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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

In Margaret Atwood's work, she rarely gives us a happily-ever-after ending or an annihilating bang, and Oryx & Crake is no exception.

And Consider This
Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife, functioned as a single parent to their three children while Will was, well, Will. Grace Tiffany breathes life into them in My Father Had a Daughter: Judith Shakespeare's Tale. James Glieck's biography of Isaac Newton is an appreciation of an elegant mind and a prickly persona. A new collection of Rose Mula's essays, The Stranger in My Mirror and Other Reflections brings together many favorites


Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood
Nan Talese/Doubleday Books, 376 pp

Margaret Atwood, a noted Canadian writer whose earlier novel, The Blind Assassin, won the Booker Prize, has written a new book that will undoubtedly please her many fans. Atwood has a knack for creating eerily prescient scenarios for the future of the human race — and not the far future, but a future with its roots firmly in our present lives. In her novel The Handmaid's Tale, for instance, the plot (written pre-Taliban) foresaw a society where females were entirely subjugated to the men, and their value was rated in terms of their reproductive capabilities. This time around, Ms. Atwood has created a post-apocalyptic world with the coastlines submerged by global warming, and a new, bio-engineered plague that has wiped out most of the human race.

The story itself is told by Snowman, formerly (pre-plague) known as Jimmy, the only child of scientists who work for OrganInc Farms, a huge bioengineering company. In Jimmy's world, society is sharply divided between the haves and have-nots, i.e. between the intelligentsia who are mostly scientists and live in a company compound, and the "plebes" who live outside. Those who live in compounds rarely venture out, as all their needs are met (the compounds hold malls, theatres, bowling alleys, hospitals, etc.) The plebe lands are thought to be dangerous, and are crossed by nonstop bullet train, or entered only with bodyguards.

Jimmy's best friend is a schoolmate named Glenn. The boys spend long hours playing video games with names like "Barbarian Stomp (See If You Can Change History)" or "Kwiktime Osama" or "Extinctathon." For the latter, they need to choose code names in order to play. Glenn chooses Crake, after the Red-necked Crake (an extinct Australian bird), and he dubs Jimmy "Thickney," after another dead, double-jointed bird from Australia. Jimmy soon abandons "Thickney," but for the remainder of their friendship, Crake remains Crake.

The boys also watch lots of kiddie-porn despite the fact that one is supposed to be over 18 to have access to it. Crake simply uses what he calls a lily-pad scheme to construct a pathway through the Web, erasing his "footprints" as he goes, so that although his stepfather will receive the bill, he won't be able to find out who has run it up. On one such porn site, they see a beautiful child whose straight glance into the camera seems like a message to Jimmy. He is haunted by the moment for many years.

When the boys finish school, they are chosen by separate universities. Crake enters the elitist Watson-Crick Institute, and Jimmy winds up in the Martha Graham Academy, a third-rate school for those who have connections but no particular scientific bent. After graduation, Jimmy lands a low-ranking job in advertising, while Crake goes on to work for RejoovenEsense, the most powerful and desirable of the bio-companies.

Crake rises to the very top of his company, and eventually he hires Jimmy to write advertising copy for his projects. Although these projects are deeply disturbing to Jimmy's ethical sensibilities, the hefty paycheck and perks of his new position overcome his objections. He becomes Crake's second in command.

Crake has bio-engineered a new kind of human, splicing genes from other animals to control man's penchant for violence, along with other "improvements." (Their sex lives are astounding). Jimmy labels these people "the Crakers."

Jimmy is stunned to find that the girl from the childhood porno video is now Crake's adult companion. Called Oryx, she is employed to be the teacher of the Crakers. Jimmy and Oryx begin an affair, possibly with Crake's knowledge (we are never sure).

Their world falls apart when a new plague erupts. Jimmy discovers that the company is directly responsible for the plague's creation and possibly has a vaccine to prevent it, but it moves too fast to be stopped. Jimmy is able to close off the Crakers' compound and wait out the period until there are no live carriers of the plague left. He then leads the Crakers to the seashore, and desperately tries to help them to adapt to the world outside, even as he himself must struggle to survive.

Atwood is not someone who ties up all the storylines into a neat finish. In her body of work, she rarely gives us a happily-ever-after ending or an annihilating bang, and Oryx & Crake is no exception. She leaves the story open-ended, forcing us to consider the possibilities of What Happens Next.

Her writing, as always, is direct and lucid: her sense of humor, her intelligence, and her amazingly vivid descriptive abilities inform and enrich the narrative. Her vision of the towers that stand offshore is stunning when you realize that she is describing the tops of skyscrapers in a city drowned by the ocean as the polar icecaps melted. Swarms of seabirds now roost in the former roof gardens of the wealthy.

Atwood has a mischievous streak. The terminology she gives to the new world is frighteningly like our corporate world's penchant for made-up, combo names like Enron or Costco, but often with wicked puns included. The security force for the Company, for instance, is called "CorpSeCorps" (Corporation Security Corps), and the compound where the Crakers live is named Paradice.

Oryx and Crake raises deep questions. It will make you ponder exactly what it is that makes us human, as well as where lie the ethical limits of tampering with our genetic makeup and our natural resources. These are thoughts well worth thinking, and this is a book well worth reading.


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