Saturday, April 05, 2014

Book review: Oryx and Crake

Most of the time, I try to refrain from ragging too hard on authors when they produce books I consider sub-par. Writing a novel is a difficult feat. But Margaret Atwood, known mostly for her novel, The Handmaid's Tale, is an established writer. As such, she gets no leniency.

Flat-out: Oryx and Crake, her dystopian novel that purports to depict a near-future in which genetic modifications to plants and animals has brought about an apocalypse, is a drab and monotonous read. It sucks.

The story goes like this: Snowman is a survivor of a man-made cataclysm that has all but obliterated humanity. He lives in a tree where he gazes out over the much-risen sea at the ruined towers of a drowned human city. Mankind's heirs to the earth, a genetically-modified human-like species with blue skin and pacifist temperament, looks to Snowman as a sage --a guru from the crumbling past. Snowman, in a half-hearted determination to survive, is not above using his position of authority to convince the new "people" to do his bidding. Clad in a bed sheet and half-starved, Snowman remembers the world as it was just before the apocalypse: dystopian and starkly divided between the haves and have-nots. Snowman, we learn, lived among the corporate elites, the haves, by virtue of his well-educated, professional parents. As an adolescent, he befriends a classmate, Crake, who is on track to become a brilliant bio-geneticist. As the novel progresses, Snowman cynically recalls how Crake changed the world.

I wonder, is the prose in Atwood's other books as wooden and unpolished as in this one? At times, in her attempts to explain the world of Oryx and Crake, Atwood takes the easy out with drab, expository sentences. At other times, she affects the sneering, cynical tone of her wholly unsympathetic main protagonist. No eloquence. No lyricism. No polish. Her prose doesn't evoke imagery. Rather, it sketches out stick-figure drawings and relies on the reader to insert the color.

The book has no emotional depth. The two title characters, Oryx (a child prostitute from Southeast Asia) and Crake are thinly drawn. We never, for example, learn Crake's motive for doing what he does. Snowman, the one character in the book that is reasonably fleshed-out, is annoying and unlikeable.

The novel lacks suspense. Everything is foreshadowed. There are no real surprises. And there are gaping holes in the plot. Atwood does not recount how Crake found Oryx. She does not reveal the nature of the relationship between them.

Atwood makes a start at a decent subplot (Snowman's mother, Sharon, rebels against the status quo, abandons husband and child and becomes a political subversive), but never satisfactorily ties it up. (Everything to do with Sharon happens "off-stage." When she dies, there is no emotional impact. It's never even clear what she was trying to accomplish.)

This is the first Margaret Atwood book I've read. Very probably, it will be the last. It's very disappointing when an established and acclaimed author turns out to be a hack. But so be it.

Among living authors, I prefer Eleanor Catton. Or David Mitchell. Or Cormac McCarthy.

No comments: