Oryx and Crake (audio; reread)

Oryx and CrakeAs a novelist, Margaret Atwood is, in my mind, two completely different writers. Sometimes she’s a writer of particularly good fiction about women and relationships (The Robber Bride and Cat’s Eye), and sometimes she’s a writer of chilling dystopian fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale). Only in the case of The Blind Assassin does she seem to straddle both genres. I enjoy Atwood’s work in both of these genres enough that I usually make a point of reading her novels soon after they are released. So it’s been several years since I read Atwood’s 2003 dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake. Because her new book, The Year of the Flood, takes place in the same world, this seemed like a good time to revisit Oryx and Crake.

Oryx and Crake is set at some undisclosed point in the future, probably later this century. Snowman, previously known as Jimmy, is, as far as he knows, the last human left on the planet. The world has been devastated ecologically and biologically in ways that only gradually become clear. Snowman lives with a group of human-like creatures called Crakers, who seek him out for advice and treat him as a sort of eccentric sage. He also serves as our guide, both to his present-day world and the past events that brought it to this point. (See Jenny’s review for more on the plot and characters.)

On first read, I was absorbed in understanding what was going on and piecing together the narrative. How did these things happen? Is Snowman alone on the planet? Who are Oryx and Crake? In that reading, the book was primarily a polemic on the dangers of science run amok. There are also some musings on art and the impossibility of silencing the spirit. It worked, and I enjoyed it, but as a dystopia, it’s not especially original.

However, this time I was struck with how Atwood seems to be exploring how we construct reality. The scientific aspects of the story involve genetic engineering. The characters are trying to build life that isn’t susceptible to disease, discomfort, or other frailties. But the scientists aren’t alone in that. Before the disaster, Snowman/Jimmy worked in communications, in spin-doctoring. When he talks to the Crakers, he tells them a version of the truth that he thinks they can understand and that will not overly distress them. Their understanding of history, of creation, of humanity, is constructed almost entirely by Snowman. But the rabbit hole goes deeper. In fact, on this second encounter with the story, I’m convinced that a lot of what is presented as truth in Snowman’s flashbacks is in fact a massaging of the truth, designed to fit Snowman’s fantasies. But where does Snowman’s fantasy end and the truth begin?

I enjoyed this book the first time, but a second visit deepened my appreciation for it. I’m very excited about The Year of the Flood, which I plan to read in the next few weeks. The audio version, narrated by Campbell Scott, is well done. This isn’t anything close to my favorite Atwood, but second-tier Atwood is still very good fiction.

See other reviews at Books and Cooks, 3000 Books, 1 More Chapter, and Books I Done Read.

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10 Responses to Oryx and Crake (audio; reread)

  1. Maree says:

    I loved Oryx and Crake, but I had to read The Blind Assassin twice to get hold of it and really enjoy it. I’m looking forward to The Year of the Flood so much. :)

  2. Steph says:

    I think I liked The Year of the Flood a bit better than O&C because it does play to one of Atwood’s strengths of exploring relationships between women, and also the place of women in society. I think in my mind, I’ve never seen Atwood as a split-author, simply because I think she pretty much writes about women’s issues, speculative or not (I admit that O&C doesn’t really do this). Like you, I don’t think these books are her strongest offerings (I think my favorites are Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale, though I must admit I’ve not read much more than that), but by and large, she knows how to tell provocative stories. I’m really looking forward to your thoughts on her latest.

  3. Jenny says:

    Great insight about the construction of reality. Is he telling a story that won’t distress the Crakers, or one that won’t distress himself? Oh — and what *is* your favorite Atwood? I can never decide between Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride.

  4. Tara says:

    My second reading of this also made me appreciate the story more. Will be interested to see what you think of her latest!

  5. Jeane says:

    That’s really interesting what you said about the construction of reality. Especially when nearing the end of the book it became more clear to me what kind of mythology Snowman was patching together for the Crakers. Was he just saying the first thing that came into his head to pacify them? or something more intentional? I can’t wait to read The Year of the Flood.

  6. savidgereads says:

    I have this on the TBR and also have The Year of the Flood and feel that I should read this before I read the later even though they arent a series. I am glad to have heard so many positive reviews of it.

  7. Teresa says:

    Maree: I’m really wanting to read The Blind Assassin again. I enjoyed it for the plotting and the characterization, but I know I’d pick up on more the second time.

    Steph: When I first discovered Atwood I read Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye in quick succession, and I couldn’t believe the same author wrote the two, but you’re right that women’s issues are a common theme in almost all her work. And it even shows up a bit here with Oryx.

    Jenny: I had an inkling on the first read that Oryx’s tale is not as straightforward as it seems, and on the second read, I was on the alert for clues about all of Snowman’s memories. And my favorite Atwood? Tough choice. Probably Blind Assassin, but maybe Robber Bride, which I haven’t read for years.

    Tara: Yes, this improved a lot on a second read. Knowing how the planet got that way really makes it easier to pick up on some of the other, more interesting elements.

    Jeane: Good question–just how conscious is Snowman of how he’s shaping the truth? Certainly there’s good reason to believe he hasn’t thought through everything he’s telling the Crakers, but what about the things he’s telling himself?

    Savidgereads: I’ve seen comments elsewhere that you don’t need to read this first, but the world-building is interesting and might be lost if you read Year of the Flood first. Then again, if you know more about this world, your first read might be more like my second.

  8. cbjames says:

    Blind Assassin and Handmaid’s Tale are two of my all-time favorites, so I thought I would like O&C, but it left me cold. I think because it’s scope was so narrow in comparison to the other two.

    Now that there’s a second book in the same world I should give it another go. I like your idea about reading it as a critique of how we construct reality.

    I have to go to the library later this week anyway……

  9. Teresa says:

    cbjames: I do wonder if I’m reading too much into it with the whole reality construction business, but I think it’s there. And the idea does widen the scope of the story beyond apocalypticism. I’m curious as to whether it comes up in Year of the Flood.

  10. Care says:

    I’m almost to the end of O&C (what the heck am I looking up reviews for? I think I don’t want to come to the ending….) Anyway, I’m still baffled who the heck Oryx is at this point – Jimmy has just been given the intro to the dome and the Crakers.
    I love Atwood and think she is so clever! I first read Handmaid’s Tale and then The Blind Assassin so I’m extremely amazed at how versatile she is. I think I have Alias Grace to read next and then might jump to Robber Bride before getting Flood. don’t know yet…
    LOVEd this review, btw, even if I’m a bit off track here.

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