“If he wants to be an asshole it’s a free country. Millions before him have made the same life choice.” –Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Above please find my favorite moment in the entirety of Margaret Atwood’s 2003 dystopian-with-smears-of-apocalypse novel Oryx and Crake. One quote. One witty line, with no real relevance to the story. It made me chuckle in a book I found very little reason to like.
I kid, I kid. Thanks for making me read this. Now I know that I can skip MaddAddam, the final book in the trilogy (I’ve read the second). Except I am totally going to end up reading it anyway because I already own it, and even now, fresh from a book I didn’t enjoy, I feel the anal retentive call of completionism.
Somebody liked Oryx and Crake though, as it was shortlisted for both the Orange and the Man Booker prizes. Why? Who the fuck knows. My ultimate assessment of this book was that it was not well put together, that it spent all its energy concentrating on the least interesting elements of the story and world. The plot arc? Ugh. The characters? Let’s hang out with the most boring dude in the book (Jimmy/Snowman) for 436 pages! And learn nothing about the two most interesting characters’ (Oryx and Crake) deep personal secrets! Every single element of interest in this world was a footnote.
Even the apocalypse was boring. Ho-hum a plague, liquefying people or something, not that we get to see it ourselves, as we spend it locked in a bubble dome with Jimmy. The dystopian element (aka the majority of the book) was a classic “watch out SCIENCE COULD KILL US ALL” fable. Like so many others in the genre before it. Literally dozens. I am not an optimistic person, but the anti-science, anti-tech line of the majority of post-apocalyptic books very rarely amounts to more than fear-mongering. WHERE ARE THE SHADES OF GREY, ATWOOD? I am starting to think that Margaret Atwood hype is over-hype. Not my scene.
Let’s break it down. Oryx and Crake is a mad-scientist story, a dystopian personal drama that revolves around two boys: Jimmy/Snowman and Crake. Oryx is a sexy love-thing-sorta-prostitute who Atwood shows exclusively via Jimmy’s unhealthy obsession with her. She is largely peripheral and still manages to be the most interesting character in a book that ignores her in favor of Jimmy/Snowman (he’s called Jimmy in the past, Snowman in the present). Instead we vault between boring scenes of Jimmy/Snowman scraping by after a plague depopulates Earth and scenes of his life growing up on the rich side of a dystopian society. He and Crake hang out and watch porn and youtubed wars. He and Crake get high and play chess. He and Crake blah blah blah blah.
The story of Jimmy and Crake’s childhoods together was the more interesting of the two narrative arcs, though neither offered much. Post-apocalypse you have this boring fucking dude jerking off (literally) and a herd of genetically modified post-humans eating grass and looking attractive. Pre-apocalypse you have this boring fucking dude jerking off and having sex and working a boring job he hates. YAWN. At least the pre-apo arc had a mad scientist genius. This is not what I signed up for, when I signed up for an Atwood trilogy about the end of the world. Oryx and Crake? More like Jimmy and His Penis.
What Atwood did masterfully, at first, was allow Jimmy’s voice to age as his character grew up. Yet the jump between pre-plague Jimmy and post-plague Snowman was not one I could make, and the two never entirely felt like the same person. Perhaps this is intentional: extreme situations and PTSD can change you beyond recognition, but if that was the case, the transition necessary to bring the reader across that gap was missing.
“Human society, they claimed, was sort of a monster, its main byproducts being corpses and rubble.”
Still, I couldn’t call Oryx and Crake a bad book. Can you really say that about any Margaret Atwood book? Atwood is far too talented for bad. There are wonderful lines, interesting observations, and all packed inside a fully developed world. Lacking, annoying though it is, Oryx and Crake is still better than 50 percent of the books out there. But Atwood manages nothing close to the poignancy of The Handmaid’s Tale or even the philosophically interesting The Year of the Flood (though re-reading my review of it now, I see I had similar issues with it). There are a million things I would have liked to read about this world and these characters, and none of them are in this book.
Six out of thirteen pigoons.
Further questions: Do I read MaddAddam? Do I throw the entire trilogy out the window? Will all my questions be answered once the triumvirate is complete? Can no one complete a story in one book anymore? If you liked Oryx and Crake can you please explain to me why?
Where I got it: The English Bookstore, Frankfurt