Title: Oryx and Crake
Author: Margaret Atwood
Release Date: March 30, 2004
Genre: Dystopian, Literary Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4 out of 5
Living in a barren future, Snowman lives in a world that’s been destroyed by rampant genetic testing. He isn’t sure if he’s the only one who’s made it through unscathed, but one thing is for certain: He needs supplies if he’s going to make it much longer. He embarks on a journey to another place, during which he reminisces about the world that came before, and how everything around him came to an end.
A sometimes difficult and confusing read, Oryx and Crake combines a dismal post-apocalyptic future with smart commentary on the dangers of genetic testing and an appealing, if lost, main character. It can be hard to wade through sometimes, but Atwood’s narrative comes together beautifully as the novel progresses to a shocking end.
Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest writers of our time; there’s not much of a question about that. But it was with trepidation that I picked up the first book in her Maddaddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake. I had heard so much love about it and praise for it. With the last book in the trilogy out, I decided it was time for me to make up my own mind about this modern classic. I hoped so badly that I would enjoy it, as it’s hard to be negative about a book that “smart” people love (the implication being that I’m not smart enough to fully appreciate it—a true pet peeve of mine, because not all books will appeal to all readers…but that’s a subject for a different day). Happily, in the end I did like the book, but that’s not without some qualifications.
The beginning of Oryx and Crake is just strange. Atwood plunges the reader into a completely foreign world, and you’re left to pick up the pieces, trying to puzzle out what is happening. Slowly, Snowman (or “Jimmy,” as he was known in the before world) begins to fill in the blanks, telling the story of how things came to be this way through flashbacks. He also discusses two characters, Oryx and Crake, who are very important to the story, but their significance isn’t revealed for a very long time. To put it succinctly, this is a novel you have to stick with. If you do, you’ll be rewarded, but it’s not necessarily an easy ride.
Atwood presents a bleak dystopia in Oryx and Crake; the before world isn’t the one that we inhabit and the after world is just scary. Genetic testing has run amok, trying to create animals that aren’t found in nature in order to suit humans. We could easily become this society, and that’s what Atwood is trying to warn the reader against. Her social commentary is prescient and underscores the entire novel, but that’s not the whole point. Snowman is the true center of the novel; at its core, the book is about one lonely man reflecting on life, love, and the horrors that came with it.
I’ve been told that The Year of the Flood, the companion novel to Oryx and Crake, fleshes out many of the more confusing aspects of this first novel. In fact, they can be read interchangeably. I appreciated Oryx and Crake, and once I passed the halfway mark (or thereabouts), I was hooked on the story. But it takes its time to develop, to establish all the characters, and, like Snowman, the reader is wandering in a wilderness they don’t recognize or understand for much of the novel. But I still recommend it; it’s a well-done read that comes together in the end, and I’m curious to see where Atwood takes both her main character and her commentary in the next books.