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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Oryx and Crake: Where's the Love?

The blurb on the back cover describes Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake as "at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future." It's certainly the latter, but I must've missed the former. What love story? This is a safe bet: You'll never hear me complain about the lack of love story again, probably — but for a novel to set itself up like that, and then fail to deliver, was disappointing.

But, let's accentuate the positive: The dystopia Atwood imagines is, indeed, very compelling — the novel tells the story of childhood friends Crake and Jimmy. Crake is a scientific genius who fits in well with the decaying, stratified-by-class world that finds nothing ethically wrong with bio-engineering animals — and, eventually, humans. The story jumps back in forth in time — alternating between Jimmy and Crake's coming of age and early adulthood, and the post-apocalyptic world in which Jimmy (who now calls himself Snowman) finds himself. He's all alone, except for the "Crakers," the genetically engineered humans who think Snowman is a god, and how it came to be that way is the thrust of the novel.

So, what's the love-story angle, then? It starts like this: One day, when Jimmy and Crake are in high school, they're trolling around the Internet, looking for porn, as high school boys do, they come across a beautiful eight-year-old girl who, for reasons that Atwood never fully explains, deeply affects Jimmy. The girl (surprise, surprise) is Oryx, and she haunts his dreams. He loves her from the start. And for the life of me, even when she finally appears in the flesh in the novel, I couldn't understand why. What's she supposed to be a symbol of? Why is Jimmy so obsessed with her? Why does it matter?

Atwood is an elegant writer — this is actually the first time I've read her — once she gets going with this story (and it does take a while — a lot of the first hundred pages shows us Snowman lying around going, "Uh, this sucks,"), it really hums along. I read the last 200 pages in two sittings.

Perhaps because for me this was an effort in "branching out," I didn't enjoy this as much as most readers seem to. Again, the inventive dystopia and the idea of scrubbing ethics from science were intriguing enough to keep me turning pages quickly. But I just couldn't find my way totally into this. So, three stars from me, but I won't hate you if you hate me for not enjoying it.

On to The Year of the Flood...

18 comments:

  1. I accidentally read Year of the Flood last year, not realizing it was actually the sequel to Oryx and Crake. By the sound of it, it features the same setting, time and basic premise, but with a different cast of characters (although both Oryx, Crake and Jimmy make important appearances, if I remember correctly). It, too, was slow in picking up, but once Atwood got there, it was completely captivating. I'm intrigued by the bits of plot mentioned above... enough that I want to go back and figure out how they fit together with what happened in Year of the Flood. Perhaps if I know from the get-go that it's not really a love story, it won't be so disappointing? I'm generally enthralled with Atwood's works (all two of them that I've read), and hope that this 3-star book for you won't turn you off of her writing for good.

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    1. No, it won't turn me off Atwood - on a line-by-line basis, I loved her style. And really, for me, a three-star review means I was neutral - didn't love it, didn't not love it. So, yeah, I'm definitely going to read her again - though now I may wait until whenever it is that the third book in the MaddAddam Trilogy is published to read TYOTF...

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  2. Awe man sorry you didn't enjoy this one more. In all fairness, I did enjoy The Year of the Flood more than Oryx and Crake - I feel like the way they are structured you can really read them in either order. They relate to each other but are separate stories completely.

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    1. I didn't hate it - it just wasn't quite my cup'o'tea, ya know? I certainly can understand why people are so passionate about Atwood - I just need to try something else by her now.

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  3. I don't hate you! I ADORE Atwood, but her dystopian novels are my least favourite, even though she's so clever with them. I never finished Year of the Flood, at least I haven't yet. I "grew up" reading Atwood, starting with Surfacing, which I totally still love, and going on from there. I have favourites. I love her old stuff.

    I get what she's doing now, with the speculative fiction, with her wit and agenda (well, perhaps not the right word), and knowing where she's coming from as an activist concerned about the environment, animal welfare, and atrocities going on with Monsanto and such. These books are are warning us as much as they're also satirizing, I think. But that doesn't really address the lacking you pointed out. Unfortunately, all I remember of reading it was being grossed out (ChikiNubs or something, weren't there? I am not a nugget!!) and also asking, what the hell is going on? till about the middle. That was eons ago. I'd have to read it again.

    At any rate, maybe this wasn't the best book to start with from her. I don't know that reading her earlier ones would have changed your mind about this one, or even if you're interested in them, but seriously, try something else. Don't go off her, okay?

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    1. There is definitely a huge degree of cleverness - I loved the company names in Oryx and Crake, especially. I get what was she was doing, too - though without the same basis of comparison as you, a huge Atwood fan - and I like the idea, for sure, of satirizing scientists and people who assume the Earth was made for us and not us for the Earth. Yes, the chicken nubs thing - gross.

      Definitely not going off her. Definitely not.

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  4. I was really "meh" about this one too. There is something about both books that was just too elusive, too vague, too opaque for me. I appreciated what she was trying to do, and the dystopian world she created, but the way she approached the story was killing me. I wanted to hear about everything in time-order.. start with Jimmy and Crake as kids and work us up to the present. The flashbacks and jumps in time (in both books) were just too distracting for me. That, and the fact that the main characters were all so emotionally blah that I felt very little connection to them as I read....

    I hope people don't hate me for saying that.

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    1. The time order, surprisingly, didn't bother me too, much - but telling story in flashback usually does. And you're right about the "emotional blahness" of the characters - it was hard to get a good bead on them - which is why it was so strange that Jimmy is so in love with Oryx. Nothing that came earlier would've suggested that that could be the case.

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  5. I loved this book, but hey- I see where you are coming from. Possibly a little bit of the case which I was talking about on my blog a little while ago about being burned by the blurb... Having expectations set up from the cover blurb which are totally false and ruin your enjoyment of the book. Happened to me before in a major way. I would never have touted Oryx and Crake as a love story. Ever.

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    1. I know, I shouldn't base my enjoyment of a novel on expectations going in - especially those created by blurbs. But it's so hard not to. ;)

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    2. Well who doesn't? Everyone reads the blurb to get the idea of the story they are about to read and if you're given false expectations then it does impact on your enjoyment. It's kind of inavoidable, to be honest. I'll be keen to see what you think of Year of the Flood. I read the two really far apart but if memory serves I think the pacing of YOTF was a lot faster which made it a easier to enjoy read. Hope you like it!

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  6. Although I am a big Atwood fan I admit I found this one somewhat frustrating. It was a bit slow to start off and it jumped around a bit I had trouble following it. Don't give up though - try Year of the Flood, it is part of the same loose trilogy but it much better

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    1. VERY slow to start off with, yes. And at the beginning, she's trying purposely confuse you - which is annoying, too. I'll try YOTF...at some point.

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  7. OMG! I have 'The Year of the Flood' on my Mt TBR by my office door to be read at some point this year. Soooo, I have to read this one first? Okay... I went off to a bookstore in search of this book and now I'm waiting for it to come in. :)

    Thanks for the heads-up, Greg.

    And exactly why does this author confuse the reader? As a writer myself, it's the last thing I'd ever want to do to my readers; I'd rather take them on a great ride of a story and have them enjoy themselves. :)

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  8. I have one problem with this book, Greg. I have tried ordering it in to my local bookstore. However they can't get it in as it's out of stock. Damn! :(

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  9. Greetings NewDork. Just by way of reminder, authors seldom write their own back-of-book blurbs; don't blame Atwood if someone wanting to sell the book has mischaracterized it as a love story.

    That said, it is after all a love story of sorts. We have an obsession running through Jimmy/Snowman's life, which is finally consummated before the plague outbreak. Even after Oryx's death, she is with him abidingly in the form of her voice in his head.

    What does she symbolize? In her fictive persona as she presents herself to the Crakers and as Jimmy describes her to them, she is a thoroughly entangled Eden, Eve, primal union, earth-mother and Goddess. But that's not the point. Why does she need to symbolize anything? (What does Shakespeare's Juliet symbolize?) Can she not just be the woman in a love triangle?

    But: Oryx doesn't exist. Or rather, not as Jimmy conceives her. The Oryx-construct is large and more diverse than the actual living woman who took that name. The girl from the initial photo that so strikes Jimmy (and if you think a preoccupation from a single image needs explanation, you've obviously never been in love nor been obsessed) is not the same girl that was found locked in a garage (read it carefully; she's not the right age), and this girl from the garage is probably also not the same girl that Crake eventually brings to Paradice.

    So maybe the better question is: what does the homogenized confabulation of this Oryx-construct out of different women tell us about Jimmy? And why is he in love with this self-created projection?

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  10. I do wonder a lot of things about Oryx. But, as others have pointed out, she's so entirely allegorical. She's Jimmy's and Crake's past, present, and future preoccupations; a symbolic Woman, not a flesh-and-blood woman.

    We can tell a few things about her. Although she is unlikely to have been the girl from the child pornography or the garage, she is the a spiritual twin to those girls. She endured similar treatment, which made her into the sort of woman who is not only understands that she is theoretical to both men, but is willing and able to exploit that.

    I wonder if she loved Jimmy and Crake and, if so...how, precisely. I wonder what happened between Oryx and Crake between meeting at the Pizza place and returning to Paradice. Did Crake explain himself? Did Oryx try to convince him to stop the plague? Did she try to run from, persuade, or fight Crake? Did she want to stay with Crake? Or return to Jimmy? Or neither. Did she want to die?

    And Crake...did he always intend to kill himself? From what Jimmy says, it seems Crake had stocked Paradice pretty well. At some point, did Crake intend to live through the plague? Why, after all those years, did he hire Jimmy. Why bring Jimmy in? And then, why wait so long?

    When Crake asked Jimmy if Jimmy would kill someone he loved to spare them pain, he was obviously thinking about Oryx. Crake allegedly loved Oryx and planned to kill her to save her the pain of knowing she'd contributed to genocide.

    But what breaks my heart is... What about Jimmy? Crake left Jimmy alive to suffer that pain. Of knowing he contributed to genocide, of seeing the woman he loved killed, and of killing his best friend. What a cruel thing to consign someone to.

    So the love I wonder about most is Crake's for Jimmy. Did Crake care about Jimmy at all?

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