Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Orxy and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Some people have a hard time saying no to chocolate chip cookies. Me? I'll eat those cookies every time, but my willpower really pales when faced with having to choose from the list of Butler's creative writing courses. So much great learning! So little time! This fall, the nonfiction workshop taught by a visiting prof from DePauw was a no-brainer, but there were two other courses, just as delicious. I just couldn't say no. In the spirit of compromise, instead of registering for those two additional courses, I decided to audit. Still, I'm not in this game for the grade. I'm in it to learn, so I've got to put in the work. The semester's still green, and I'm running fast, trying to settle in, and figure out the classes' rhythms.

This morning I sat down to read stories assigned to me by the editors at Booth, the literary magazine at Butler. Reading takes time, especially for a slowpoke like me. (Undiagnosed learning disability? I often wonder.) As I tucked into the first story I thought about all the other reading I needed to do and the muscles in my scalp tightened. Reading for Booth is yet another great way to learn, but it takes so much time. I must admit I haven't had the sunniest attitude about my Booth-reading responsibilities as of late. But get this: If you were to have walked by my spot in the coffee shop when I was halfway through, you'd have seen me grinning. The stories were that good. (And even when a story wasn't Booth-worthy, I knew I'd learned from it. Reading carefully, trying to discern what works and what doesn't, will do that.) Stories can be magical. They can transform, surprise, and teach a whole new way to be in the world, and that's no small thing.

I read Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" for one of the courses I'm auditing. To tell you the truth, I doubt I would have ever picked up Atwood if it wasn't required reading. I like fiction. Sometimes. But most of the time I put more stock in nonfiction. Most of the time, my take is that real life -- so compelling, confusing and confounding -- renders fiction unnecessary. When I picked up "Oryx and Crake," it wasn't long before I was quickly sucked into the story. I'd forgotten the power fiction has to surprise and captivate.

Atwood calls her work "speculative fiction," (as opposed to science fiction), in that she doesn't employ fantastical story elements. No space ships teeming with Martians. Atwood's tales are about the dystopian, future worlds that could come about when a society is overly-stressed. In "Oryx and Crake," Jimmy survives an apocalypse, the earth battered and depleted, his only company a bunch of genetically modified humanoid creatures -- Crakers. The Crakers look to Jimmy as a god, and as Atwood shows us the these strange Crakers, she deftly shifts back and forth, using flashback to tell us how humankind, and Jimmy, came to this perilous and desperate point.

Atwood tells a great story, but there's more. Her stories carry weight. (Psychic weight, if you will, a term I just learned at a Booth meeting.) Atwood's got something to say that's deeper than the storyline. It always fascinates me to discover what captures an author's imagination. Atwood is fascinated at how delicate civilization is, how fast society can disintegrate, and how little it would take for us to give up our freedoms.

There is so much to learn. How lucky are we that Atwood, a Big Question kind of author, will be speaking tomorrow here at Butler. Scan the crowd and look for me -- I'll be the one scribbling notes, listening closely, doing my best to learn, a big grin on my face.


  1. I tend to stick to one genre when reading, it fills the need that brought me to read to begin with. But every now and then someone insists that I "must" read something or other that I'd normally not consider. I usually end up thanking them, whether I like it or not, I'm richer for having tried.

  2. Astute, as always. True for me, too.

  3. I came across your blog only because we have the same name(!) but I recently read Oryx and Crake at the suggestion of my son, who read it for school and loved it. I read Handmaid's Tale many years ago, but found this one much more interesting because of the detailed technology (Handmaid was much more maudlin). I understand her parents were scientists or engineers, so she grew up around these ideas.
    Nice post.

  4. Thanks, S.B. Lerner! I knew I had a few namesakes out there, but you're the first that's commented on my blog! Best Wishes, S.E. Lerner