Wednesday, September 23, 2009

REVIEW: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Published 2004 by Anchor Books. Literary Fiction.

As a companion to yesterday's review of The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood's latest, I thought I would talk about its prequel, Oryx and Crake, which came out a few years ago, and which I've just finished.

To be honest, the first time I tried to read Oryx and Crake, I threw it down after the first third. I found it dull and plodding; page after page, it just felt like nothing was happening. I wasn't particularly fond of the main character, Jimmy a.k.a. Snowman, who just seemed like kind of a dolt. And I was disappointed that Atwood, one of my favorite authors and one of the best out there at writing about women, chose such a dullard as her protagonist.

This time around, it was different. The pages flew by and while I'm still not in love with Jimmy, I didn't mind him so much. The difference? The difference is having read The Year of the Flood and finally understanding what the heck is going on in this book. Atwood unfolds the narrative slowly, oh-so-slowly, building up the story layer by layer, detail by detail; by the end, I could appreciate the full horror of what Jimmy had been through, but it really did take the whole book for me to get there. Maybe I'm a dullard, too.

Anyway, Oryx and Crake is Jimmy's story; it's a post-apocalyptic dystopian, science-fiction-y story about this young man trying to survive in a wasteland. Crake is Jimmy's best friend, now absent. Oryx is the woman he loved, an enigma and an illusion. The action unfolds on another Atwoodian double time line- the present day, in which Jimmy is trying to find food and other survivors, and the past, where we watch the disaster unfold. Slowly. When it does, though, it's staggering.

But then, Jimmy's dullness may be the point. One theme that runs through several of Atwood's books is blindness or willful ignorance- characters who see but don't understand, listen without hearing as Jimmy admits of himself. He spends most of the book ignoring or blocking out the world around him- drunk or high, or blotting it all out with food or sex. He doesn't understand Oryx, the love of his life, or really see her, and he fails to understand what Crake is up to until long past too late.

Did I like Oryx and Crake? I liked it more than I did the first time, and I liked it more having read Flood. It strikes me now as extended back story for a minor character in its much more engaging sequel- definitely a worthwhile read, but probably essential only for established Atwood fans or Flood aficionados.

Since there's been so much interest in the comments on my review of Flood in Atwood and her books, tomorrow I'm going to write an extended post with short reviews of all the books of hers that I've read.

Rating: BACKLIST

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.