The Snowman cometh

Elaine Showalter

  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
    Bloomsbury, 378 pp, £16.99, May 2003, ISBN 0 7475 6259 8

Margaret Atwood’s 11th novel delivers two huge surprises: a male protagonist and an action-movie plot. Atwood has never written a novel from a male point of view before, and John Updike was among the reviewers who complained that the men in The Blind Assassin[*] were mysterious and unlovable. Rather, she is known for her chronicles of women’s victimisation and resistance, and her use of first-person narrative to explore female imagination, consciousness and creativity. Offred’s story in Atwood’s most celebrated book, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), is as much about women’s language and power as about the futuristic vision of Gilead, a theocracy that reduces women to their childbearing capacity.

Atwood has never emphasised action. She is a novelist of ideas and commitments, a Swiftian satirist fond of what she herself calls ‘gallows humour’, but also a poet obsessed with language and its incantatory powers. To be sure, the dystopian plot of The Handmaid’s Tale is suspenseful and exciting – we learn about the fundamentalist state that enslaves the few remaining fertile women as breeders for its military rulers, and its lurid ceremonies and executions – but Offred herself is passive and static. When the book was made into a movie, Harold Pinter’s screenplay had to introduce dramatic scenes of capture and escape in order to keep people watching.

In contrast, Oryx and Crake is a highly cinematic adventure story of daring and survival, told from the perspective of Snowman, who may be the last surviving human being after a virus has destroyed the population of a futuristic biotech world. Wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, wrapped in a sheet against the cruel sun, scavenging for food and sleeping in a tree to escape lab-bred animal predators, Snowman lacks superpowers but is nonetheless a contemporary hero-figure like Keanu Reeves’s Neo in The Matrix. His story is not primarily about his consciousness or memory, but rather about his ability to outwit the carnivorous hybrid animals (wolvogs, bobkittens and pigoons), overcome hunger and pain, and perhaps save the human race from extinction.

In interviews and essays on the book’s pop-art website (www.oryxandcrake.com), Atwood makes light of these transformations. ‘For this novel,’ she says, ‘a woman would have been less possible . . . If we are writers, we all have multiple selves. Also, I’ve known a lot of male people in my life, so I had a lot to draw on.’ She also explains that the plot of Oryx and Crake evolved from ideas about bioengineering and human folly that had intrigued her for years: ‘I’d been thinking about “what if” scenarios almost all my life,’ in the company of her entomologist father and neurophysiologist brother, and the ‘boys at the lab’ who worked with them. She insists that both she and her brother were equally good at science and literature: ‘either one of us could have gone either way.’ Indeed, she contends, ‘science and fiction both begin with similar questions. What if? Why? How does it all work?’

Atwood shifts between the post-plague Snowman sections, told in the present tense, and past-tense sections, in which we learn that Snowman was once called Jimmy. His father was a ‘genographer’ who worked on growing usable organs in host animals; his radical mother ran away to join the ecology underground. Pre-plague American society is a brave new world divided into the ‘pleeblands’ – burned-out cities inhabited by the stupid majority – and the gated suburban compounds of the intellectual and scientific elite who work for biogenetic corporations peddling magic potions of youth, virility and beauty. Although he is bright and privileged enough to attend HelthWyzer High, Jimmy is a cynical slacker. Remembering his Life Skills instructor, he thinks:

The teacher had been a shambling neocon reject from the heady days of the legendary dot.com bubble, back in prehistory. He’d had a stringy ponytail stuck to the back of his balding head, and a faux-leather jacket; he’d worn a gold stud in his bumpy, porous old nose, and had pushed self-reliance and individualism and risk-taking in a hopeless tone, as if even he no longer believed in them. Once in a while . . . he’d say: ‘I coulda been a contender.’

Jimmy, too, coulda been a contender, but he is more interested in sex, pornography, video games and extinct words like ‘wheelwright’ and ‘adamant’ than in nanotechnology and cloning. His best friend, Crake, a biochemistry genius who views sex as ‘a deeply imperfect solution to the problem of intergenerational genetic transfer’, is courted by the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute, otherwise known as Asperger’s U.; Jimmy barely scrapes into Martha Graham Academy, a third-rate arts college. Like all the other students there, he knows he is an irrelevant loser. Anyone with a computer can make film and video (he has done nude versions of Pride and Prejudice and To the Lighthouse); theatre has ‘dwindled into versions of the singalong or the tomato bombardment or the wet T-shirt contest’; and live performance has vanished because of terrorism: ‘no one during those decades wanted to form part of a large group at a public event in a dark space.’ Jimmy majors in Problematics, the subject for ‘word people’; but word people don’t have much to do in the age of science.

After college, Jimmy winds up working as an ad man for Crake’s Paradice Project. He finds out that Crake is marketing sex pills called Blyss Plus, and developing the Crakers, a tribe of beautiful childlike creatures, biogenetically constructed ‘floor models’ for a more perfect race. The Crakers are programmed to eat grass; mate in colourful rituals scientifically adapted from baboons, octopuses, penguins, songbirds and crabs; and drop dead at 30 to prevent over-population. Their teacher is Oryx, an exquisite Asian prostitute Crake has liberated from the pleeblands and taken as his lover and disciple. The elusive Oryx is the vehicle in the novel for Atwood’s indignation at child slavery, prostitution, sex tourism and other extreme forms of female victimisation. Soon Jimmy begins an affair with her as well, and comes to realise that he is enmeshed in a gigantic evil conspiracy. Like all mad scientists in literature, from Dr Moreau to Dr Strangelove, Crake would rather destroy than create life.

The Crakers survive the epidemic, since they are immune to everything; and Jimmy, too, survives to become Snowman, their St Paul and surrogate father, and to tell them an elaborate creation myth about how they are made in Crake’s image. Perhaps Atwood intends us to believe that language, imagination and a religious sense will ultimately overcome scientific engineering, that the word people will inherit the earth. Although the subject matter of Oryx and Crake is horrific and bleak (Atwood was in the middle of writing it on 11 September, and as ‘real life was getting creepily too close to my inventions’ thought of moving on to ‘gardening books – something more cheerful’), Snowman’s comic voice makes the novel feel exuberant and optimistic.

Overall, the politics of Oryx and Crake are consistent with Atwood’s pacifism, feminism, environmentalism and anti-globalism, although she is much more forgiving of Americans and men – especially American men – than in her earlier books. Atwood has often cast American men – or, even worse, ‘Americanised’ Canadian men – as the stock villains, hunters and violent despoilers of the planet, parading their sense of entitlement to power, goods and women. ‘Back to the city and the pervasive menace, the Americans,’ the heroine of Surfacing (1972) thinks. ‘They exist, they’re advancing, they must be dealt with, but possibly they can be watched and predicted and stopped without being copied.’ Jimmy seems to be an American male, and has tastes and habits Atwood usually despises, but she makes him a convincing Holden Caulfield kind of guy – unselfconsciously libidinous, slangy, funny, raunchy and gross.

Atwood describes Oryx and Crake as a ‘speculative fiction’ rather than sci-fi: an extrapolation from headlines and trends and bits of information shaped into a warning and an indictment. ‘As with The Handmaid’s Tale,’ she comments, ‘it invents nothing we haven’t already invented or started to invent.’ The novel’s sources are in her travels, reading and clippings file of horror headlines about science, some of them reproduced on the book’s website. She was galvanised into writing it by two trips: one to Australia in March 2001, during which she saw rare birds and visited Aboriginal sites; and another to the Arctic where she saw for herself that the glaciers were receding. Suddenly, extinction of the species seemed like a reality: ‘I’d been . . . noting with alarm that trends derided ten years ago as paranoid fantasies had become possibilities, then actualities.’

Atwood tends to pile up random details, headlines, observations and apocalyptic predictions as if they were part of a large and intricate scheme; and provocative though her speculative fiction can be, it does not hold up to logical scrutiny. In The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, she drew on a huge box of clippings about the politics of abortion, surrogacy and Islamic fundamentalism (she had visited Afghanistan and Iran), as well as scare stories about ecological disasters and pollution. Yet in her comments about the novel, Atwood insisted that the theocracy she described was most likely to occur in the US as a product of the religious Right, and linked it to various kinds of consumerism.

Similarly, in Oryx and Crake, American or Americanised scientists are always cloning, splicing or growing various hybrid species for organ transplants, food supply or military defence. Corporate tampering and greed, rather than traditional political and religious conflicts, are seen as leading to catastrophe. Atwood’s satire and her playfulness don’t always sort well with probability. She does not have Amis or DeLillo’s gift for satiric coinage, and the names of her transgenic species – rakunk, snat, kanga-lamb, spoat/gider – are far from memorable. I was also puzzled by her fondness for sappy double ‘o’ coinages – AnooYoo, Noodie News, ReJoovenEsence – until I realised that they signify American-prole pronunciation, à la NooYawk.

Yet Oryx and Crake is a success and a breakthough. Atwood’s themes were becoming predictable, and her politics losing their ability to shock. Who would have guessed that she could do male teenagers so brilliantly, or produce such a fast-paced thriller? And that she could so smoothly integrate these effects with a tightly worked-out and intellectually gripping sci-fi mystery? Although I’m sure that finding a new audience was not her reason for writing it, Oryx and Crake may finally win her a wide male readership. The male undergraduates who groaned and grimaced over The Handmaid’s Tale in my Contemporary Fiction courses should feel a lot more at home with this book. Hey, Alex, Seth and all you boys in the back row: this one’s for you.

[*] Reviewed in the LRB by Margaret Anne Doody (5 October 2000).