After the Fall
Oryx and Crakeby Margaret AtwoodNan A. Talese/Doubleday, pp., .
In a recent article for the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Canadian novelist Margaret
Atwood describes the moment that inspired the latest of her dystopian fantasies, Oryx
, which, as its eponymous allusion to endangered species suggests, is concerned
with ecological disaster in the not-too-distant future:
I was still on a book tour for my previous novel, The Blind Assassin
, butby that time I had reached Australia. After I’d finished the book-relatedevents, my spouse and I and two friends travelled north, to Max Davidson’scamp in the monsoon rain forest of Arnheimland. For the most part we
were bird-watching, but we also visited several open-sided cave complexeswhere Aboriginal people had lived continuously, in harmony with their en-vironment, for tens of thousands of years. After that we went to Cassowary
House, near Cairns, operated by Philip Gregory, an extraordinary birder;and it was while looking over Philip’s balcony at the red-necked crakes scut-tling about in the underbrush that Oryx and Crake
appeared to me almostin its entirety. I began making notes on it that night.
This is an old-fashioned, indeed almost Horatian scenario of writerly inspiration: the
idyll in the untamed countryside, offering a respite from the wearying obligations ofcitified life in the upper ether of High Culture; the wistful invocation of noble savages(“in harmony with their environment”); the sudden epiphany that brings on a torrentialcreative output which cannot be stemmed.
And yet this dreamy scene of Beauty, Nature, and Creation could not have had a
grimmer outcome. Nightmarish visions of alternative worlds are hardly new to Atwood,
who has been writing novels for four decades but whose first popular hit was the
fantasy of patriarchy gone wild, The Handmaid’s Tale
, which was subsequently made intoa movie. The author’s penchant for richly textured fantasy narratives surfaced as recentlyas her Booker-winning tour de force, The Blind Assassin
, the crucial narrative of
which, nested Chinese-box fashion within two further narratives—a framing autobi-
ography, a novel-within-a-novel—was a dazzlingly imagined science-fiction mythology
which a proletarian agitator dreams up for the amusement of his high-society lover in
These two brief examples, framing as they do the fully mature years of Atwood’s
career, must suffice to suggest the extent to which the writer’s taste for what is nowcalled “fantasy” literature serves, as all good science fiction does, a very serious, largerset of concerns about the nature of contemporary society. For Atwood, the greatestpreoccupations have been sexism and class injustice. These, indeed, surface again inthe new novel, although it suggests a new focus for the author’s moral and politicaloutrage, one that is very up-to-the-minute: abuses not of women or the underclasses,but of Nature itself, by a culture whose intellectual sophistication has outpaced its moralawareness.
Of course, you could say that for Atwood, it all boils down to the same problem.
There’s a point in The Blind Assassin
in which Alex, the brooding romantic hero (the
novel is, among other things, a slyly self-conscious neo-Gothic tale)—whose story of thecivilization of Sakiel-Norn is intended for the political edification of his rich girlfriend—explains to her his authorial philosophy after she complains about the grim turn his storyhas taken, and pouts because he’s rejected her suggestion of a happy ending. “I like mystories to be true to life,” he says,
which means there have to be wolves in them. Wolves in one form oranother.
Why is that so true to life? She turns away from him onto her back, staresup at the ceiling. She’s miffed because her own version has been trumped.
All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else issentimental drivel.
Think about it. There’s escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, cap-turing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throw-ing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Run-ning with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into thehead wolf. No other decent stories exist.
It’s hard not to feel, in Margaret Atwood’s own yarn-spinning in Oryx and Crake
—abook clearly intended for the political edification of its audience—a bit of the almostsadistic glee that Alex takes in wrenching away from his morally blind lover her fewremaining illusions about the world and its inhabitants. The new novel has a darkness,even a meanness, that its post-apocalyptic setting perhaps requires. But for all the (oftenbitingly funny) inventiveness of its vision of the near future, Oryx and Crake
lacks thetextures, both narrative and psychological, that have made its predecessors in Atwood’soeuvre so rich and full of meaning; this lack ultimately prevents its own attempts to saysomething profound about Beauty, Nature, and Creation from being fully realized.
Set a few generations into the future—the date is never given—Oryx and Crake
picts the aftermath of an ecological catastrophe the precise nature of which is not
revealed until the final pages of the book. Its principal character, who now calls him-self Snowman but was once known as Jimmy, appears to be the sole human survivorof this catastrophe; the narrative proceeds as a series of flashbacks to his youth andyoung manhood—flashbacks which ultimately illuminate precisely what happened—interwoven with scenes from the bleak present. In that present, Snowman must makea journey from his ramshackle hut near the sea to the now-ruined headquarters ofthe genetic-engineering firm at which he once worked and which, it’s all too clear,had a hand in the disaster that’s taken place. This journey, from the bleak locus of hispresent Robinson Crusoe—like abjection to the formerly hypercivilized setting where(we learn) the catastrophe originated, constitutes the narrative backbone of the bookand establishes its thematic poles.
The novel’s beginning sections are its best: they very effectively suggest, in anxiety-
provoking increments of detail, the aftermath of the disaster; by refraining from laboriousexplanations and descriptions such as a less skilled writer might be tempted to provide,
Atwood plunges the reader into this nightmare world, leaving him just as realistically
confused and anxious as poor Snowman is. Half-starving, he stumbles about wrapped ina sheet and wearing a pair of sunglasses with only one lens, constantly fearful of exposureto the sun, and of being attacked by wild animals—the exact nature of which Atwoodcannily avoids describing, although their names (“wolvogs,” “pigoons,” “snats”) suggest,
creepily, that they are the result of human meddling with genetic codes. This characterknows only too well that he is “all, all alone. Alone on a wide, wide sea.”
Alone and, rather pointedly, “primitive”: Snowman’s life in the present has been
reduced to increasingly desperate forays for food near the sea-side shelter, where he acts,rather grudgingly, as a sort of custodian and shaman for a tribe of genetically engineeredcreatures resembling humans who were, apparently, immune to the plague that has wipedout the human race. The novel begins in earnest when Snowman decides he needs tomake his way back to the ruins of the city in order to procure the supplies and weapons(the pigoons are getting restless) that will keep him alive for another little while.
As Snowman trudges back toward the world he once knew, he recalls life before
the apocalypse; this past is a nightmare extrapolation of the present day and its assortedills. Atwood’s mordant vision of our future serves her fictional and ideological aimsquite well. As she paints it, the near future is an era when corporate greed, allied withtechnological hypersophistication in the realm of genetics, has led to the unbridledand unprincipled use of new technologies. The author lavishes particular care (and nolittle black humor) on descriptions of the various new moneymaking species, “creations”that make today’s debates over genetically improved cattle look very quaint indeed. (The
“NeoAgriculturals” division of a company that one character works for has developed
a genetically engineered tuber that grows twenty chicken breasts at a time. “That’s thehead in the middle,” the character explains. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, theydump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those. . . .
You get chicken breasts in two weeks.”)
Predictably, those citizens whose intellectual gifts suit them for employment at the
genetic-engineering firms that now run the country are well treated. Little Jimmy, welearn, grew up in one of the exclusive gated “compounds” owned by OrganInc Farms,his scientist father’s employer (Atwood has amused herself with the names of the corpo-rations of the future: other companies have names like AnooYoo and RejoovenEsense).
In such compounds the educated and wealthy live in hermetic splendor, ensconcedin lavish reproduction Tudor or Italian Renaissance houses. (Plus ça change
.) This elite,protected by sophisticated genetically engineered vaccines, is completely isolated fromthe outlying “Pleeblands” and their infection-prone inhabitants. Jimmy’s first childhoodmemory is the smell of burning hair from genetically engineered cows that had to be de-stroyed because they’d been infected—by a competitor, apparently—with a geneticallyengineered disease. This, needless to say, is a dark hint of things to come.
All this—the “science” part of this ambitious science fiction—is both entertaining
and edifying in just the ways you imagine Atwood had hoped. Somewhat less
successful is the “fiction,”—the aspects of her narrative devoted to more traditionalelements like characterization and plotting, the former of which tends to be superficialand often clichéd, and the latter rather too conveniently schematic. As a child, Jimmy
was a misfit in his technology-mad world: a poet rather than a scientist, a child who
loved to recite long lists of archaic words (“wheelwright, lodestone, saturnine, adamant
whose “precision and suggestiveness . . . no longer had a meaningful application.” He is,
in other words, meant to be the “soul” of the novel. Hardly surprising, then, that he isthrown together with a character who just as obviously represents soulless technology:a boy-genius whom Jimmy nicknames Crake. The only thing this unlikely pair seemsto have in common is that both boys are ghoulishly amused by extinct species, andobsessively play a thematically pertinent Internet game called Extinctathon.
It’s Crake, a science whiz, who eventually goes on to become the kingpin of Re-
joovenEsense, a gene-splicing outfit that has, it emerges, diabolical designs on all kinds ofspecies, not least our own. Crake is the figure who represents technology gone amok: cre-ativity without any moral, or even aesthetic, sensibility whatever. Through Snowman’sflashbacks we learn that immediately before the catastrophe, Crake had successfully en-
gineered both a new race of superior humans (the ones for whom Snowman must lateract as a leader)—no jealousy, no rage, no greed, and wholly vegetarian to boot—andthe deadly virus that eventually kills off the old species. In the book’s post-apocalypticpresent, Snowman ruefully refers to the plague-immune new race as Crakers; amongtheir many genetically engineered charms include private parts that turn blue duringmating season.
One reason, perhaps, for Crake’s obsession with developing a jealousy-free species
is a disastrous love triangle in which he and Jimmy become involved, and which is alsorather too conveniently symbolic for the author. Snowman recalls how one day, whenhe and Crake were still teenagers, the two boys were indifferently surfing a pedophiliaInternet site called “HottTotts.” (Internet culture, with its casual voyeurism and exhibi-tionism, its insidious erosion of the notion of the private, is a frequent target of some of
Atwood’s most mordant barbs: she dreams up sites with names like deathrowlive.com and
nitee-nite.com, on which you can watch people kill themselves; there’s also dirtysock-puppets.com, “a current-affairs show about world political leaders.”) On this site, it turnsout, the youthful Jimmy glimpsed a beautiful Asian child prostitute, a girl called Oryx,
with whom he becomes inexplicably obsessed and whose lovers both he and Crake will
It is against the backdrop of this ill-fated triangle that Crake’s maniacal plan takes
shape: the end of their affair will spell the end of the world. The final apocalypse—theoutbreak of the plague which Crake designed and inserted (more dark humor here) intoa Viagra-like product; the mass panic; the widespread, horrible, Ebola-like deaths—isrecalled toward the end of the novel, as Snowman makes his way through the wreckageof a civilization to whose downfall he unwittingly contributed. The dénouement makesit clear that the book is supposed to be a parable about Nature, Beauty, and Creation,albeit in a far darker key than the one described in the author’s letter to the subscribersto the Book-of-the-Month Club.
And yet—as often with parables—this one is long on symbolism and short on texture
and persuasive characterization. Oryx and Crake
is “true to life” much as the tale told bythe dashing storyteller in The Blind Assassin
is: it represents, rather broadly, some truthsabout the way the world works. But there the verisimilitude ends.
Atwood’s snats and wolvogs and pigoons are not, indeed, the only improbable crea-
tures lurking in this novel. One of the big problems here is Snowman/Jimmy: an oddlyvacant protagonist, he remains an intellectual and psychological cipher throughout, andtherefore a leaky vessel for the moral and cultural insights that must be reached by theend of the book. What little we do know about him isn’t, indeed, very appealing. De-spite the hints that this character is supposed to represent the artistic or literary impulse—his low scientific aptitude lands him in a college called the Martha Graham Academy,
where he trains to become an advertising copywriter—but apart from his fondness for
lexicographical arcana, there’s nothing about him or his narration of what has happenedto him that suggests any particular intellectual or artistic or moral substance. This is odd,because Atwood has created other narrators who, through the stories they relate in oldage, come to see the truths that eluded them during the events which they now sovividly narrate: The Blind Assassin
’s Iris Chase Griffin is such a one, as is Elaine Risley,the artist heroine of the novel Cat’s Eye
; there are others as well.
But whereas you suspect that Atwood has a good deal of sympathy with those nar-
rators, she is curiously hostile to Jimmy: her imagining of his adolescence and youngadulthood is filled with offhand clichés of thirtysomething literature. (He’s lonely butemotionally unavailable, he has nice abs, he’s a user of women, he’s wretched in his dayjob.) Such occasional attempts at characterization as there are feel intended not so much
to provide psychological insight into the main character as to suggest, yet again, the sin-ister nature of the moral, economic, and even aesthetic future that awaits us. When welearn at the beginning that Jimmy is the conflicted offspring of a scientist father who’ssold out to the corporations—he chooses not to see the perfidy that his employers areup to—and a morally and intellectually overprincipled mother who abandons her fam-ily and is eventually executed as an anti-corporate terrorist, it’s all too clear that we’regetting this information simply to underscore how rotten the corporation-run fascisticgovernment of the future is.
The result is a narrator whose moral awakening at the novel’s end feels inauthentic
and unearned; there’s none of the sense of deeply achieved evolution that you get withthe other characters in Atwood’s work. When Jimmy sees the chicken parts—producingtuber, he wonders vaguely whether “some line has been crossed, some boundary trans-gressed,” but he never explores this notion further. Here and elsewhere, Atwood reliesrather too casually on what she assumes the reader to know (and to think) to get herlarger points across. Jimmy wasn’t the only one who ruefully wondered why Crake chosehim to be the Moses of the new Craker race; I asked myself more than once whether
Atwood would have created a female protagonist so lacking in depth.
As for Oryx and Crake themselves, they are, if anything, even flatter than the char-
acter who we’re told (but never made to feel) loves them. Crake is demonically
brilliant and geeky in a way that’s also a bit too predictable (he’s indifferent to food andsex, etc.), and Oryx is beautiful and remote, and toys seductively with poor Jimmy whilemaintaining vast reserves of what you can only call inscrutability; but in neither case isthe psychological background provided for their adult actions, on which so much de-pends. (There’s an awkwardly inserted suggestion that Crake’s doomsday plan was partlya gesture of revenge for the murder of his conscience-stricken father by corporate bad-dies, but you don’t really buy it because Crake is painted as being almost wholly withoutemotions, filial or otherwise.)
That Oryx should have ended up in the arms of either Crake or Jimmy is, if anything,
typical of the structural artificiality of this novel. Like too much else in Oryx and Crake
that doesn’t contribute directly to Atwood’s imaginative lampoon of corporate venalityand technological hubris, the motivation—to say nothing of the mechanics—of thecrucial relationship between the three main characters remains sketchy. We learn thatOryx (who, in any event, reappears so late in the book as to make this entire plot-linefeel like an afterthought) was eventually rescued from her sex-slave life by a marriedcouple in San Francisco who also saw her on the HottTotts site. From San Franciscoit was, presumably, just a hop and a jump to Crake’s laboratory; Atwood never bothersto explain just how. Things happen, people appear or disappear, not out of any organicnecessity, but because Atwood needs them to happen—because Jimmy needs to beobsessed with his two improbable friends merely in order that the book may contain aScience figure, a Love/Beauty figure, and a Humanist figure. These clanking schemasleave you cold: it is odd to read a work of fiction that envisions the end of the worldand to find yourself not caring that the world has ended.
There are signs that Atwood herself is aware that there’s something patchy and in-
conclusive about the way she’s constructed her book. In the novel’s closing pages,
she resorts—significantly, you can’t help thinking—to a lengthy (two-paragraph-long)string of rhetorical questions about the sinisterly godlike Crake and the meaning of hisfinal acts of creation and destruction:
Had Oryx loved him, had she loved him not, did Crake know about them,how much did he know, when did he know it, was he spying on them allalong? Did he set up the grand finale as an assisted suicide, had he intended
to have Jimmy shoot him because he knew what would happen next andhe didn’t deign to stick around to watch the results of what he’d done?
Or did he know he wouldn’t be able to withhold the formula for the vac-cine. . . ? How long had he been planning this? . . . With so much at stake,
was he afraid of failure, of being just one more incompetent nihilist? Orwas he tormented by jealousy, was he addled by love, was it revenge, did
he just want Jimmy to put him out of his misery? Had he been a lunaticor an intellectually honourable man who’d thought things through to theirlogical conclusion? And was there any difference?
This is rather too convenient a way of articulating issues that should have been brought
out by the story itself; the fact is that the answer to none of these intriguing questionscan be found in Atwood’s book. It is an irony that the author cannot have intendedthat her ambitious but only intermittently effective novel ends up by resembling, in toomany ways, the culture it excoriates: one that is good at creating special effects, butseems indifferent to the part of us that is human.
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