet on it went, spoon feeding me what I presume to be my future or being symbolic in ways that also felt unnatural and unnecessary.

So what’s with the names? 

I still don’t know.  After the collapse of mankind, Snowman is the only real human left, and he introduces himself to Crake’s new population of super-people as Snowman.  Why?  He wanted to leave his old self behind.  Why?  If you’ve gathered this, please tell me.  It wasn’t spoon fed to me, and I’m not sure.

Why is Snowman the only one left?

Well, it seems mastermind madman Crake thought he’s be the only one who could keep the new population safe.  But, really?  Why him?  He’s known for being a dolt and sex-crazed.   He’s a self-medicating loser.

Really, I’d have liked to read this from Crake’s perspective.  They’re both nihilists.  That’s painfully clear.  But still, mastermind, why Snowman?

I guess I get it from Atwood’s perspective.  She is a Canadian author, after all, and she posits that Canadian literature is rife with themes of the victim and survival.  And I’ll be damned if this is not a book of victims and survival.

  • Oryx is a victim.  She’s born into poverty, sold as a young girl, and works as a child prostitute, where Snowman first sees her.  When Snowman tries to pigeon-hole her into being a Victim – she is laughs and brushes him off. At heart, Oryx is a Victim 1.  She refuses to admit that she has been a victim in any way.
  • Snowman is a victim through and through.  His mommy leaves him and his daddy doesn’t respect him.  He shouts at the sky.  He drinks himself drunk.  He embodies Victim 2 – he has resigned himself to his fate and is just trying to make it through the day one at a time.
  • Mom is a victim, though she fights back.  This makes her Victim #3 – she has refused to accept her role as inevitable and fights against The Man in order to try to bring about change.  Her efforts are futile, though she does, we are led to believe, attempt revolt.
  • Crake renounces his victimhood.  Whether he is a flat character in order to embody the dehumanization of the world, or he’s just flat, it’s hard to say.  He does, though, creatively resolve to overcome this victimhood as a result of the forces around him, making him Victim #4.

Oryx and Crake in Relation to CanLit Themes:

Nature as Monster:

In Survival, Atwood goes into great detail about the Nature as Monster motif.  In many Canadian works, Nature is out to get you.  As society tries to tame and manipulate nature, it goes too far and ultimately, society begins to destroy nature and ultimately seal it’s own doom.

Family Portraits:

In CanLit, the family is portrayed as an entrapment, and that definitely reads true for Snowman.  He’s constantly haunted by his mother’s abandonment and estrangement.  While his father continues to experiment and, to a certain extent, play God, his mother’s morals take over and she can no longer stay.  Her guilt and unhappiness push her to leave her family.

Failed Sacrifices:

When the mother leaves, Snowman is interrogated by the government.  He continues to be interrogated with each subsequent postcard received from fictional aunts, until ultimately, he witnesses his mother’s execution.  You’re led to believe that she’s been part of some political or scientific-based resistance and ultimately loses her life in the struggle.  She made her great escape and sacrificed hearth and home, but for what?  As the world crumbles, we realize that she had no effect on the trajectory of society or science.

The Casual Incident of Death:

Here, there’s a bit of deviation from what Atwood has referred to as Canadian’s preoccupation with death as a result of accidents.  Americans, she notes, incur death by violence, English, by history, and Canadians, by accident.  As a child, Snowman and Crake watch American public videos of gruesome deaths before he witnesses his own mother’s.  This seems to be the bleeding of the American death-culture into CanLit.  Oryx and Crake also meet gruesome deaths, but they are, ultimately, as unnecessary as his own mothers, which could be interpreted as death by accident.  And then, of course, the rest of the world dies as a result of popping sex-pills.  So there’s that.

Reception:

So no, I didn’t enjoy it.  It wasn’t my favorite book, and it also wasn’t my favorite Atwood book.  Atwood created a fairly plausible dystopian future that lead to the downfall of humanity.  I just didn’t enjoy reading it.  There’s a reason I put it down in 2005, but I read it because it’s been staring at me from my bookshelf for eleven years.

 

Did you read it?  Have you read the rest of the trilogy?  Or any of her other works?

 

If you’re interested in this post, check out some related reads:

 

Other reviews of Oryx and Crake:

 

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