When I first started reading Oryx and Crake about five years ago, I was still working for the evil empire and being bullied by the Boss From Hell. It seems that misery in real life isn't a good bed fellow for post-apocalyptic fiction, so I never made it past the first chapter. Enter the 2008 Canadian Book Challenge and the need to clear out my reading shelves. I cleared off my shelves by creating the For the Ladies series for this year. And after reading Blindness and Hunger, why not throw in a little speculative Canadian fiction?
Atwood's story takes place in the not-so distant future when all of human society is split up and defined by different sets of walls. The chosen few, the scientists, the gene-splitters, the evolutionary experts, work in compounds for huge companies cloning and creating new animals, new foods, new drugs that are then sent out into the pleeblands where society is less evolved. Fast forward to the years after some sort of disaster (that's explained throughout the narrative) has almost wiped out the entire human race save for quasi humans called Crakers, and Snowman, the one charged with taking care of them.
Jimmy aka "Snowman" lives in a tree, scavenges the detrius for food, gets loaded as often as possible, and posits all kinds of pseudo-philosophy into the heads of the children of Crake. Crake, a brilliant if not utterly misguided scientist, was Jimmy's best friend growing up. Oryx, also of the book's title, was a young girl they first discovered on the internet after she held their budding sexual attention. She was someone neither Jimmy nor Crake could never forget. One of those people who wraps themselves around your mind and refuses to leave -- no matter what the cost.
As Snowman's supplies dwindle, he knows he needs to venture out and away from his safe zone, his tree in the park where the people of Crake live, back to the compound to pillage for more supplies. As he sets out on this journey, the story unfolds: how he got there, what happened to the world, what his life is like now with no other true human contact. The narrative as inventive as it is compelling, feels not unlike Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman (in ways). Jimmy's a bit of a misfit, he likes words, he works in advertising, all things that sort of make him comparable to Elaine. Although in her world, she rebels against (am I remembering this correctly?) all of the pressure put upon her by turning it inside and then by literally eating herself (oh, that cake!). Here, Jimmy's problems, his difficult relationship with his parents, his own mediocrity, and his love for Oryx, all manifest themselves in a true-to-life horror show. How come he still can't let it go when the entire world has collapsed in front of him? Why does he continually play the loop of his life in his mind? What makes his story important?
The answers to all of the questions are woven through the narrative and the telling of them isn't remotely disappointing. I have to say that I enjoyed this novel by Margaret Atwood more so than any of her work I've read in ages (Alias Grace and Surfacing are my other favs). It makes me wonder what took me so long to get back to it. And what I really enjoyed about the book was its imaginary elements. The pigoons and the rakunks. The social experiments. The ways in which Atwood extrapolates the world is heading. Frightening, yes. But also really addictive in terms of interspersing it with the more traditional parts of the narrative. Maybe we'll all end up eating 100% soyo products with pet rakunks in the next 10 years. Maybe we'll suffer through daily storms and live in the pleeblands. Who knows. But it sure makes for good reading.
READING CHALLENGES: My sixth book in this year's Canadian Book Challenge!