Book Review: Atwood's <book>Oryx and Crake</book>

ARS LONGA, VITA BREVIS. The Roman poet Horace's familiar words, that life is short but art is forever, have been a writer's maxim for 2,000 years.

Book Review: Atwood's Oryx and Crake

ARS LONGA, VITA BREVIS. The Roman poet Horace's familiar words, that life is short but art is forever, have been a writer's maxim for 2,000 years. They make an ironic appearance in Margaret ATWOOD's dystopian Oryx and Crake, as the former motto - replaced by "Our Students Graduate With Employable Skills" - of a down-market liberal arts university. But it's also an apt summation of Atwood's achievement in her 11th novel. The author may brazenly kill off the whole of humanity in it, but she does so with a style and grace that demonstrate again just how masterful a storyteller she is. If one measure of art's power is its ability to force you to face what you would very much rather not, Oryx and Crake - the evocative tale of a nightmarish near-future - is an extraordinary work of art, one that reaffirms Atwood's place at the apex of Canadian literature.

The novel opens with Jimmy, who believes he's the last man alive, awakening under an alarmingly garish sky, burdened by the detritus of our destroyed civilization and his too-vivid memories. When he's not devoting himself to staying alive, foraging in the wreckage for food and, even better, alcohol, Jimmy keeps an eye on the Crakers. An entirely new species of genetically engineered homo sapiens, the Crakers are far better suited than Jimmy to current environmental conditions. Extra-thick skin of various colours protects them from ultraviolet rays, and they're immune to most microbes. Despite their physical edge, and the moral irritants they are to Jimmy - he can't stand their guilelessness - he worries over them because of their very innocence. And when he's not scrounging for supplies or making up creation myths for the Crakers - a lifetime of deviousness coming to his aid whenever they catch him out in a logical inconsistency - Jimmy broods on the past.

He's haunted especially by thoughts of Oryx, the Asian woman who was sold into sex slavery as a child and later became an obsession for Jimmy, and also by Crake, his high-school friend who was the idealistic but insane genius who brought things to this pass. The names of these title characters aren't the ones they were born with. Crake, creator-God of the new humans and destroying angel of the old, ensured that everyone in his orbit bore the name of a recently extinct animal. A gentle East African herbivore for Oryx, an Australian marsh bird for himself. (Thickney, another Australian avian, a bird that used to roost in cemeteries, never stuck to Jimmy, and the guilt-ridden survivor later introduced himself to the Crakers as Snowman, short for Abominable.)

Jimmy also remembers the world before cataclysm. A child of privilege, he grew up with his scientist parents in a luxurious corporate compound, the direct descendent of today's gated communities. Tightly guarded, and even more tightly controlled, by company security forces, the inhabitants had everything they wanted within the compound walls, from schools to malls, and had little reason to go out into what they called the pleeblands. While the corporate scientists played with the building blocks of life to create products of interest to the wealthy - youthful, bioengineered skin or pigs with multiple human organs growing in them - life outside steadily deteriorated.

Global warming turned interior plains into dust bowls, while coastal cities sank beneath the waves and the Arctic tundra bubbled with released methane. Outside North America, conditions were even worse. Eventually even the American pleeblands became "ultra-hazardous," as Jimmy describes them, with "more plagues, more famines, more floods, more droughts, more chickenshit boy-soldier wars." Ripe, in fact, for the final disaster.

Jimmy's memories go back to a vast bonfire of animals - reminiscent of the mad-cow incinerations of 2001 - that his parents' compound had to stage when a disease ran through their test herds. The leaves on the trees were orange and red, he recalls, so he knows he was just five or six - it's been a long time since there was an autumn. That means Jimmy, who is still a young man as the novel opens, can almost recall now.

"OH, JIMMY'S THREE this year," laughs Margaret Atwood about her millennial child. "These things are not very far off at all." Nor implausible, for that matter. Review copies of Oryx and Crake were accompanied by a thick stack of press clippings about the race to create transgenic pigs, epidemics, disappearing animal species and burgeoning child slavery - all present-day realities. And all part of the background to the free-floating sense of dread that so colours the Zeitgeist. Although much of that uneasiness is currently coalesced around 9/11 and the war in Iraq, Atwood began shaping Oryx and Crake before the world changed. "We were birding near Cairns in March 2001, well before the twin towers. Australia has crakes and I was thinking about their rarity, and I started this." Even so, the 63-year-old author was "constantly amazed" while she was writing "by the parts that were coming true." That would surely include seeing her hometown, Toronto, become a global hot spot for a new and frightening disease.

Dystopia, of course, is nothing new for Atwood. Eighteen years ago The Handmaid's Tale was set in a United States where power had been seized by religious fanatics. In the Republic of Gilead, civil rights were extinguished, pollution and disease decimated fertility rates and weakened the population. Similar themes to Oryx and Crake, and similar prescience on Atwood's part - the post-9/11 American Department of Homeland Security uses the pyramid-encased eye from the U.S. dollar bill as a symbol, just as Gilead's secret police did.

A popular and critical success - The Handmaid's Tale brought Atwood the first of her four Booker prize nominations - the novel spawned a movie in 1990 and a Danish opera a decade later. That production, a year before Sept. 11, began with a film montage of exploding American symbols, including the White House and the Statue of Liberty. With the opera set for its American debut next month, Atwood told an interviewer, "I think it's even going to be more shocking if they do that in the new version."

So why another horrific future vision? "Matters have become more acute," Atwood calmly responds. "Take a simple biological premise: when things run out, there isn't any more. For all six billion humans to live like us would take the resources of four more earths." We're running out of clean water and arable land, she adds, even as extremes of affluence and poverty are growing. Worse, we're introducing entirely new, man-made organisms to the mix, to the point that, in Jimmy's words, the planet is "one vast uncontrolled experiment."

Speaking of genetically modified corn and other crops, and the law of unintended consequences, Atwood pauses. "You know," she smiles, "there are studies that indicate corn-based stuff tells the body to put on more fat. And about 70 per cent of the U.S. is somewhat overweight. I'm thinking of writing a new scary dystopia called Waddle, about fast-running alien predators and people who can't get away from them."

You can't talk to Atwood for long before encountering the same, instantly recognizable humour that marks her books. At one point, Jimmy dimly recalls that Crake's real name was Glenn, with two n's, after "a dead pianist, some boy genius." Asked about drawing this link between the animal-loving Crake, who clearly has Asperger's syndrome - a high-intellect variant on the spectrum of autistic disorders - and the notoriously eccentric Glenn Gould, Atwood responds eagerly. "I bet, I'll just bet, that Gould had Asperger's even if they didn't diagnose it back then. Want to know a factoid I learned after I wrote the book? When he was 10, Gould wrote an opera where all the people died at the end, and only the animals survived. That gave me a chill."

Sly, needle-sharp and not at all forgiving, Atwood's dark humour is as integral to the power of her writing as her narrative drive or her insights into human motivation. Readers often find themselves laughing less at the irony of a situation than at characters who somehow think irony will help the situation, even as events are grinding them into dust. So it is in the pre-apocalypse world of Oryx and Crake, where the Web sites and interactive games that pass for human communication are named with savage wit. There's hedsoff.com for live executions, the assisted suicide site nitee-nite.com, and Felicia's Frog Squash for animal-snuff aficionados. Games include Three-Dimensional Waco, Kwiktime Osama and Blood and Roses - the very epitome of her novel. The Roses side has humanity's achievements (artworks, scientific accomplishments and the like) as bargaining chips, while the Bloods play with large-scale human atrocities. A Roses player can stop an atrocity by offering up an achievement - the game provides suggested values, such as the Mona Lisa for Bergen-Belsen. Bloods usually win; it is, in teenaged Jimmy's more-acute-than-he-knows vocabulary, "a wicked game."

Similar is Atwood's mockery of those forces that still opposed corporate dominance in its final years. (There is no mention of government at all in Oryx and Crake.) Jimmy remembers, among others, God's Gardeners, militant vegans opposed particularly to genetically altered chickens, and an artist, one of Jimmy's lovers, the creator of Vulture Sculptures. She trucks large animal parts to vacant fields, arranges them in the shape of a word, waits until the carrion birds descend and then films the animated result from a helicopter. Taken together, the ridicule and the deft skewerings add a grim note of hopelessness to Jimmy's world.

But Atwood protests, "If I really were a pessimist, I wouldn't write these books." Our time is short, only about 30 years, she guesses, and we have too much power in our hands for human nature to cope well - "we're like a two-year-old with an electric lawn mower." Yet she insists there are grounds for hope. Humankind has the required knowledge and wealth, if it would stop spending it on armaments, to create the technologies it needs. And attitudes have evolved: "We are at one of those hinge moments in world history where people are saying, 'No, I won't do that.' " That may be the optimistic opinion of Margaret Atwood, political activist, but Margaret Atwood, writer, makes a persuasive case for the opposite. As Jimmy tells the Crakers when he's struggling to help them grasp artistic representation: "Not real can tell us about real."

AFTER THE TWO friends leave high school, Jimmy - useless at math and science, the only skills valued in the compounds - is reduced to attending a seedy liberal arts university. (His way with words, though, means he does eventually Graduate With Employable Skills and land a hack job as an ad writer.) The brilliant Crake is recruited for the Watson-Crick Institute, a coup akin to "going to Harvard before it got drowned." Named after the discoverers of DNA, and specializing in cutting-edge gene splicing, Watson-Crick is known to its students as Asperger's U, because of its high number of "demi-autistic," socially inept geniuses.

While visiting Watson-Crick, womanizer Jimmy is appalled by the female students, some of whom appear to have cut their hair with garden shears. The males are worse. The school's administration, wanting to keep its hothouse flowers on track, sees to their sex drives through a whores-for-geniuses program. Given the opportunity to hire the sex trade worker of his choice, Crake brings in Oryx, whom he and Jimmy - who surfed a lot of Internet porn as teens - first discovered as an eight-year-old on a site called HottTotts.

After graduation, Crake moves on to RejoovenEsense, the richest, most luxurious compound of all, because its product - immortality - is the most desired of all. There he's a rising star, able to put Jimmy and Oryx on the payroll and thereby initiating a volatile sexual triangle. Crake has crafted the understandably popular BlyssPluss Pill, an all-in-one cocktail that protects against STDs, provides an unlimited supply of libido, prolongs youth and - a cunning touch unknown to customers - sterilizes its users. That triumph has given him the go-ahead from his corporate masters for the other half of his one-two punch - the Crakers, designer babies par excellence.

"From a certain perspective," Atwood admits, "Crake is the most altruistic person around." He's taken a close look at the deteriorating environment and at the hard-wiring of what he calls our "monkey brains" - our unstoppable curiosity and desire to "take apart, turn inside out, fondle, trash and discard." Crake has his own response, in effect, to the famous remark of American scientist Edmund O. Wilson, that the jury's still out on the long-term survival benefits of a brain like ours - so good in a crisis, so very ingenious in the short term, so altruistic with loved ones, so short-sighted and greedy in the long term. For Crake, the verdict's in, and the answer isn't good.

So he scrubs the ancient primate brain clean in his babies, stripping out every potentially destructive feature he can - including neural complexes that permit religion or other hierarchical ideas to arise, and the ability to register skin colour or other racial markers. Human sexuality, with all its associated violence and pain, from rape to jealousy, is replaced by a low-key cycle of infrequent estrus. The Craker diet is neither meat (no more predation) nor crops (no more territoriality), but grass and roots. They even eat their own excrement - as blatant a finger as any gene-splicer, or novelist, could offer his or her own wasteful kind.

Then, to ensure the Crakers' survival, and not incidentally, that of the rest of the natural world, Crake knowingly releases a rogue hemorrhagic virus that costs him his own life, as well as the rest of humanity's. But Jimmy, manipulated by his friend since they first met and inoculated without his knowledge against the disease, survives - and does, as he always has, exactly what Crake was counting on. That includes leading the new humans to a new home near a drowned city.

After the mass death, Jimmy, who has been sliding into alcoholism for years, keeps himself as drunk as he can with found booze, fighting off loneliness, self-pity and his memories. At his nadir, he provides the most indelible image in the novel. The last man - the entire human race in miniature - is not railing at fate or mourning lost loved ones, he's just masturbating in the dark, whimpering. But Jimmy is also determined to protect the Crakers - now that they are all he has left, he develops a kind of love for them, maddening though they are. He watches with interest as Crake's plan begins to crack around the edges. Leaders start to arise among the Crakers; art and religion may be stirring. The cycle of human history may begin again, and it's a mark of the novel's power that the reader is made uneasy by this resurgence of our essential humanity.

And then Jimmy enters the final crisis. He learns that, while he was foraging, three other human survivors have approached the Crakers. Now, they're camped further down the coast. Armed with a looted security force spraygun, Jimmy watches them surreptitiously. As he weighs his options, the entire history of encounters between human groups runs through his mind in a flash. Approach in friendship or kill them from ambush - what is best for the Crakers? "Zero hour," reads the novel's last line. "Time to go."

"I DON'T KNOW what Jimmy's going to do, what he should do," says Atwood. "I don't know if it's good or bad that the Crakers are showing signs of art and religion. We're both saved and doomed by hope - 'dirty hope,' Camus called it. It keeps us going and it keeps us blind to reality." Humans, the author believes, can turn anything to good or evil. "The problem with us is we have two hands."

Maclean's April 28, 2003