A Phoenix In Dystopia

A Review of ORYX AND CRAKE (2003)
Author: Margaret Atwood

This has got to be one of my more indulgent weekends. For starters, there was The Little Prince, followed by the main course: Oryx And Crake.

Oryx And Crake is set in Margaret Atwood's Dystopia - a futuristic time and place on the very brink of destruction, to which mankind has brought itself through its own actions. The setting is remniscent of her other novel, The Blind Assassin, but the narrative is two-pronged and simple. The protagonist Jimmy is a romantic idealist, one of the few surviving "true" artists who feels out of place in his transgenics-addicted society he's been brought up in. A recluse with no friends other than the brooding yet misguided genius Crake, and the mysterious, fragile Oryx, the only woman he's ever loved.

The narrative oscillates between Jimmy the Snowman, who lives in the present with a group of mutated, chlorophyll-blooded humans created by Crake, and for some reason considers them his responsibility; and Jimmy the dreamer, the artist who tried to find the rain-kissed dirt road under the silicon-asphalt debris being contructed by his peers. The man who tried to cling to his past and the pasts of those he loved, while everyone else around him was fashioning new creatures and gizmos in an attempt to achieve the impossible, regardless of the consequences. It is gripping, yet at the same time leaves you with a sense of hopelessness. But Atwood manages to keep the reader's interest up, though she tends to ramble in places. The book doesn't end with a bang and neither with a whimper; rather, a whisper. She leaves it to the reader to interpret the ending as perhaps a beginning.

Interestingly, Atwood refuses to elaborate on her descriptions of the new-fangled creatures and terms in the book. The effect is eerie, in a way, as if she expects us to recognize this dystopia immediately, because that's where we're headed.

Jimmy is the son of scientist parents and the product of a dysfunctional marriage. However, like all Oedipal heroes, he's extremely close to his mother, who's a slob in appearance and a purist at heart. She turns against the very system that she used to work for - one of the many big biogenetics firms cloning and creating bizarre creatures ostensibly to help advances in medical technology - and as a result leaves home. So Jimmy grows up seeing very little of his father while spending most of his time with Crake; watching pornographic videos of juveniles and adults inhabiting the world beyond his the giant bio-dome he and his neighbours live in; or playing games with names like Extinctathon. The latter is, in my opinion, a wonderful invention of Atwood's as it pretty much sums up the time period the story is set in and the way the world has changed upto that point.

Another interesting thing is that Atwood gradually seems to place the entire human race in one location. As the novel progresses, geographical and cultural boundaries melt away both literally and metaphorically. In the beginning, while one can vaguely interpret Jimmy and Crake to be North Americans,
Oryx is the only person whose real name and ethnocultural identity is never known. She is simply an exotic enigma from a place she refuses to name and a past she refuses to elaborate on, and it eats at Jimmy. But as he grows to love her more and as further changes consume their world, that protected biodome, it doesn't matter anymore, because all of humankind becomes bound by technology's arms - or is it tentacles? One gradually stops seeing Jimmy, Crake and Oryx as just three individuals in a world of billions and instead starts to see the world revolving around them. It's not because Atwood focuses only on them; she does that right in the beginning anyway. It's because she manages to create a sort of vortex with these three characters as the story moves forward till gradually they manage to suck the reader into their lives without having to fill the pages in their entirety, and acually inspite of sharing them with other characters.

Oryx And Crake
is full of lush visual imageryand that differentiates the novel from other science fiction. It isn't just about the future, its about getting there, and what awaits us on our arrival. And in the end, it is the black sheep, the runt, the analogue artist, the imperfect non-designer unwanted baby who is the sole survivor, the rising phoenix, in a world of chaos that shows no sign of settling down.

No comments: