Margaret Atwood and I share a tragedy. Mine is that up until recently I have never read anything from Ms. Atwood’s ouevre, though I certainly have known about her. She is one of the aspirational zeniths of a modern writer, especially a speculative fiction-arcing one, female or not.
I’m nearing a third of the way into her Oryx and Crake (hereafter O & C), and mostly loving it, although it has spored off a couple disturbing dreams. The bright spot is that I think I’ll write them down today, then tuck them away for a horror story and a science-fiction story, or perhaps a macabre mind-meld of the two.
I came to O & C by somewhat unusual means—for me, at least. Courtesy of Oprah’s Dystopian Dilettantes, or ODD for short. I josh, of course. A friend who is a former co-worker asked me to join her new book club, and so, I did. Eschewing my usual rule of not joining any group foolish or crazy enough to welcome my participation.
A SWEET DYSTOPE
For those who haven’t delved into the dystopian delight that is O & C, I will try to not give too much away. Besides, the cover art from Doubleday press uncovers a lot of the transmogrified flesh of this story, a creation myth of sorts, save with a decidedly different kind of Adam and Eve in the forms of the titular characters Crake and Oryx, respectively. (Does one wonder why Oryx’s female character was placed first in the title, in that people typically say “Adam and Eve”? Yes, one wonders!)
I was immediately struck by the protagonist, a character formerly called Jimmy but now going by the nickname Snowman, who wakes in a tree and is wrapped in only a grubby bedsheet. Before beginning this book, I had the preconceived bias toward liking it. I mean, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, (the companion book to O & C) The Year of the Flood, Lady Oracle. Need I say more?
That this bestiary of a book seems to me to share symbolism and parallels of diction with these only thrills me more: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, epigraphs from Swift and Woolf, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (in the portmanteaus and other wordplay in terms such as wolvogs, pleeblands, rakunks, and pigoons), Orwell’s Animal Farm, and perhaps even Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.
And yet, Atwood’s is a pantheon populated by her own mighty creations of insect, plant, and Other lifeforms, which is no surprise given that she is the daughter of an entomologist. She is, as the Gulliverian epigraph opines, relating “plain matter of fact in the simplest manner and style”—no irony there!—in pursuit of informing, not entertaining, her reader. Sibyl of Cumae-like, Atwood does in fact end up astonishing us with a strange tale that somehow coalesces into a searing indictment of our society in 2014, despite being published in 2003, if it is left to its own devices. I don’t see, thus far, the book as being as much a carte blanche indictment of rampant consumerism-disguised-as-science (though that certainly sluices through the narrative), but rather of science and medicine, particularly genetics, without ethics.
What the book does make clear is that we are the architects of our own wasteland, as much as Jimmy’s genetic-tampering and violence-desensitized society is. For instance, there is the “raping” of our planet that is currently ongoing in 2014 and will continue beyond. Here’s a quick-and-dirty on that matter. So-called third-world (and second-world and . . .) nations will experience the first disastrous waves of climate change in the form of cyclones, typhoons, killing heat waves, and the like, but North America, particularly the United States, is not inoculated against climate change’s repercussions. Flooding, ravaging droughts, and raging wildfires pock-mark our future, too. Perhaps we head toward our own Paradice Project?
BEING AND NOTHINGNESS
My only quibble thus far with the novel lies in its pervasive bleakness. Jimmy/Snowman is a sad and pathetic character whom one feels at least somewhat empathetic toward if only for his difficult upbringing, both family-wise and society-wise. Contrary to my worldview and bearing in high school and university days, however, I am not as primed for tragedy now that I am older. Perhaps it is because as we age, tragedy becomes our unwanted bedfellow, not unlike bedbugs or toe fungi. In that sense, O & C is becoming a smidge tedious and depression-inducing—although still lovely and masterful—to stomach. As they say, you can’t step in the same spot in the stream twice.
But let me leave you with some opening lines from O & C. If those don’t convince you to read this, possibly nothing will:
“Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still sleeping.
On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.
Out of habit he looks at his watch . . . still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is. . . . “
And now, I also know why Vonnegut advised to start your story as near as possible to the end.
Atwood’s tragedy? That her writing is so damn spare, dark, stark, and expert and, yet, some dummies like me haven’t read her! Here’s a handy-dandy quiz if you’re wanting to explore Atwood’s work and haven’t yet.