Oryx and Crake: A Novel

by Margaret Atwood

Published by McClelland & Stewart

378 pages, 2003

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Cilantro Prose

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Margaret Atwood's writing is like cilantro. People who don't like cilantro can't tolerate it, even in small doses. People who enjoy it can eat it on just about anything savory any time it's on offer.

I formulated this fairly weird comparison while preparing to write a review of Oryx and Crake, Atwood's dystopian take on the future that could be. People frequently ask me what I'm reading and, while it was Oryx and Crake, I'd enthuse fairly freely. Atwood's prose never fails to floor me. I often stop mid-parargraph in awe and wonder. I pick the work apart. How did she pull that emotion from me here? That feeling from me there? But reporting to people that I was reading the latest Atwood always bought me one of two responses. Either: Oh, wonderful! I love her work! Or: Oh, Atwood! I couldn't even get through Handmaid's Tale or Surfacing or The Blind Assassin or insert the title of any one of her books here.

So I should begin by telling you this: if you fall into either one of the above categories -- and my straw poll tells me you will -- don't expect Oryx and Crake to be the book that alters your opinion. It is unabashedly, unstintingly, unapologetically Atwood. Classic Atwood. The measured -- some would say cold -- prose, the careful meter, the exploration of psyche and the speculation about what-may-bes.

Oryx and Crake is breathtaking. Though the book invites comparison to 1985's The Handmaid's Tale, an earlier dystopic novel set in some unnamed future, Oryx and Crake is a very different type of book. The future Atwood evokes this time around has a different shape and feel. In The Handmaid's Tale, the woes of the world could be laid at the door of Christianity run amok. In Oryx and Crake we're dealing with technology and genetic manipulation gone so horribly awry that, as the book opens, it looks very much like the end of the world.

But whatever it looks like, Oryx and Crake feels like cyberpunk, as well as it's ever been written. Skillfully distant, brilliantly dark, startlingly cold, fully realized, Atwood has created a world that looks enough like our own to be convincing -- perhaps even threatening.

In Oryx and Crake we meet Snowman, known as Jimmy in a previous time, and now apparently the last fully human person on Earth. He is scrabbling about in a post-Apocalyptic confusion that we don't fully understand until the end of the book. Snowman's life, however, is difficult. Genetically enhanced creatures -- wolvogs and pigoons and rakunks -- compete with him for food and, sometimes, eye him up as a food source. Even finding water is difficult as he feels that languishing by open streams will make him a sitting duck. He sleeps in a tree, collects rainwater in old beer bottles and eats whatever he can find. Still, there are occasional flashes of beauty and peace in his hand-to-mouth world:

A caterpillar is letting itself down on a thread, twirling slowly like a rope artist, spiralling towards his chest. It's a luscious, unreal green, like a gumdrop, and covered with tiny bright hairs. Watching it, he feels a sudden, inexplicable surge of tenderness and joy. Unique, he thinks. There will never be another such moment of time, another such conjunction.

These things sneak up on him for no reason, these flashes of irrational happiness. It's probably a vitamin deficiency.

This is typical Atwood: giving us this moment of pure beauty, then minimizing it with the possibility of some type of ill-health. This is perhaps what detractors of this author find most irritating: nothing can ever be just what it seems in an Atwood novel. Nothing. There are always deeper layers of meaning, further levels of possibility and required thought.

And though what is beautiful in Oryx and Crake is very beautiful, indeed, there is much more that is dark and scratchy and uncomfortable. The plot hinges on possibility; speculation: what if all of the genetic technology we're now experimenting with got pushed right over the top? And what if, while we were about that, it got plunked into the wrong hands? What would be possible? Anything -- Atwood seems to answer in Oryx and Crake -- the worst you can imagine doesn't even touch it.

While that may be true -- that the worst you and I can imagine might pale when faced with reality -- the same is not true of Atwood. She can imagine nightmares. Her gift -- and it's a great one -- is that she's able to share them with us so vividly. | June 2003

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.