Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood


I read this several years ago, before I knew who Margaret Atwood was.  I liked it well enough but relegated it to the interesting-but-somewhat-standard sci-fi pile.  It was better in many ways than typical genre fare, but it didn’t stand out to me as very special (also due to the speed with which I was reading in those days).  I forgot about it pretty quickly while still remembering the overall gist of the story.

Then I realized that its author was the same one who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, a book of which I had been shamefully unaware until a year or two ago.  But after just reading it and being really impressed with its poetic prose, I thought it worthwhile to revisit “Oryx” to see what I had missed, if nothing else than for comparison’s sake.

In many ways my memory of “Oryx” holds up.  It is very different from “Handmaid” stylistically.  Atwood demonstrates an impressive ability to switch tones between books, while maintaining internal consistency within each book.  The language of “Oryx” is not as consistently beautiful as that of “Handmaid,” although it does have flashes.  Certainly you can sense that capacity lurking behind the words on the page.

In some ways, “Oryx’s” language is more interesting.  It is snappier and wittier, and certainly funnier.  It appears to allow more room for creative stretching.  And Atwood demonstrates the same ability on display in “Handmaid” by wrapping up intriguing paragraphs with one clinching zinger that immediately elevates the entire preceding passage.  Here’s an example from p.301:

He should have been pleased by his success with these verbal fabrications, but instead he was depressed by it.  The memos that came from above telling him he’d done a good job meant nothing to him because they’d been dictated by semi-literates; all they proved was that no one at AnooYoo was capable of appreciating how clever he had been.  He came to understand why serial killers sent helpful clues to the police.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in this short passage.  It actually demonstrates almost everything I like about the book and Atwood’s style.  It has frank, punchy prose that probably includes autobiographical details about the praise she herself receives as a writer.  It also has good psychological insight and resolves with an unexpected yet completely intuitive analogy.  And it avoids comma-abuse, which was one of my only complaints about “Handmaid.”

But the strength of “Oryx” — besides its very entertaining narrator and presentation — is the larger societal criticisms, more generalized than the above individual insight.  There’s so much going on; the themes deal with consumption, technology, class warfare, corporatism, sexism, environmentalism and the battle between science and nature.  Atwood’s position on most of these issues is predictable (e.g. the Crakers are undoubtedly developing free will by the end of the story), yet it never feels preachy.  She does a good job of presenting both sides of the argument.  It’s a rare novel that can make you question your own beliefs.

Of course that strength can also be a weakness.  There’s so much going on — so many eras, characters and facets, so many flashbacks — that it feels like a jumble at times.  It certainly contributed to my difficulties remembering it following the first reading.

I also can’t figure out whether or not I liked the sometimes-cartoonish tone.  The lightness of the narration provided a really interesting juxtaposition to the horrors being narrated, but I wonder if the entire book could have been more effective (or maybe just more interesting to me) had Atwood treated it more seriously.  The biggest manifestation of the silliness is with the names of all the companies and products — the above “AnooYoo” is just one example.

Overall, though, this is a strong sci-fi novel, near the top of that pile I so rashly tossed it onto after first finishing it.  It’s some twisted, horrific stuff.  That she does it with such a biting sense of humor makes it pretty unique. I would even say it compares favorably to 80s and 90s Stephen King with its compulsive readability (thinking mostly of King’s short stories, his Bachman stuff, and the masterful first installations in “Dark Tower”).

All in all, “Handmaid” feels more important to me, both weightier and more “serious.”  But “Oryx” is much more entertaining, and perhaps more impressive with its creativity — after all, Atwood addresses more aspects of global society here, rather than the insular viewpoint of “Handmaid.”  Perhaps the most relevant praise for Ms. Atwood is that I’m excited to read the rest of the “MaddAddam” trilogy.

Original Review


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