What a delicious juxtaposition: the lushness of the farmers’ market this morning – and all the bounty and treat-ness that entails – with a re-read of Oryx and Crake planned for the remainder of the day.
Like many other readers, I’ve been tremendously excited by the prospect of the trilogy’s completion, and have reserved this weekend to re-read the first two volumes, with MaddAddam lurking in the wings (I believe it will officially be for sale on August 29th/September 3, UK/Canada).
I’ve been wanting to re-read Oryx and Crake since I read Year of the Flood, and now, finally, the perfect reason to do so; I’ll be updating this page throughout the day, as I get reacquainted with Margaret Atwood’s eleventh novel.
For now, on the porch, with the sun shining and a blue sky, some fresh market coffee, a cinnamon croissant and a butter-tart square.
This is a world away from the space which Snowman inhabits when Oryx and Crake begins, but I’ll be happy to visit there with Margaret Atwood leading the way.
(If you’re not reading along, you will not want to read the content of this page: you can skip to the anchor at the end, here.)
NOTE: Spoilers below
Chapter One: Mango, Flotsam, Voice
A literal sense of timelessness. Snowman looks at the watch he wears as a talisman. “Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.” The story has not begun, and it is not yet dawn where Snowman is.
This world is greyish and grinding, jumbled and rubble. The bits that readers recognize and can trust are the trash the children pull from the water (remnants of “before”) and the waves. The waves which begin and end the chapter: wish-wash, wish-wash. The rest is uncertain, familiar and yet unknowable.
Chapter Two: Bonfire, OrganInc Farms, Lunch
“In happier days, naturally. Oh, so much happier.” We learn that Snowman – the Abominable Snowman – was once a boy named Jimmy. “He’d been a good boy then.” When? Once Upon a Time. Snowman is telling stories.
His father was a genographer at OrganInc Farms. His mother was a microbiologist who had works at the same Compound, with the pigoons. “All of this was explained to Jimmy when he was old enough.” Cities, compounds, bioengineering: it’s a lot for readers to absorb, to reconstruct into something-like-understanding about the world Jimmy’s parents inhabited (seemingly our world, as we now know it) and Jimmy’s childhood memories.
But setting those details aside, Jimmy was once a boy who cared whether the ducks painted on his rubber boots would be hurt if mistreated, and even then he remembers having been strangely satisfied when he made his mother cry. Snowman’s memories are of a good boy, but a good boy who made his mother cry.
Chapter Three: Nooners, Downpour
Every chapter has ended with weeping, this one and the first with Snowman’s weeping, the second with his mother’s tears. ”‘I didn’t do it on purpose,’ he says, in the snivelling child’s voice he reverts to in this mood.”
The sun is relentless, the insects ever-present, the animals are nuisances and threats.
Readers’ questions are relentless, too.
Chapter Four: Rakunk, Hammer, Crake, Brainfrizz, HotTotts
Not only is this chapter almost as long as the first three chapters combined, but there is a lot to take in.
These are Snowman’s memories of his life when he was Jimmy, inspired by the sight of a rakunk in the underbrush. He wants to get to the creature, he wants to get to something in his past.
But he also hates these “replays”. And insists aloud, to readers, “I am not my childhood”. The replays in this chapter are mostly from his teenage years, when he suffered from lassitude and felt invisible.
That’s when he met Crake, who was once Glenn. And not a good boy then either. Unhappy, laconic, a cool slouchiness: “just Crake, pure and simple”.
That’s when his mother left, when Jimmy was left alone with his father, now working at HelthWyzer. “Not that Snowman passes judgment. He knows how these things go, or used to go. He’s a grown-up now, with much worse things on his conscience. So who is he to blame them? (He blames them.)”
The echoes of the past resound as Snowman continues to assemble a story (occasionally speaking in parentheses, literally or figuratively, telling a story to an inward audience, leaving readers to shrug and squint at the fragments that don’t quite connect).
Chapter Five: Toast, Fish, Bottle
Snowman tells more stories, thinks about changing the stories he has been telling, wishes he was living in a different story.
Chapter Six: Oryx, Birdcall, Roses, Pixieland Jazz
Snowman wakes up again, or does he? This is the part of the novel that I recall pulled me into the story, the first time that I read it.
Oryx’s story was something to cling to, something of a world that I could recognize. And it had a beginning and a middle.
But her story, too, as she tells it, is as much about what she leaves out, what she does not want to tell and what she does not want Jimmy to hear, as it is about what happened to her when she was SuSu (as Uncle En called her).
Chapter Seven: Sveltana, Purring, Blue
“Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open.” Is he dreaming again? No, but in his memories of Jimmy, he and Crake are now in their twenties.
In Snowman’s present, he is on a quest, talking to himself. “The forest blots up his voice, the words coming out of him in a string of colourless and soundless bubbles, like air from the mouths of the drowning.”
He seems to be despairing, but still struggles to survive.
Chapter Eight: SoYummie, Happicuppa, Applied Rhetoric, Asperger’s U, Wolvogs, Hyoptetical, Extinctathon
In Jimmy’s world, at graduation, Harvard has been drowned, the west side of Hudson’s Bay is the only place one can beat the heat, the gen-mod coffee wars are raging, a statue of Judith cutting off Holofernes’ head is retro feminist shit, Watson-Crick is THE school to attend (Crake does, Jimmie does not). and only inferior institutions still have libraries with mildew-soaked reference books.
Readers begin to draw lines between a recognizable ‘then’ and a sketchy ‘now’ which is, however, Snowman’s ‘then’.
We begin to understand the vaguest of outlines of something sinister that will be understood later, after more stories are told. When Jimmy visits Crake at Watson-Crick, Crake reveals his discovery of documents that prove that HelthWyzer was creating the illnesses that the drugs they produced were designed to treat.
Jimmy doesn’t cry, he yawns. (But he did nearly cry, when he first saw Crake again, after so long.) And this chapter ends with screaming, not crying. Crake’s screaming. There are horrors yet to be unearthed.
Chapter Nine: Hike, RejoovenEsense, Twister
Returning to the Compound is disorienting for Snowman, but fascinating for readers. We are getting closer to what went wrong, to another layer of understanding.
“He can’t rid himself of the notion that someone – someone like him – is lying in wait, around some corner, behind some half-opened door.” And, neither can the readers.
Crake says that if only a single generation of anything is eliminated, it’s “game over forever” for the next generation. Other than the pigoons, there is no sign of life on the Compound, and readers have to wonder if Snowman isn’t correct in thinking it’s game over for humans.
And, yet, he isn’t crying at the end of this chapter, nor screaming. He is sitting, crouched, in “misery and peace”.
Chapter Ten: Vulturizing, Anoo Yoo, Garage, Gripless
I remember feeling tremendously disheartened at this point in the novel on my first reading. But this time around, I am seduced by the talk of Amanda’s art project, the Vulture Sculptures, the idea of these four-letter words being brought to life and then torn apart.
Snowman’s memories of Jimmy are beginning to intersect with his current perspective. Thinking about his father’s and Ramona’s trial runs for kids, he thinks: “Jimmy didn’t envy him. (He envied him.)” The timeline is narrowing.
Snowman is more immediately immersed in his memories, and although it seems as though this ‘he’ must refer to Jimmy, readers know that it is Snowman who is having these thoughts now, shaping them, creating a narrative with all the words that he did not want to lose, that he does not want to be responsible for having lost.
Chapters Eleven: Pigoons, Radio. Rampart
The smoke that Snowman sees from the rampart wall might be the Crakers, but it’s not likely. So it is not only the smoke which is rising at the end of this chapter. There was a food in the cupboards and a voice on the radio. “He doesn’t expect to hear anything, but expectation isn’t the same as desire.”
Snowman has been having trouble keeping the past and the present (his dreams) separate, but he feels buoyant now. “There are more possibilities now.”
For readers as well. A single sentence puts the narrative askew. “If I’d killed Crake earlier, thinks Snowman, would it have made any difference?” It’s not surprising. From the beginning, or at least from what Snowman has offered as a beginning, we have known that even if he was once a good boy, that did not last. And that there is blame to be dispersed. But now the pool has widened, and readers must judge new depths.
Chapter Twelve: Pleebcrawl, BlyssPluss, MaddAddam, Paradice, Crake in love, Takeout, Airlock
Memory within memory in this long, pivotal chapter. Snowman is recalling Jimmy’s reunion with Crake, when Jimmy re-becomes Thickney (Crake was never really Glenn, was always Crake, remember) and they recall their early days playing Extinctathon. “‘Those were definitive times,’ said Crake.”
But, “now”, Jimmy has left AnooYoo to take his word-mongering to RejoovenEsense with Crake, and they explore Paradice and get reacquainted with the Maddaddam model. Jimmy sees the Crakers for the first time, witnesses Oryx teaching them what Crake instructs her to teach them. He uses his you-are-a-moron voice to explain to Jimmy which parts of humanity have been edited out of the Crakers, and he gets Jimmy to promise that he will look after them, if “something happens”.
And, then, as we have known that it would, that something does happen. And it is not routine, it is not an isolated bioepidemic, it is not a splotch of bioterrorism. It is the horror that Snowman will (and does) inhabit. And, in the process, Crake slits Oryx’s throat, and Jimmy shoots Crake, in a manner of moments.
“So here it is then, the moment, this one, the one he’s supposed to be living in.” This bit is from Chapter 11, but in many ways, Snowman is still inhabiting that moment, both when readers meet him as the novel opens, and throughout.
Chapter Thirteen: Bubble, Scribble, Remnant
Jimmy is watching Key Largo and The Birds and Night of the Living Dead. “Such minor paranoias were soothing to him.” He is “safe” in the Compound. “Meanwhile, the end of a species was taking place before his very eyes.”
He begins to write. “I don’t have much time, Jimmy had written.” Snowman thinks it’s not a bad beginning. He tries to structure a narrative. The strikeouts are there for us to read. We can see the “extraordinary events” become a “catastrophe”. Each individual word, all the letters which comprise it, matter.
But Jimmy stops the story when it comes to an explanation for Crake’s motives. That version of events is crumpled. But readers have another version, of course. The version they are reading. The story which contains this other, crumpled, story.
On the second Friday in March, heading for the Equinox (though that is unremarked upon), Jimmy reveals himself to the Crakers and begins the process of leading them out of the compound. He introduces himself as Snowman.
“He no longer wanted to be Jimmy, or even Jim, and especially not Thickney: his incarnation as Thickney hadn’t worked out well. He needed to forget the past – the distant past, the immediate past, the past in any form. He needed to exist only in the present, without guilt, without expectation.”
And the chapter ends with the group’s arrival at the shore, where the offshore towers are overflowing with birds (knowing that the novel was finished after September 11, 2001, the regular references to towers reflected in the water is note-worthy), when the waves lap the beach, just as they did when the novel began.
Chapter Fourteen: Idol, Sermon
Snowman is back with the Crakers. Jimmy didn’t call them that, but Snowman does. Anyhow, they have changed, since they have been released from the Compound and, again, since Snowman has been gone. They created a version of him, from trash on the beach, singing to call him back from his journey.
When the young ones dismantle that Snowman, it’s “as if he himself has been torn apart and scattered”. Readers can’t help but think of the four-letter words that Amanda’s art project tore apart, of the horrid images that Jimmy and Crake watched online as teenagers, the devastation and disintegration.
The Crakers speak of the three-like-Snowman who came while he was away. Snowman shuffles the images from the game of Blood and Roses that Jimmy and Crake used to play, tries to determine the likelihood that these three will be allies or enemies.
But, then, “his eyes close and he feels himself being lifted gently, carried, lifted again, carried again, held”. The waves, once more.
Chapter Fifteen: Footprint
And, there, just like that, with only a heading, we have Robinson Crusoe before our imaginations. Snowman is on the beach, a castaway, a survivor. This day has begun like countless days before. Word for word, dawn breaks in the same way. But, now, greeted with rapture. There are possibilities. It is zero hour, again, always, and still.
When I first read this novel, I was unsure whether Snowman was truly on the precipice of meeting other humans, and as long as there was only a single book, with an unreliable narrator at its helm, readers could not be sure how much of his experience was rooted in the infection and fever, in desperation and loneliness.
But now, readers know the book is rooted in a trilogy; those figures are more likely viewed as other humans, not merely imaginings. In that context, the question is not whether the three figures truly exist, but what Snowman will do with that information. Will he survive to meet the next day’s dawn. Will the three others of his kind survive as well. Either way, the waves will wish-wash.