Since MaddAddam, the concluding book in the trilogy which begins with Oryx and Crake, just came out it seemed like an ideal time to reread the other two books in the trilogy. I am really excited to see what Margaret Atwood does with MaddAddam given that Oryx and Crake and its follow-up, The Year of the Flood are so different in focus. Or, that’s how I remember them; I’m just about to crack The Year of the Flood back open, so we’ll see if that opinion still stands when I’ve finished it.
Back to Oryx and Crake. The plot is relatively straightforward: we follow a man named Jimmy from childhood to adulthood whose childhood friend and later employer, Crake, is a mad scientist. And we follow Jimmy as he tries to navigate a post-apocalyptic world caused by Crake. The book opens some years after this mad scientist has done his thing. Jimmy is both alone and not alone—Crake created an enhanced group of human beings, genetically lab-grown to perfectly fit their surroundings where Crake did his best to splice out ‘undesirable’ elements of the human fabric. Jimmy tends to these people, whom he calls the Crakers, who are human but such a different kind of human that he is still utterly alone.
The narrative structure is split between chapters set in Jimmy’s present, where he tends to the Crakers, and his past, which explores the world which led up to the birth of the Crakers and the destruction of everyone else. But the story is very clearly rooted in Jimmy’s present; the chapters set in the past have a deliberate haziness to them, and Jimmy interjects commentary on his memories. Atwood makes it clear that rather than an objective narrative jump to the past what we are reading is present-day Jimmy remembering his own past. Like Winterson’s Weight, this book explores the nature of narrative and how we use interpretations of our past to construct our own futures.
The idea of art and narrative as hard-wired into human beings, as one of the intangible things that makes us human, is a theme in the book. Jimmy is a self-described ‘word person’ in a world where words no longer get you very far. Atwood’s future is a destroyed and severely overpopulated Earth where capitalism has run amok. Global warming has ruined the climate, leading to the destruction of many major cities. Class is clearly defined by occupation—the upper classes, uniformly technical and biological geniuses working in elite labs at elite corporations, live in sealed-off and secure corporate communities. There, these scientists are protected from the biological warfare and espionage from competing companies. The middle class live in Modules, and everyone else lives in the pleeblands. Jimmy, the product of two elite scientists, grows up in corporate compounds. The pleeblands are places of myth, of seductive legend, to him and as a reader we see very little of how the poor in Atwood’s world live*. So, there’s Jimmy, who lacks his parents’ capacity for numbers and science stuck in places that do not value his gift for empathy and wordplay. Coupled with his best friend Glenn (who becomes Crake), who is an obvious wunderkind, and Jimmy is left with an inferiority complex the size of Texas.
I read this book the year it came out, in 2003. I remember being somewhat fascinated by it but not liking it much, which was disappointing as I was and still am a major Atwood fan. I was in Boston, living on the couch of a friend and elbows-deep in a summer of socialist organizing. I’d scored a shitty summer job on campus which I abandoned on the spur of the moment to couch-surf and read a lot of Trotsky and argue with people about whether we, as socialists, should support and campaign for Ralph Nader. I was driving a lot of conversations about masculinity in activist spaces and how it was alienating female members of our organization. This was the summer I began to embrace my proletariat roots instead of trying to shed them; a moment, if you’ll indulge me, of internal class crisis. I picked up Oryx and Crake for some light reading, and frankly I picked it up at the wrong moment in my life. Jimmy, as a narrator, was not someone I could connect to at that moment in my life—his male, upper-class privileged voice and viewpoint was simply a bridge too far. The worldbuilding was fascinating as it dovetails so nicely with Marxist theories of late-stage capitalism and imperialism but I never developed an emotional connection with the book.
I read it now as someone ten years older. As someone who has, in some very real sense, sold out. I’m middle class now, a thing which I struggle with but is very obviously true. I’m reading it again after doing some heavy-duty renovation on my own psychological landscape which has left me a much more compassionate and less judgmental person. This time around, I connected much more with Jimmy, especially his imposter syndrome. My initial reading of the book as a self-righteous 19 year old was that it lacked depth, that is was a bit obvious. But I’m not sure that’s true. It’s certainly the case that Atwood as a writer creates stark worlds where Things Have Gone So Very Wrong, but it’s also true that within those worlds she’s a writer of immense subtlety. I mean to say that the worlds she creates are not subtle, but that the people within them still are. This book, I think, is less a warning about capitalism run rampant or the dangers of playing god with science. I think it’s more about the things that Crake tried and failed to breed out of his batch of ‘perfected’ humans: our capacity and need for story, for meaning. I think this is a book about what happens to a culture where we abandon art, where our creative meaning-making of the world around us is seen as less-than and unnecessary. When we do that, Atwood seems to say, we lose our souls. In a sense, then, our compulsion to create and to describe and to enrich is intimately tied with our embedded altruism. All of which is to say that I understand better now why Atwood chose hapless Jimmy, word-oriented and patient Jimmy as her narrator. He’s not a good man, but he’s an exceedingly human one.
*Or, more accurately, we see very little of how the poor live in Oryx and Crake. We see a whole lot more of life in the pleeblands in The Year of the Flood.