Bad News Comes in Threes: Oryx and Crake

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November 15, 2013 by carlywont

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Oryx and Crake. How great is that title? The names are familiar enough that they don’t sound like complete made-up BS (they are actually derived from animal names) yet they’re exotic enough that you’re definitely expecting some kind of awesome apocalyptic sci-fi type action to happen in the book’s pages. (Note on genre: I read that Atwood prefers to label Oryx and Crake as “speculative fiction” since it doesn’t deal with “things not yet invented ” but I have beef with her on that…I mean, the compounds? Roving pigoons? I don’t see any of that around here on the daily.)

In Oryx and Crake, the apocalypse is revealed through the perspective of Snowman, a hermit-y survivor who lives in a tree and was a childhood friend of Crake, the mastermind behind the doomsday. Atwood switches between Snowman’s present-day mission of acquiring food and weaponry for himself and flashbacks to Snowman’s childhood and the years that led up to Crake’s genetic virus wiping out all of humankind.

The book is a fast read. The chapters are short and the narrative time-switch helps to speed the process along as well. Although I did read the book very quickly, I was never completely sold on Snowman (AKA Jimmy) as the narrator.

Snowman is a cantankerous curmudgeon. I mean, you kind of can’t completely blame him since, you know, he’s one of the last humans on Earth and everyone he knew and loved is dead at the hands of his evil genius best friend, but still. He just seems pissy all the time and I found myself getting annoyed with that at certain points throughout the book.

Plus, he’s a bit of a lazy survivalist and I can’t quite get on board with that. Living in the trees on a platform? Forcing the Crakers to bring him one fish a week and making seemingly no attempts to fish himself? Breaking into a house that’s already been broken into and expecting there to be anything good left? Only being able to filch one bottle of Scotch? Forgetting the radio on which he just heard his first confirmation of human life outside of himself?? I mean, get it together Snowman!

He’s also a laconic narrator. We see his anguish over losing his words, his desire for Oryx, his guilt when interacting with the Children of Crake (genetically engineered human-like creatures who live nearby Snowman), and his worry over his shelter and safety. Yet, I still felt like I didn’t know him, didn’t feel emotionally connected with him, and didn’t trust him. It’s tough to get anything out of him. The entire book the reader is trying to piece together what Snowman already knows: how the world got to this point. (This works as a storytelling technique for sure and is another tool that keeps you reading quickly.)

I think another reason I didn’t take a liking to Snowman is that I am admittedly partial to Atwood’s female protagonists (much love goes out to Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale and Iris of The Blind Assassin). Beyond that insurmountable bias though, I just didn’t find Snowman to be a totally believable human male.  Overall, I’m impressed and a bit surprised that Atwood crafted Snowman as her main character. He seems a risky choice, but then again, I suppose there are a lot of people out there who go for that grumpy man thing.

One thing I really loved was seeing Snowman weave a cosmogony based on Oryx and Crake for the Crakers. Each scene in which he struggles to come up with a logical narrative of their origin was fascinating to me and I loved seeing Snowman try to recreate the legacy of his friend (Crake) and lover (Oryx) and thereby remember them in a better, more godly light. It’s also a bit of a “fuck you” to Crake since Crake believed he engineered the desire for worship/spirituality out of the Crakers…yet here they are, pseudo-worshiping Crake himself.

Have you all ever heard of Alex the Parrot, the African Grey Parrot who could understand words and reason on a logical level? (If not, here he is in action.) Well, he makes quite a few appearances in Oryx and Crake, much to my (and my YouTube account’s) delight. Atwood uses Alex the Parrot as an example of the innate intelligence and kindness of animals and as a contrast to the horrible, genetically engineered monsters that have replaced regular animals. He also acts as a sort of “fool” type figure for Snowman, a la King Lear. Snowman snaps to reality and sees the truth of Crake’s master plan and intentions only after Alex the Parrot disappears from his dreams forever. Coincidence?

Lastly, Atwood’s biggest accomplishment in Oryx and Crake is obviously and inarguably her animal portmanteaus. Her list of zoological neologisms encompass everything from wolvogs (wolf+dog), snats (snake+rat), and rakunks (raccoon+skunk). Unfortunately, none are as cute as the Puggit:

 

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Will I read the next book in this so-called MaddAddam trilogy? Only time will tell. I’m not super itching to read The Year of the Flood but Atwood definitely left Oryx and Crake on a cliffhanger that might be hard to forget about long-term. We shall see!

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