Reading around again: thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood’s work has long represented a gaping hole in my literary education. The Handmaid’s Tale, like Moby Dick, is a book I know I ought to read, yet have always feared I may not be able to stand. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic books (and, it should go without saying, books with gratuitous amounts of whaling) don’t generally compel me as much as do quieter works in unassuming, contemporary-ish settings. But because I’ve been so absorbed in somewhat dry research lately, I decided it was time to settle into a solid piece of fiction. I’m sorry to say that The Handmaid’s Tale is still on the shelf, but I’m finally closing the Margaret Atwood-shaped hole in my reading with Oryx and Crake.

I have yet to make my way through the entire novel, but I’m already hooked. I’m not necessarily so keen on the dsytopian aspect of the book, but in hands as capable as Atwood’s, I’d sit through a 100-page description of a colony of ants. It’s her characterization that has me. Not only am I impressed by her believable and rendering of a male protagonist (is it my imagination, or do very few successful women authors write from the perspective of men?), but I’m also fascinated with her narration from the camera-angle of a child.

When Atwood gives us backstory on Snowman’s childhood (when Snowman was known as Jimmy), she demonstrates that she understands something key. Kids may be cute, and even naive, but children aren’t fools. Disingenuous renderings of children and teens are are what I often find off-putting about a lot of kid lit, and even about adult lit involving kids. I’ve run across a few books that act as though all young children do is try to solve mysteries around the neighborhood while aided by beneficent companions, or worry about how to make their grumpy teacher nicer. It seems to me that kid characters are often around to act as a foil to their surlier adult counterparts, and to act as an innocent, purifying force. But I don’t think kids are necessarily any less self-centered or unkind than adults are, or that they’re any more capable of love. They’re just inexperienced in the ways in which culture channels the good and the bad sides of human nature. Kids have their own manipulative, sometimes sadistic agendas. They are full of rage and envy. They can be selfish, nasty, and cruel. What makes them different from adults is that they haven’t learned the cultural contexts in which to exercise, sublimate, or hide these aspect of themselves. The happy world and internal lives of play we think occupy children’s attentions are momentary distractions, not something fundamentally different about a child’s and adult’s nature. And Atwood tells it to us straight: Jimmy, with purposeful manipulation, works his mother up into a rage by asking for pets or a baby sibling because

“he loved her so much when he made her unhappy, or else when she made him unhappy: at these moments he scarcely knew which was which. He would pat her, standing well back as with strange dogs…(a)nd he was sorry, but there was more to it: he was also gloating, congratulating himself, because he’d managed to create such an effect.”

This may very well sound cold, or as though I–or even Margaret Atwood– think kids are terrible. But that’s not it at all. Kids are–no world-shaking revelation here–human, with all that comes with the human condition. Discovering what it’s like to be human is a process; we don’t begin our exercise of human life in adulthood, and we don’t leave behind all that is good when we leave childhood. And the darkness we ultimately learn to hide? It never crept up on us when we weren’t looking. It was always there.

13 Replies to “Reading around again: thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake”

  1. “I’m not necessarily so keen on the dsytopian aspect of the book, but in hands as capable as Atwood’s, I’d sit through a 100-page description of a colony of ants.”
    I know what you mean – I loved Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride, both lovely written and fairly accessible. The subject and story of The Blind Assassin was horrifying to me but I couldn’t put it down – perfect characterizations and a crazy structure that just kept me plowing through.

    Perhaps Moby Dick should go in my summer reading pile.

  2. Are you suggesting that you wouldn’t normally be interested in a hundred-page description of ants?

    Seriously though — Atwood is amazing. I love dystopian fiction, but hers in particular. It speaks to me on a very emotional level, whereas much of dystopian fiction can be very cold and dry.

    Also, Moby Dick is great. It’s really, really poetic, and really funny. I have so many lines highlighted in mine.

  3. Stephanie, I think it might be right up your wheelhouse. The book’s wildly inventive without stretching believability.

    seacliffmom, I’ll read Moby Dick if you read it, too! Could be an interesting challenge. 🙂

    teenmama, you’ve found me out about my love of ant-related prose! But I jest. I agree with you about much dystopian fiction being cold and dry. Maybe when ideological concerns take precedence over the emotional layer, the book can become more like a tract trying to save your soul rather than speak to it. And you may have tipped the scale–I think I’m going to have to read Moby Dick this summer. Oh boy…

  4. When I started it (Moby Dick), I thought I’d be bored to tears. I was thinking of it more on an “I should read this, I guess” level than anything else. The yearning for the self-oblivion and abandon of the sea by “Ishmael” is so beautiful though, and his little asides are hilarious. He has this little moment where he’s going on about how you can’t be comfortable if you’re totally warm because then you’re just too hot — you need to have some part of you, like the tip of your nose or something, stay cold in order to really be cozy under your blankets. I was like, “Yes!!!” I always keep the room cold and have loads of blankets. Melville gets me. lol

  5. Oh, also, the chapters in it are almost all really short, which I find makes it easier to get through really long books. It’s a lot easier to tackle ten tiny sections than one huge one.

  6. God I loved your ending when you said, “Discovering what it’s like to be human is a process.”

    I also love the idea that a writer can write characters so well that they make you want to read about ants, that’s great!! Thanks Kelly I needed this, especially right at this very moment as I’m discovering some new characters.

  7. teenmamainc–this reminds me of the unit on “the theory of fictional chapters” I took in a fiction craft class. The entire unit really boiled down to “people need a break now and then!”

    Naomi–here’s to new characters, discovering how to be human. 🙂

  8. You’ve sold me on Oryx and Crake. Let me say Handmaid’s Tale was one of the darkest and most engrossing stories I’ve read. Atwood doesn’t just dissect human behavior, she understands how individual obsessions come together to pervert society.

  9. Little did I know when I wrote the second sentence of this blog that I’d actually feel compelled to read both Moby Dick and The Handmaid’s Tale! Bookstore, here I come…

  10. I have never been a fan of Atwood which I think makes me something of a subversive element in Canada – but I appreciate your take on what I found to be a very difficult and unrewarding book. Clearly, I am in the tiniest of minorities on both Atwood and this particuliar book.

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