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Margaret Atwood — Oryx & Crake

Reading Oryx & Crake after reading The Blind Assassin is almost like reading a totally different author. The tones are so completely different that it’s amazing how chameleonic Atwood can be, but then you pick up on little things–for example, the sarcastic, vicious sense of humor, and other small cues like the word “sere” appearing to describe the color of summer in The Blind Assassin and the word “sere” a word learned by Jimmy, the erstwhile hero of Oryx & Crake. Small things but recognizably Atwood. Also unsurprising considering the science fiction content of the stories told in The Blind Assassin, and the science fiction story that Oryx & Crake undoubtedly is. A weird, horrifying, bio-terror story of science fiction, but nevertheless. And still she is recognizably concerned with stories, the stories that we tell ourselves, lulling us into false senses of security even as the world around us turns to shit.

The viciousness with which Atwood shows us the future we are heading towards is impressive, as is the invention necessary to create this horrible sideways world. We meet Jimmy first as the only survivor of some apocalyptic illness, surrounded by subhuman (superhuman?) genetically engineered crowds, and also as a young boy growing up in the Compounds, sealed off from the “pleeblands,” or the shambling, lawless cities occupied by those not smart enough to earn a job at one of the gigantic corporations that own the Compounds. Jimmy’s world is one of genetically engineered pets (a rakunk, a cross between a skunk and a raccoon), of pigoons, gigantic pigs grown to house cloned human organs as they grow. In high school he meets Crake, the sardonic genius with dangerous plans. The inevitability that society goes to hell, and the telegraphed signs that Crake throws out to Jimmy, run in parallel. And throughout the entire thing, Jimmy doesn’t want to believe what’s happening around him. His tragedy is that though he knows what’s going on, and is deeply affected by it, he can’t face it, and it destroys him. Hypocrisy and the stories invented by society to make everyone feel better is a running thread throughout.

It’s hard to enjoy reading a book like this, where you can so clearly see a possible future of our own in it, but it’s certainly gripping reading. For someone who claims that she doesn’t write science fiction, Atwood certainly does it well. The dark humor, nuanced characters, and inventive world-building make Oryx & Crake a fantastic book, if not a particularly uplifting one. Think about it the next time you go out and order some ChickieNobs. I mean, a Double Down.

(Also worth noting: Oryx & Crake is the first in a trilogy. I was rather disappointed with The Year of the Flood but am holding back judgment until the third volume.)
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Margaret Atwood — The Blind Assassin

Again, the trap of reviewing books you are fond of constantly. The Blind Assassin is my favorite of Margaret Atwood’s books, and re-reading it proved no different than times I’ve read it previously. Atwood’s poetry is primarily what I’ve read of her, to be honest, but part of what I love about The Blind Assassin is that it is a little bit like an extended prose poem itself. As an example, the language:

I became conscious of my heart, and of dizziness. Also of breathlessness, as if I were in over my head. But over my head in what? Not water; something thicker. Time: old cold time, old sorrow, settling down in layers like silt in a pond.

The story itself is like an onion, a story within a story within a story. Iris Chase Griffen, one of the last of her family, is introduced to the reader as an old woman, relating her past. In that past is the book that was published under her posthumous sister’s name, and within that book, a man tells a woman the story of the Blind Assassin of the novel’s title. The way that Atwood juggles all of these narratives, and in such an easy, lyrical way is incredibly impressive to me. The novel’s events span the 20th century, from shattered remnants of the older “Great War” right up to World War II, and the more modern times that Iris finds herself, vaguely lost, an old woman with a tragic, stifled history.

And not only that, it’s a beautiful way to write a love story as well. You get so absorbed in these characters, just in the little details of the ways they interact with each other:

She stubs out her cigarette in the brown glass ashtray, then settles herself against him, ear to his chest. She likes to hear his voice this way, as if it begins not in his throat but in his body, like a hum or a growl, or like a voice speaking from deep underground. Like the blood moving through her own heart: a word, a word, a word.

It’s not an easy narrative to read in the sense that your heart aches for all of the losses the characters suffer, how their desire for comfort and a place in society leads them towards choices that are regretted forever. Atwood manages to shove in so much into this book, especially about story-telling both in the novelistic sense and the stories that we tell and make up about our own lives, that it’s slightly ridiculous. I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving anything away if you haven’t read it, but suffice to say it’s not surprising that she won the Booker prize for The Blind Assassin.

I leave you with Atwood’s thoughts on stories, for this is not one without wolves, either:

But I like my stories to be true to life, which means there have to be wolves in them. Wolves in one form or another.
Why is that so true to life? She turns away from him onto her back, stares up at the ceiling. She’s miffed because her own version has been trumped.
All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.
All of them?
Sure, he says. Think about it. There’s escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.
I think they do, she says. I think the story about you telling me the story about wolves isn’t about wolves.
Don’t bet on it, he says, I have a wolf side to me. Come over here.

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