Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake

You know how there are some authors who cobble together book after book that win award after award solely because they’re so dull that they must, automatically, be in some way worthy? The kind of writing my Dad calls ‘middle-class women’s books’, and that the papers will describe, archly, as ‘likely to be nominated for the Booker’? Well, Margaret Atwood isn’t one of them. She wins award after award and sells book after book solely on the basis of being exceedingly good.

What’s more, she has some kind of magical rut-evading device nailed to her typewriter, which means she can slink from genre to genre and setting to setting, throwing together sentences with a dark wit; a long, indulgent sigh over the weaknesses of humanity; and an honest rage at the injustices of society.

Oryx and Crake is up there with Atwood’s best, and Atwood’s best is up there with the best (whatever that means). Yes, she has been known to get a bit snotty about people calling some of her books science fiction, but if she’ll carry on writing them I’m quite happy for her to call them what she likes. I’m charitable like that.

This review is based on a re-reading, because I’ve got The Year of the Flood languishing on my shelf, and I wanted to refresh my memories of Oryx and Crake before sitting down with the new one. However, this is not a book that relies on the twists of its plot to trap the reader: it loses little and gains much in a second glance.

This thing we call civilisation has been torn apart, and a battered, weary man called Snowman sits in its wreckage, alone but for the attentions of a strangely perfect yet peculiarly animal tribe called the Crakers, who treat him as a prophet or priest of their absent creator. Bored, lonely and running out of supplies, Snowman sets out on a journey to where he began his life in the new wilderness, returning to a science compound called Paradice in search of weapons and food. The sections following Snowman’s post-cataclysmic wanderings alternate with the tale of how humanity met its end, seen through the eyes of Jimmy, Snowman’s pre-fall self.

Since it begins in the aftermath, you know where the story will lead. You read to see why, and to watch, helpless, as obession, jealousy, selfishness and carelessness lead to the demise of all our cities, discoveries, rights and wrongs.

You also read to watch two different worlds unfold in the same physical location. Snowman’s land is unforgiving. An overgrown jungle of plants and collapsed buildings, it is ravaged by weather, swept by both tropical storms and fearsome sun on a daily basis. Survival relies on scavenging for supplies, staying out of the heat and the twisters, and evading the attentions of the mutated and modified creatures that lurk in the undergrowth, grown dangerously predatory. The atmosphere is powerful, combining the growth of new forms of nature with the collapsing fragments of the old, human, order. Rather than being just a collection of pretty descriptions of broken things, the narrative gives an impression of a functioning ecosystem:
“A long scrawl of birds unwinds from the empty towers – gulls, egrets, herons, heading off to fish along the shore. A mile or so to the south, a salt marsh is forming on a one-time landfill dotted with semi-flooded townhouses. That’s where all the birds are going: minnow city.”
Jimmy, in contrast to all this, lives in a hyper-modern network of self-contained compounds, surrounded by sophisticated technology and elaborate genetic engineering. In these paranoid gated communities corporations work on ingenious scientific developments that lurk on the borderlands between progress and horror:
“What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.
‘What the hell is it?’ said Jimmy.
‘Those are chickens,’ said Crake. ‘Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one.’"
And it’s not just tasteless synthetic food: the internet’s full of sponsored murder and child pornography, civil liberties are a historical joke, freak diseases flash through populations, and everything is geared towards the invention and promotion of the latest technological fashions. Outside the compounds, in the pleeblands, life is even less pleasant: a grimy, deadly, polluted place of oppression and ultracapitalist excess.

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood creates a disturbing and convincing near-future, but this one feels more complete. It benefits from its ambiguity: where The Handmaid’s Tale was inescapably horrific, here there are traces of improvement and development amid the coldness and inequity, making the world more believable. 

Jimmy is an observer of this world, but not quite part of it. He is a word person in the demesne of the numerate. His gradual drift into the dissatisfied life of an outsider is enjoyable and distressing in equal measure. Atwood carefully fits her world and corresponding comments on society into the background of a funny yet melancholic maturation tale, as Jimmy grows into a selfish young man who’s part of the system around him but who can’t quite be satisfied with it. It isn’t the usual angry rebel approach to dystopia, where the story follows the revolutionary as they try to dismantle the dominant society, but instead is a classic story of Jimmy’s growth, adolescence and adulthood, and his friendship with Crake, the system's wunderkind and destroyer, across these years.

And this friendship is brilliantly drawn: they are fine characters, and as their history comes closer to the present, leading up to Jimmy’s transformation into Snowman, you see that in the end, no matter what world we create for ourselves, what really drives things is not the grand topics like science or morals, but humanity – our personal desires and fears; love, hate, obsession. Like all great books it is about us – all of us. In comparing Jimmy to the beautiful but primitive and ridiculous Crakers, the novel reminds us that humanity’s greatness is inextricably bound to its monstrosity.

This strength leads straight to a flaw, and it’s one I find in a lot of apocalyptic scenes: that visions of the disaster scene are occasionally a bit dull. Although I love the principle of cataclysmic fiction, there’s only so much scavenging I can deal with. Oryx and Crake doesn’t turn into an urban survival handbook like The Road, thank goodness (and it's written in proper sentences, too), but the brilliance of the Jimmy story still limits the interest I felt in the Snowman tale. This world is beautifully presented, but it drags, perhaps because of the lack of human interaction that is such a necessary part of it.

But look past this: Oryx and Crake is excellent. It’s a powerful, human, and expertly constructed tale that with its flawed characters and ambiguous world manages to be instructive without being didactic. I think I'm ready for the Year of the Flood...

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