Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

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By Natalie Carragher

Welcome to the bizarre imagination of Margaret Atwood, where the leading character of her post-apocalyptic nightmare, Snowman, lives in a tree wearing nothing but a bed-sheet. In Atwood’s world pigs cannot fly, but you wish they could, as that would be simpler than being genetically merged with raccoons. The same goes for ‘Wolvogs’, vicious wolves and dogs, and for me the worst of all, ‘snats’ – no not snails and cats but snakes and rats.

Initially we are offered Snowman as our miserable, unexceptional, and at times grotesque, protagonist. He is fighting starvation – poorly – while reluctantly taking care of the Children of Crake; a group of sub-humans seemingly dependent on his infinite wisdom and his ability to contact Oryx and Crake through his, wait for it, wristwatch.

Snowman has only memories of a by-gone civilization for company, as he is unable to relate to the exceptional, practical and unnaturally natural humanoid beings. Snowman, seemingly the last real human survivor, encounters dangerous ‘pigoons’, which he once cherished in childhood, feral ‘wolvogs’, and hopes that the ‘snats’ have all been destroyed.

We find out that Snowman was once Jimmy, a boy hailing from the privileged compounds separated from the lower Pleeblands. It is from these compounds which the creatures hail, and are revealed to be the work of genetic engineering and the starting point for his desolate situation. The musings on his past life; living in a science dominated compound, are a welcome burst of familiarity and normalcy in the novel. However, it is this normalcy that is most frightening, as it shows us how we too could follow this path and suffer the consequences.

Snowman is not a man fighting a mental illness or suffering drug-induced hallucinations but, rather, suffering the consequences of scientific experiments. Jimmy’s flashbacks slowly reveal the demise of the compound culture as experiments go wrong and inventions are released into the ‘Pleeblands’ by activists. The Compounds find themselves in a ‘creating a bird to eat the spider’ circle of mistakes – turning to science over and over in attempts to fix mistakes with further meddling. Once you have got past the new lingo, Snowman’s depressing existence and the flitting between past and present, Oryx and Crake becomes a real page turner.

Jimmy finds a strong bond in his compound companion, Crake. As boys, they bond over smoking weed, playing video games, watching pornography – typical teenagers some might say. This then develops into watching snuff films, images of children being abused, live executions and gruesome surgeries. There are warning signs early on for Crake’s behaviour, as he masters technology easily, using ‘leap pads’ to hide his browsing footprints and his Uncle’s card to pay for games and access to sites. The internet offers them innumerable disgusting delights for satisfying every desire and Crake has the knowledge to hide his tracks.

Jimmy is later invited to join Crake at the prestigious Watson Crick compound, as their college years see them go down different paths. Jimmy arrives to find his childhood friend has advanced to great heights within the scientific realm, having engineered an ideal life-form, free from the complications he believes the human race has. The Children of Crake are vegetarians and have little interest in sex and violence, so there is no competition.

It is at Watson Crick where Jimmy discovers that Crake has found Oryx, who bears a great resemblance to a child both Jimmy and Crake had obsessed over in their younger years – they found a clip of her being sexually abused.

Atwood highlights the depravity of the human mind with Jimmy and Crake’s online activities, but with their morbid curiosity surrounding Oryx. Oryx’s addition to the novel is reminiscent of the rise of the ‘misery novel’ in popular culture, where readers are interested in the story of survival of abuse by means of entertainment. Her story, for Jimmy, is like picking a scab. It is painful yet morbidly fascinating. He is disgusted at the treatment she received – yet is drawn to it. He enjoys listening to the horrible details.

Oryx satisfies the needs of both Crake and Jimmy. She adores Crake for his brain but loves Jimmy for everything else. Oryx and Jimmy have a twisted romance, first meeting her in childhood, in the form of a vision of graphic scene of child abuse, then a blossoming love bonding over her sad life. It is never made clear whether the image which struck Jimmy so vividly in childhood is that of Oryx, and whether anything she claims holds any truth, or is merely manufactured to satisfying Jimmy’s eccentric desires. Unfortunately, Oryx is no further developed in a sense of her own self. The ambiguous nature of her is deliberate, but it leaves no sense of interest in Oryx in her own right.

Thankfully, not all of the female characters are painted this way. Jimmy’s mother and her strength to go against the patriarchal society, serves to balance the bland and inactive victim, Oryx. Jimmy’s mother exhibits a great depression, which signifies a general disillusionment of the Compound lifestyle and scientific activities. She shows an awareness of the destructive nature that the pursuits of the Compounds are taking. She feels she has no privacy and that the Compounds have surpassed and desecrated any moral obligations they once held. Atwood’s portrayal of Jimmy’s Mother’s depression is done with both accuracy and simplicity. Jimmy’s memories of her bathrobe, and its association with feelings of neglect and disinterest of him, draws great sympathy towards both characters.

Atwood rejects the label of science fiction, instead preferring ‘speculative fiction’, explaining, “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.”

Atwood prefers the speculative fiction title, as nothing in her works is beyond man’s current capabilities. Her post-apocalyptic disaster zone is so vivid and striking, because such allusions to our current way of life can be made easily. Atwood has created the end result of our current path of scientific revolution. Man has the capabilities of cloning, genetic engineering, IVF, ‘designer babies’… Only morality holds us back from hitting our peak and destroying ourselves and civilization as we know it. Atwood does this in a dramatically exaggerated fashion, which is extremely entertaining. She offers a frightening realistic tale, whilst withholding realism. Jimmy’s plight is representative of the ones facing our future generation – such a generation that will have to deal with our own versions of pigoons and wolvogs in the form of our own inventions, cures and medications.

Atwood ends her novel on a brilliant cliffhanger, with the Child of Crake ironically starting to exhibit human-like tendencies and the realization that Jimmy and the Crakers are not necessarily alone.

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