Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Civilization has fallen and nature—GMO and natural—is once more taking over. Among the trees and the storms and the wolvogs and rakunks, there are the Children of Crake, green-eyed and naked and innocent. Snowman, formerly Jimmy, has survived the cataclysm that stripped him of the things he is addicted to and now spends his time watching over the Children of Crake and being watched over by them.

The first book in the MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake is at its heart an origin story—for the Children of Crake and for the state of the world that Snowman is now living in. This story unfolds through a contemporary storyline and Snowman’s flashbacks to his childhood and early adulthood when his name was Jimmy. In the present, Jimmy is a prophet for the Children because he actually knew Crake, a mythic and godlike figure to them. In the past, Jimmy and Crake were friends, one an artist in a world that does not value it and the other an arrogant, brilliant scientist determined to solve the world’s problems by playing god if need be. Oryx is their shared obsession, an oriental girl sold into slavery and exploited in pornographic films who flits in and out of their awareness since they first put eyes on her at the age of 14.

I found Oryx and Crake simultaneously brilliant and disappointing. Atwood imagines into being a frightfully realistic world where there is a stark divide between the haves and the have-nots. The haves live gated compounds, lauded for their intelligence and given the advantages of technology and genetic modifications that give them the world. The have nots live in pleeblands, dirty, diseased, and judged inferior without the opportunity to prove otherwise. Competition between compounds is fierce, with corporate espionage and sabotage the norm as scientists develop new genetically modified animals, sources of meat, or treatments to “improve” the lives of humans. This dystopic vision is not particularly novel, but it is effective for its completeness. What is new, I think, is the Children of Crake, who, both in the novel and inside the story, are a return to prelapsarian society. (Appropriately, the second book in the series is The Year of the Flood).

Why, then, do I call the book disappointing? Part of the problem for me was Jimmy. Snowman/Jimmy had a rough childhood and never really fit in among the geniuses at the compounds, but what mostly stands out about him are his negative qualities: his relationships with women and his obsessions that cause him to float along, caught up by the things going on around him. Not liking him here is not the problem—very few of the characters in the books are genuinely “likable”—the problem is that I didn’t find him compelling. Other characters viewed through Jimmy’s characters were consistently more interesting, while the main thing that makes Jimmy interesting is the fact that he survived.

My second issue with Oryx and Crake is its pace. The book features a lot of lead-up to an abrupt resolution. This pace makes a certain amount of sense within the narrative, but it also means extended periods with Jimmy in isolation of other characters, going on an adventure that showcases more about the world and leads toward that conclusion, but not really being interesting in its own right.

I should be clear here: my disappointment largely stems from my high expectations for Atwood’s novel. Oryx and Crake has its moments and the world is compelling enough that I expect to read the remainder of the series, but fell short of her best.

ΔΔΔ

I am now reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

If it wasn’t clear from my relative silence, the last six weeks or so has been exceptionally busy, which has slowed both my reading and writing. I only managed to finish one non-academic book in October, barely slipping Margaret Atwood’s Booker Award Winning The Blind Assassin in under the wire. An astute reader, however, will note that October is now more than two weeks gone. I didn’t write an immediate review because the book required some digestion and then a number of real world events, including guests, a nasty head cold, teaching, job applications, and a presidential election colluded to keep me from the review. None of this should be taken to indicate a lack of appreciation for this book, the second of Atwood’s that I have read.

Atwood weaves together three distinct stories in The Blind Assassin. The frame story are the recollections of Iris Chase Griffen, the daughter one Ontario industrialist and the widow of another, writing her life story ostensibly for her estranged daughter. As such, this narrative slips between the first half of the twentieth century and explains hushed history of the Chase family through the wars and depressions, deaths and affairs, and the contemporary time and Iris’ old age. Interspersed with these stories are a variety of newspaper clippings that illuminate something about the Chase family, Iris’ marriage to Richard Griffen, or her sister Laura.

This first set of stories focuses on the relationships in Iris’ life, first with her angelic and sincere sister Laura and the much more problematic relationships with her husband and Winifred, her husband’s sister. Iris agrees to the marriage because she is convinced that this is the only way to save her father’s business and thence his life. Despite the veneer of love at the outset, Winifred and Richard expect Iris to obey them, as though they are her parents and overlords more so than as sister-in-law and husband. Iris accepts her place as would a martyr, but, when their father Norval Chase dies, Laura is exposed to Richard’s predilections. The reader knows from the outset that something has happened, since the book opens with “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

Then there is a story-within-a-story, the acclaimed science fiction novel attributed to Laura and published under the title The Blind Assassin. This story has a similar structure to the overall story, alternating between one narrative about an illicit affair between an married woman and an renegade, and the science fiction story that the lovers tell each other during their assignations. Suffice it to say that the novel is not entirely a work of fiction.

The final product is a meticulously crafted story about power, sexual violence, and family secrets that frequently remain just in the shadows and are all the more potent for being just out of reach. This short synopsis does not do The Blind Assassin justice since its combination of power and beauty develops along the nexus of these various relationships, including Iris’ eternal battle with Winifred and the still-troubled relationship with Laura more than four decades after her death.

And yet, I think I still preferred The Handmaid’s Tale. The comparison I keep coming back to is with the works of Orwell, where I believe that Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a better novel, but I prefer Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Blind Assassin is objectively a stronger, more complex, and more subtle novel than is The Handmaid’s Tale. Both are excellent, but I slightly prefer the latter.

Δ Δ Δ

Next up, I am nearly finished reading The Wall of Storms, the second book in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty “Silkpunk” Epic. It is certainly different than the first book in the series, but is still very, very good. I haven’t given too much thought to what I am going to read after this, but am leaning on the fiction side toward Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, while my Thanksgiving Break reading for non-fiction is going to be Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. they blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. the entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary.

Margaret Atwood’s books have been on my radar for some time and I just kept putting off reading one. This was a mistake.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in an eerily familiar, dystopic Boston. After waves of natural disasters and toxic spills caused upheaval through the United States by making resources scarce and child births scarcer, a group of biblical fundamentalists enacted a coup, creating a new country called Gilead.

Gilead is a rigidly hierarchical state, with strict separation of the genders. Men (Commanders, Guardians, Angels) are soldiers and professionals. Women primarily serve in household roles, such as wives, cleaning and cooking (Marthas), as well as overseeing other women (Aunts). Only Aunts are allowed to read any longer, and women are not allowed to hold jobs or have money. The most prized women, though, are those capable of having children. Some wives are capable having kids, but the elite men who have no children are allotted, based on biblical precedent, handmaids, whose entire purpose is that of surrogate womb—-so fully that the fertility ritual involves symbolically linking with the wife once a month while being visited by the head of household. If she fails to become pregnant, she will be transferred to another home; if she passes childbearing age, she will become an and transferred to a job like sweeping toxins.

The story is told in choppy and furtive sentences from the point of view of a woman known for her current station as Offred (named so for the man she’s attached to). She had a husband and a child, once, but they were captured while trying to escape to Canada and she was taken to the Red Center, a place for training the first generation of Handmaids. After graduating she is assigned.

One detaches oneself. one describes…

The tension in The Handmaid’s Tale emerges from the treatment of the new reality—the killings, the subjugation of women being treated as a privilege, the deprivation—as completely normal being juxtaposed with memories of freedom and choice from the past life.

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.

Some of the characters take pleasure in their positions of power or receive enough benefits that they are not interested in challenging the status quo, but others, particularly the younger generations that don’t remember what it was like before, who are true believers.

Despite being published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale holds up exceptionally well, the difficulty of reading at times being entirely by design. The only point that seemed a bit dated was the technology, but, by and large, the themes (totalitarianism, militarism, control of a woman’s body) are still painfully relevant.

I loved this book and the highest praise I can give is that I eagerly await when I get to read another of Atwood’s novels.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I am currently reading Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which, thus far, is an engrossing story that doesn’t quite rise to the level of some other science fiction I have read recently.

The Ionian Mission – Patrick O’Brian

Also known as Volume 8 of the Continuing Adventures of Aubrey and Maturin.

Captain Aubrey must once again fly from home life in order to escape creditors and therefore accepts the first commission available, on a ship he does not like, to a task he finds dull, and under a senior officer with a grudge. Circumstances  during the dull blockade force a transfer, followed by a mission to the Ottoman Empire that will call for both diplomatic and naval skill.

Reviewing installments in this long-running series is difficult. I like our core characters–bold and capable Jack Aubrey and the circumspect and intelligent Stephen Maturin–and particularly appreciate O’Brian’s attention to detail. This attention was all the more necessary in this book because there is so little action to drive the story. But this is the point, not a flaw. Blockade is boring.

Several features of O’Brian’s style stood out in The Ionian Mission . First, and probably in an accurate representation of the historical context, Aubrey’s successful promotion puts him in a position to be away from fighting. Commanding a large ship is about bureaucratic maneuvers, while the smaller vessels had the liberty to seek or stumble into action. It is no surprise then that O’Brian creates a transition back to Aubrey’s beloved HMS Surprise for  the eponymous Ionian Mission. Second, there are a few set pieces in each book, including the battle scene, the gunnery training montage, and the creditors on land. No two are exactly alike, but while the plots do differ, one of the tricks O’Brian uses to vary the books almost as much is to change the starting and concluding points. In this case there is technically no resolution, but cuts away immediately after the climax. The result is that the book is a genuinely serialized product.

The Ionian Mission is a solid installment in an enjoyable historical fiction series, but I would certainly recommend starting a the beginning.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s deeply disconcerting dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and will probably dive into Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers later this weekend.

The Day of the Jackal – Frederick Forsyth

On a whim a few weeks ago I picked up some spy novels. In short, I decided that I needed a change of pace from my usually run of heavy literature and wanted something that could be both exhilarating and also read at a different rate from my usual. At the same time I didn’t want to read just any junk, so I used the internet to find some lists of excellent spy thrillers, which is where I found Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal. I was not disappointed.

The year is 1963 and there is a secret war being waged on the government of France by disaffected groups of citizens and soldiers calling themselves the Secret Army Organization (OAS) who believe that Charles de Gaulle, the President of France, has betrayed the country by agreeing to withdraw from Algeria. Opposing them is the Action Service, a violent secret police organization that has thwarted the OAS and neutered its operations, including kidnapping one of the leaders from another country. Out of desperation, the remaining leaders of the OAS have decided to hire an assassin, codename Jackal. Catching just the hint of the plot, the French ministers have appointed an unassuming detective named Claude Lebel to catch the Jackal—-a professional killer whose identity, let alone plan, is a mystery to them.

In his author’s note, Forsyth calls himself a storyteller and that much is clear from the narrative. The Day of the Jackal is divided into three sections: “Anatomy of a Plot,” “Anatomy of a Manhunt,” and “Anatomy of a Kill,” with each ratcheting up the tension. The first section works methodically through the plots to kill de Gaulle, first the earlier OAS plots, then the hiring of an assassin, and finally the Jackal’s plot. The second continues to followed the Jackal, while also following Lebel’s process of uncovering the assassin and his plan, and the third shoots up toward the explosive finish. The pacing is excellent and I particularly enjoyed how Forsyth offers just enough detail to trace the story through the lives of people who exist outside the book. For instance, the reader never gets to meet Lebel’s wife, but, other than his job, that is his primary concern in life. What this quickly explain motivations for all of the people involved. The only exception to this rule is the Jackal himself, who remains a mystery as he adopts identity after identity. At least his motivation is clear. He wants to get paid and retire.

As is true of most good spy fiction, The Day of the Jackal is a very limited story that follows one clear arc that takes place parallel to the real world and sinking back into oblivion by the end. The stakes are important, but not global. What stood out about this one in particular was the particular limited information available to the detectives. There were no microchips or internet or computer programs, so when they decide to check all recent passports they must do so by hand. This is, of course, a feature of hindsight, but the specifics of this sort of story must change with the times.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I just finished Patrick O’Brian’s The Ionian Mission and intend to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale next. I am also working my way through Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a new global history.