Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review: Oryx and Crake & The Year of the Flood

Listened 9/28/11 - 10/28/11
20 Audio Discs (combined)
3.5 Stars (combined) - Strongly recommended for readers familiar with genre

Back in May, I had the unexpected honor of meeting Margaret Atwood and her agent Phoebe at BEA in NYC. At the time, I admitted to her that, though I consider her a literary idol, I had yet to read one of her novels. I did own 3 of them, however, and that had to count for something, right?

Last month, I finally caved and, after refusing to listen to them for most of my young and adult life, made the decision to join the library so I could borrow audiobooks for my daily commute to work. The first audiobook I took out? Oryx and Crake. I've had the book sitting here, unread, for a few years, and figured this would be the only way to move it up the TBR pile - in a manner of speaking.

I liked the narrator, Campbell Scott, right off the bat. That's important to me. Authors can pen amazing novels, but if the narrator is bad, the book becomes bad. And lord knows I've listened to my share of bad narrators.

The story begins with Snowman, who appears to be the last "true" human, living at the edge of the woods in some undisclosed place with "The Children of Crake" - perfect, immortal, man-made humans, free of all flaws, genetically incapable of feeling jealousy or romantic love - who are clearly dependent on Snowman for guidance and protection, after a devastating plague wiped out the earth's population.

Through the use of flashbacks, Snowman - whose pre-plague name was Jimmy - shares his memories with the reader to help us understand the events that led up to the fall of mankind.

We see the privileged, higher class citizens living in compounds, working like dedicated little ants, running bio-genetic engineering experiments such as splicing fruits, vegetables, and animals to create new and improved breeds; creating skin treatments that remove the signs of aging; modifying pig genes in order to clone human organs; and developing the ultimate guilt-and-disease free sex drug.

We see Jimmy growing up in a broken home, befriending the socially awkward Glenn, obsessing over a nameless girl he sees on a porn video. As their friendship grows, Glenn (the alpha-male) turns his disgust at the destructive nature of Homo Sapiens Sapiens into the drive to build a better human. And we see Jimmy tagging along for the ride.

Oryx and Crake is a subtle warning, a fictional peek at the not-so-fictional end of life as we know it, a future that - in all reality - may very well come to pass if we do not change our ways. Her imaginary splicing and cloning experiment are no longer imaginary, are they? The warring and abuse of the planets resources, the over population... sound awfully familiar to us now, don't they? Men playing God... and taking things much too far...

In her follow up book, The Year of the Flood, we are returned to the same plague infested world, though we see it through the eyes of two women - Toby and Wren - who are members of a lower class cult calling themselves "God's Gardeners". As with Oryx and Crake, the story begins with the women post-plague, and slowly takes us back through the years leading up to the "waterless flood" (as the Gardeners refer to it) through their flashbacks.

An interesting perspective on a story we thought we already knew... an intricate, though incredibly tedious, weaving of story lines - not only between Toby and Wren, but between them, Jimmy, and Glenn. The bigger reveals don't actually occur until well into the first half of the book, and the reader (or listener, in my case) is left struggling to make the initial connections and guess at where everyone fits into the story... which had me feeling quite frustrated for awhile. Of course, by the end, I saw what was coming a mile away, and made connections long before they were revealed.

Where we originally saw the creation of the plague at the corporate level in O&C, TYotF shows us the impact the plague had on the working class, the Gardener's uncanny prediction and preparation of it, and the influence most of these characters had on one another before and during the demise of mankind.

For this audiobook, I was less happy with the narrators. The woman who read for Toby had a grating voice - her speech was rather robotic, with odd upticks at the end of sentences and sharp S's that annoyed me. Wren's reader had a softer, sweeter tone that was more pleasant to listen to.

My biggest complaint, for both novels, is the order in which Atwood decided to tell her story. I wished she had simply told the story of the plague from beginning to end. In O&C, since the story was told from a single point of view, the jumping back and forth in time was easier to follow. In TYotF, with two female narrators who start the story at two different points of time, with two overlapping though different perspectives on the events that unravel, it was initially more confusing and difficult to follow.

A smaller and more personal complaint is my overall lack of connection to any of the characters. I love when authors tease out emotional reactions from me... whether it's positive or negative, I want to be made to feel something for the people I am reading about. In the case of both O&C and TYofF, I felt very little - if anything - for anyone. I found I was listening more to the how's and why's of the stories, rather than listening to the who's...

Don't get me wrong, there was an incredible amount of character development and individual growth throughout the course of the books, but I felt sadly disconnected from them all.

Having said all of that, now that both books are behind me, I have a much greater appreciation for the level of detail and slow, winding, twisting tale she has laid out for us.

A cautionary tale of what happens when we get a little taste of the power and pride of playing god. How far is too far? When is enough enough? Would we see the signs before it was too late? Are we a doomed species? Only time will tell.....

1 comment:

  1. O MY GOD! It's like a knife in the back!!!! Just kidding. :-) I had a feeling based on our conversations that you wouldn't be into the books. So would you say you prefer more linear storytelling as a rule or just in this particular case? I, of course, had a completely different response and thoroughly enjoyed the slow unraveling of the plot and the constant connections. But, then, I can also see how that style isn't for everyone.