Re-reading Oryx and Crake, Notes on a Saturday

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).

Atwood Trilogy Reread PorchI’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.

Late-morning snack: tastier than a Happicuppachino and a Joltbar

Late-morning snack: tastier than a Happicuppachino and a Joltbar

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.

McClelland & Stewart, 2003

McClelland & Stewart, 2003

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.

Thinking SoyOSAndwiches: the perfect accompaniment for finishing Oryx and Crake today

Thinking SoyOSAndwiches: the perfect accompaniment for finishing Oryx and Crake today

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.

Is this series on your reading list? Are you reading, or have you pre-ordered, Maddaddam?

2014-03-20T21:17:03+00:00

16 Comments

  1. Laura August 23, 2013 at 9:26 am - Reply

    I’m doing a read-along over at Reading in Winter. Here’s my latest post, about chapters 7-9: http://reading-in-bed.com/2013/08/18/oryx-and-crake-read-along-post-four-part-7-9-reaction/

    I devoured this book, ran out and bought The Year of the Flood, and now I’m waiting for Maddaddam. What a crazy ride!

    I’ve bookmarked this page. It will be very useful as I write up my next post, since I finished the book waaaay ahead of schedule 🙂

    • Buried In Print August 23, 2013 at 5:40 pm - Reply

      Thanks for including the link, Laura. I’ll follow along with the rest of the posts in your series. Yah, I couldn’t have spun out the reading for a few weeks either: too exciting. And, yet, I envy the length of your posts on a handful of chapters because, really, there is a LOT one can say.

      Are you reading YotF now, or are you already finished? I thought it read much more quickly than O&C, first time around; I’m starting my re-read tomorrow, so I’ll be interested to see if that feels true this time too.

  2. Iris August 18, 2013 at 7:47 am - Reply

    It is probably unfair to comment because I skipped most of this post, but I just wanted to pop in and say that I bought Oryx and Crake recently and I definitely hope to read it soon 🙂 Then again, I still have so many Atwood waiting to be read.

    • Buried In Print August 18, 2013 at 9:17 am - Reply

      It’s never inappropriate to comment: there’s no such thing as too much bookchat, IMO. 🙂 She is one of my MRE authors, and for a switch I’ve actually read more than not, but I usually am better at collecting than reading, even with my favourites, because there are just SO many good books, aren’t there?! I hope you get to this series soon: it’s a great one to discuss!

  3. Sandra August 17, 2013 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    Alright then, I’ll compromise and try to get to the end of Chapter Nine. I am just starting Chapter Eight now. You are right on: absolutely fabulous reading and a fun way to spend a Saturday!

    • Buried In Print August 18, 2013 at 9:19 am - Reply

      It truly does settle you into the world, spending such a concentrated time with it; I recall reading it quickly the first time around, but more because I wanted to understand, and find out what Snowman’s world was about, whereas now I feel as though I understand some of the infrastructure, thanks to YotF as well, so I’m paying more attention to the writing.

  4. Buried In Print August 17, 2013 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    Heheh. That’s true. I thought you were a good chunk ahead of me. I’ll stop at the end of Chapter Ten then, and resume tomorrow. It’s such great reading!

  5. Sandra August 17, 2013 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    I am only in Chapter Seven now and there is a possibility I can get through Chapter Eight tonight but I don’t believe I can get farther. I also don’t want to miss anything and there is a risk of that as I get more tired and my eyes start to resist the print. Besides, “Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.” And the Crakers can’t read eh? so who is going to know if we took a little longer than we thought we would?

  6. Sandra August 17, 2013 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    I am enjoying the re-read immensely but am falling behind now so must go into retreat for an hour or two and get caught up. First, here is another remark from the Halliwell interview: “I have to say that I put nothing into this book that we don’t have or are not on the way to having. It’s like The Handmaid’s Tale in that I didn’t invent. I just extrapolated.”

    • Buried In Print August 17, 2013 at 4:57 pm - Reply

      That makes the epigraph from Jonathan Swift particularly meaningful, doesn’t it!

      I’m reading more slowly than I expected to; I’m trying to decide whether to read through tonight, or to stop a couple of chapters from the end and resume tomorrow and move straight into Year of the Flood. (The end of Eleven might avoid a late night with it.)

      The problem is that I don’t want to end for the day in the middle of the events that I recall are yet to come. (That sounds confusing, but, then again, how appropriate, for this volume being one which messes about with time so much!)

  7. Sandra August 17, 2013 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    Thanks for pointing out the weeping/crying at the end of each chapter: I had missed that. In this third chapter I was caught by the image Jimmy has of himself as a castaway and how making lists “could give his life some structure.” This is followed by the very sad paragraph about how “even a castaway assumes a future reader, someone who’ll come along later…and learn his fate” but how he cannot make such an assumption because “the Crakers can’t read.” So at this point, in addition to the weeping and discovering the reason for it, we have been faced with a couple of very sobering thoughts: no one knows what time it is and no one can read.

    • Buried In Print August 17, 2013 at 4:50 pm - Reply

      I’m so glad you mentioned that; I wanted to make a note of the ‘castaway’ bit, but I must have lost track. And the idea of a future reader?! Fascinating. And now we have Gulliver and Robinson to think about. This is such a great book to read in tandem, because there are so many salient details. And even when you know some of the background (having read it before, and YotF) there is such a lot to take in for a single reader.

  8. Sandra August 17, 2013 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Ah yes, the matter of time in the “Mango” section when Snowman’s watch has a blank face – zero hour. And this: “Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.” Imagine what would happen if we turned all our clocks to the wall and put all our watches in the dresser drawer say for a week! And then Snowman quotes one of books from his past or some such: “It is the strict adherence to daily routine that tends towards the maintenance of good morale and the preservation of sanity” and I find myself thinking how true this is and what happens when the normal daily routine is interrupted.
    Here’s a comment from Atwood in an interview with Martin Halliwell at the University of Leicester in 2003 describing Oryx and Crake: “it’s a rather cheerful, joke-filled book about the end of the human race, as we know it.” The latter was preceded by this comment: “Think of it sort of like A Christmas Carol, and Scrooge has a dreadful experience, but then he gets to wake up the next morning and say, “It hasn’t happened yet, I can still change my ways.”
    No, I am not posting to ReaderWoman yet but might later today. The challenges of actually reading and posting here as I read are something to adjust to initially :).

    [Edited to include the link to Sandra’s updates on her readalong post.]

    • Buried In Print August 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm - Reply

      I just spotted your comment when I had gotten to the part where Jimmy remembers Anna K reading Macbeth:
      “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
      Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
      To the last syllable of recorded time;
      And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
      The way to dusty death….”

      The comment that you’ve brought from the Leicester interview makes me think again of the first paragraph, when Snowman wishes he could believe he is still asleep.

      Are you enjoying your re-read so far?

  9. Sandra August 17, 2013 at 10:46 am - Reply

    I am reading along with you but admit to having a head start. I keep going back to the epigraphs.

    • Buried In Print August 17, 2013 at 11:11 am - Reply

      Gullivers Travels and To the Lighthouse, such a curious pair. The “plain matter of fact” and “no safety”. Are you posting to ReaderWoman about your re-reading?

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