There’s a line a few chapters into Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express that says “Every country has the writers she requires and deserves…” And so I wonder why the U.S. has not tricked Margaret Atwood into moving here. We could set up a Little Toronto some place nice by a river and pronounce “been” as “bean”. Surely we require an Atwood of our own.
Oryx and Crake is the first in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. I read this after reading the sequel, The Year of the Flood, before realizing it was part of a trilogy. The stories in book one and two are parallel with a few fun overlaps so reading book two first didn’t spoil anything. In fact, starting this series already oriented in the world made me feel like a kid riding a favorite roller coaster for the thousandth time, knowing precisely when to put my hands up to maximize air time. In a reader’s play-by-play this translates to lots of “Ooooooh this is how that happens” “Ahhhhhh I know why he does that. Wait what? Huh? Holy J*!&!” (And now you’re wondering what swear word starts with a ‘j’, aren’t you?)
Snowman awakes to an absence of time. He has a beard now and his ribs show, but he wasn’t always this way. He used to be Jimmy, son of scientists living within a bubble of wealth protected from city pleebrats by the CorpSeCorps. Between hazes of drunkenness and hunger we learn about a woman who went by the name Oryx who it seems has driven this man from his mind. Then you pull back to find he’s living in a tree to avoid becoming something’s dinner, and the reason why this sad semi-crazed man matters is that he may be the only person left in the world. The only natural human anyway.
We want to stay with Snowman on this one particular day that starts off much like any other, but half the story is back with Jimmy. When he was young, Jimmy’s parent’s spliced genes to make hybrid animals. They started out with the shared intentions many scientists throughout time have expressed – to make the world better. In time, his mother walked away from her job and grew, as he recalled, too angry and depressed to change from her bathrobe. All the while his father moved them to a new compound so he could develop expensive new technologies that could make the rich look less ugly – until they ran out of money and melted into mush.
Jimmy met Crake in high school when Crake was still Glenn, a prodigy in a school full of gifted students with the exception of Jimmy. They struck up a friendship that revolved around video games and televised executions, child porn and suicides. One day, Jimmy and Crake found an online game monitored by MaddAddam called Extinction.
Adam named the living animals, MaddAddam names the dead ones. Do you want to play?
Jimmy bores of this game quickly, but not Crake; it builds on something growing inside of him, something that questions why homo sapiens are the only species that reproduce in the face of dwindling resources. Why? Because of ego.
Men can imagine their own deaths. They [birds] put their energy into staying alive themselves until times get better. But human beings hope they can stick their souls into someone else, some new version of themselves, and live on forever.
Snowman looks back at himself as an angel guarding a gate to Crake’s paradise. When he’s forced to leave the children of Crake to find food and needed supplies, he can only hope the children of Oryx won’t tear him to bite-sized pieces along the way. The story breathes from a scale that encompasses the whole world, to the significance of one man’s life.
Jimmy was the kind of idealist who once argued on behalf of courtships and the insanity that ensues with sex. While Crake sees art as “An amplifier. A stab at getting laid”, Jimmy values art. He says:
When any civilization is dust and ashes, art is all that’s left over. Images, words, music – human meaning is defined by them.
We learn the most about Jimmy when he and Crake go their separate ways after high school. Jimmy’s low test scores and grade give him no choice but “art school”. Potential professions to choose from include Pictorial Plastic Arts (for advertising) and Web Game Dynamics. With the exception of his girlfriend Amanda Payne’s subversive work, art has shifted to the mass consumable made for appropriation.
When they reunite, Crake gives Jimmy a glimpse deep into the MaddAddam world that leaves him with a –
…sense of the forbidden, of a door swinging open that ought to be kept locked, of a stream of secret lives, running underground, in the darkness just beneath his feet.
Atwood keeps you questioning: Why is snowman alone? How did this happen to the world? She doesn’t keeps these things a mystery, but the answers beg harder deeper questions. Are you like Jimmy, knowing only the world as they want you to know it? Many of the “advances” in the story already exist in our own world. Could we be heading in the same direction? Would you have any chance of survival?
Crake is a moving train and Jimmy knows it, but he doesn’t try to stop it. He mourns the loss of language and books, but isn’t very bothered by the things he does to others to ensure his own survival. He questions what’s real and what’s not, and what would the beings that come after think of the ruins.
They were made by dreams, and now that no one is dreaming them any longer they are crumbling away.
The third book has yet to come out. I really hope it will be a third parallel, but haven’t found any clues yet. The MaddAddam trilogy is possibly the most exciting series I’ve read. Why it makes me feel like this is in part because Atwood is a master at what she does, and in part because she paints the future as the nightmare many of us imagine it could become, and in this future the actions of one person can still change everything.