More on Atwood’s Oryx and Crake: teenagers this time

Now that I’ve been convinced to read Moby Dick and The Handmaid’s Tale this summer (see comments in my previous post–I have some persuasive blog readers!), I’m beginning to wonder: to what other gaps in my reading should I admit? Before I know it, I’ll have an assignment from myself to read the collected works of Anthony Trollope. I’m kidding…I hope.

Earlier this week, I mentioned my feelings on Margaret Atwood’s understanding of children. As I read on toward the end of Oryx and Crake, I’m no less impressed by Atwood’s handling of teenagers. As Jimmy grows into a young adult, he faces ever stranger family dynamics, and must handle abandonment and what I would argue amounts to neglect from his remaining parent. He turns, as one would expect, a bit surly. He brushes off adults’ superficial attempts at connection. He moves in an orbit unchanged by the gravity of the adult world around him.

But then Atwood does something brave. She doesn’t gloss past Jimmy’s teen years with the “gee, that was an uncomfortable age” gesture a lesser writer might take. We all know books that act as though all teenagers do is mope and brood, and I imagine we all skim those texts! Instead, it’s Jimmy she focuses on. Jimmy in his ugliness (and he has ugliness to spare) and Jimmy in his potential. Jimmy in his hurt and in his attempts to heal.

I find it amazingly refreshing to see an adult writer dig back into an age all adults have traversed but few want to talk about. Just as parents think their teenagers are know-it-alls, I imagine teenagers are tired of their parents’ being know-it-alls about them. As I said before, discovering what it is to be a human is a process. If we elide the human experience between childhood and adulthood, or make and ironical wink-and-nudge of it, we miss much of what’s formative about our younger years.

And just as I argued before that young children have a great deal more of the feral in them than parents readily admit, I’d argue that teenagers have a lot more good in them than their parents feel they do. Sure, brooding is a part of teenaged life, but it’s certainly not the whole. There’s excitement, infatuation, hope, and enthusiasm. What seems clear to me is that teenagers aren’t getting joy out of the idea that one one understands them; I think it’s frequently the adults who get some kind of validation from thinking as such. Kids in time of change are basically tossing cobwebs, hoping the filaments catch and anchor on some kind of sticky surface that will hold them for a moment. Some adults tend to be unsticky indeed.

5 Replies to “More on Atwood’s Oryx and Crake: teenagers this time”

  1. Poignantly put. I have always been a fan of teenagers and their lives as the supposedly “lucky young” have always been simplified by those who pretend to forget. Thanks!

  2. Beautifully put, K. You know how much these things have been on my mind lately, and this blog reminded me to pick up my Margaret Atwood books. I was saving “Year of the Flood” and “Oryx and Crake” for research for the snowpocalypse book, but myabe they can serve as research for both projects. Two books, one stone. Nice.

  3. Okay, I’ve got to add my two cents to the subject of reading Moby Dick. It *is* funny — some scenes are hilarious. Who knew? It took me months and months to read, and heads up, they won’t actually get to the white whale until around page 572, but nonetheless, the book is amazing. Interestingly, Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine” is considered by critics to be the “female Moby-Dick”, from this line: “‘Call me Ishmael,’ I [Nector] said sometimes, only to myself. For he survived the great white monster …” (p. 91-92) (and all her symbology about red and white, but in Love Medicine, it’s about the genocide of the native peoples of the Americas, not the whales …)

    Also, IMHO you’re right to be leery of Handmaid’s Tale. The book is annoying, not only for the “do-nothing” attitude of the main character, but due to the whole situation. I’ll put it this way: Atwood is amazing and fearless. She’s like a writer-warrior. Sounds like a finer than fine summer reading list to me.

  4. Hi, Kelly

    I have read Moby Dick and The Handmaid’s Tale, though not Oryx and Crake – I’ll check it out.

  5. I first read “The Handmaids Tale” for A-level English. I loved it, M. Attwood is on the list as one of my favourite writers !

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