Bruce Middlebrook (bengleman) wrote in 0ryx_and_crake,
Bruce Middlebrook

Consider the significance of Atwood's exploration of the idea of history in 'Oryx and Crake'.

Through the consideration of Atwood's novel 'Oryx and Crake' we can explore the concept of history. Atwood uses history as a story telling device, portraying it as changeable rather than static. She explores the theme of history through everything from her characterisation of the narrator Jimmy/Snowman, to the use of temporal shifts and her focus on the oral history of stories; these help emphasise history as a fluid concept.

Atwood portrays history as changing with time and perspective; this is emphasised by her unique stylistic choices. Her choice to begin the novel in Section one, at the chronological middle, means that the reader is instantly intrigued with Snowman's unusual situation, it also allows her to reveal information to her audience at poignant times, achieving a dramatic effect that would not have been otherwise possible in a chronological telling.

However, Section Two, begins with a dispassionate narrator stating ‘Once upon a time, Snowman wasn’t Snowman. Instead he was Jimmy. He’d been a good boy then,’ before launching into the chronological beginning of Jimmy’s story. These temporal shifts occur between Sections, and, as the story progresses, also between sub-sections and paragraphs. The increasing frequency of the timelines becoming interspersed juxtaposes the dual timelines of Jimmy/Snowman. This emphasises the fluid nature of history and time within the novel. As you read, you are given Jimmy’s life from the point of a young child, up into adulthood: ending at the chronological middle of the story (the beginning of the novel). Whilst Snowman’s story begins at the chronological middle then takes us into the future, so that the crescendo of each timeline occurs almost simultaneously. This increases the dramatic effect of the conclusion of each timeline whilst controlling the knowledge of the reader so that the whole story is only obvious after the startling finish

Within these temporal shifts, the split narration of Jimmy/Snowman means that Snowman can intercede his narration into Jimmy's passages: passing judgement on Jimmy, or correcting previous beliefs. By contrasting Snowman's retrospective narration with the temporal immediacy of Jimmy's experiences, Atwood draws attention to the unreliability of retrospective narration for instance, in ‘Takeout’:

‘[Jimmy] If so, there were no signs… He’d known what to look for, or so he thought. But there’d been nothing. [Snowman] There were signs, Snowman thinks. There were signs and I missed them.’

This accentuates the concept of historical revisionism that Atwood plays upon in the novel, as Snowman is forced to reinterpret the evidence, motivations and decisions surrounding many of the events that occur in the pre-apocalyptic time line.

Although the reader’s sense of uncertainty is intensified by the differing perspectives, Jimmy/Snowman are also considered unreliable on the basis that they insist upon living in the past rather than focusing on the immediate situation. It is one of the few character flaws that they share and is perhaps due to the fact that both are troubled by their immediate past. Despite Jimmy's insistence otherwise, Atwood clearly stresses how our past directly impacts our future.

This is observed in ‘Nooners’. Atwood starts the Section by making it clear the dangers of the post-apocalyptic society. In a hyperbolic paragraph she emphasises how even the sun is a major threat by writing about the ‘glare and humidity’, ‘the evil rays’ and how Snowman ‘reddens and blisters’. She even transforms our expectation of water from something helpful in the heat to something that worsens the situation by reflecting back the light. Yet, even in this situation Snowman is emphasised as very pragmatic with the use of a lengthy description of the 'lean-to'. The depth of information provided, saying ‘In the first week he’d made himself a lean-to, using fallen branches and a roll of duct tape and a plastic tarp he’d found in the trunk of a smashed-up car’ stresses the concept of Snowman's practicality. However, this is later juxtaposed with remarks like ‘at that time he’d had a knife, but he’d lost it a week later’ and ‘He regrets the loss of the scissors’. The use of short sentences exaggerates the flippant tone with which he refers to the loss of his knife, despite this "historical" loss (and others like it) having a direct, and important, impact on his present and future.

Rather than finding a new knife, Snowman reverts to 'pointless repinings', using his past as an escape from his present. Despite claiming ‘I am not my childhood’ he often mulls on his father who had bought him a similar knife in an attempt to ‘make him more practical’. His practicality is ironically compromised because he is too busy dwelling on his father's opinion that he ‘couldn’t screw in a light bulb’ the claim obviously still hurtful despite the years although he quickly tries to dismiss it. In many instances, it is his own deliberation of the past that act as a barrier to moving forwards. Maybe Jimmy/Snowman spends his life thinking about the past, whether this means hearing the voices of old girlfriends, trying to dismiss his childhood, or desperately obsessing over Oryx, because at the centre of his character he is the ultimate relic of a dead civilization

For most of the novel, Snowman is believed to be the sole survivor of the human race. In ‘Flotsam’ the Craker children warily hold the beach's debris up for inspection by Snowman. However, they are as cautious of Snowman as they are of the ‘things from before’. But, more than anything on the beach, Snowman is the biggest piece of history from the world before the apocalypse. Crake told Jimmy that he was an 'everyman' a representative of the normal person and after the apocalypse, Snowman- potentially the last human, is, therefore, the best agent to portray the history of the human race.

Yet, Jimmy is also a representative of the past. His pre-occupation with literature (being a "words person") and his job as an ad-man rather than a ‘borderline geniuses’ from Watson Crick means that he is symbolic of the past. However, the pre-apocalypse Jimmy, rather than being a relic of a lost civilization, is the advocate of a lost art: language. One of Jimmy/Snowman's largest concerns is the disappearance of language. Even as a child his personal mantras were lists of words and during adulthood he acquires and hoards more words: often archaic ones. Jimmy spends many chapters poring over them, for instance in Section Ten Atwood writes ‘once in bed he’d stare at the ceiling telling over his lists of obsolete words for the comfort that was in them. Dibble. Aphasia. Breast plough. Enigma. Gat’. Jimmy constantly worries that these 'obsolete words' that they will be forgotten. Because the dual timelines run parallel to one another, we can simultaneously see the realisation of Jimmy's fears in the post-apocalyptic society as the the Crakers have no ability for language Crake having removed these parts of the brain as 'useless'.

In ‘Sveltana’ Atwood writes:

‘Rag ends of language are floating in his head: mephitic, metronome, mastitis, metatarsal, maudlin. “I used to be erudite,” he says out loud. Erudite. A hopeless word. What are all those things he once thought he knew, and where have they gone?’

Here, Atwood again draws attention to the death of language and the disappearance of archaic words. This is perhaps a criticism of modern literature and the ‘text talk’ culture that society has adapted, as well as highlighting the criticism that authors (like Atwood) who use neologisms receive. In an attempt to interact with the Crakers (and a bid for fish) Snowman tells stories. These are simple and occasionally incorporate ‘pictures’ to help explain their meaning. The simple language, sentence construction and the way that the Crakers are prompted to finish Snowman’s sentences or repeat them, is typical of the historical oral tradition of storytelling where stories are repeated and passed on by word of mouth. It is ironic that storytelling replaces capitalism and the consumer culture to become the "currency" with which Snowman barters fish; this is further allusion to a regression back to the oral tradition where a story might be traded in for shelter whilst journeying.

Like "history", "truth" in stories is a matter of perspective. The Crakers will always hold Snowman’s myths as the irrefutable truth, however, Snowman deliberately misguides them (probably out of duty to protect), elevating Crake and Oryx to the position of Gods. He incorporates aspects of religion into his stories. To the reader, they appear to be a purely fictional account, but they are comparable to real events in the novel; for instance, Crake was the instigator of the apocalypse and bringer of destruction so, despite being a God in Craker mythology, his appearance is ironically that of the stereotypical devil. Although Jimmy adapts what occurred, he does incorporate aspects of the pre-apocalyptic history that only Snowman/Jimmy and the reader understand. However, for Oryx, this new God-like version of her history is just another in a very long list.

The first sub-section of Section Six, the aptly named ‘Oryx’, begins with the juxtaposition of the Jimmy/Snowman perspective. As Snowman awakens, Oryx the vision is ‘floating towards him… on soft feathery wings’ and although he talks to her and describes her body language, she is strangely never given an out of body "voice". ‘Back when he was still Jimmy’ he interrogates Oryx on her past to which she answers with evasive comments like:

‘ “I don’t know. I’ve forgotten.” Or, “I don’t want to tell you that.” Or, “Jimmy you are so bad, it’s not your business.” Once she’d said, “You have a lot of pictures in your head, Jimmy. Where did you get them? Why do you think they are pictures of me?” ‘

Atwood's use of hyperbole shows how many times Jimmy questioned her and his obsession with her past. However, it is clear that Jimmy never really learnt what happened to her. Atwood uses terms like ‘why do you THINK they are pictures of me’ and ‘He THOUGHT he understood her vagueness’ to emphasise that despite the carefully composed web of stories that Jimmy/Snowman has they are probably far from the truth. Yet he is forced to make an emotional history for Oryx (most likely to pacify himself more than her) because she never appears to have one.

Jimmy/Snowman obsesses over Oryx and the line ‘how long had it taken him to piece her together from the slivers of her he’d gathered and hoarded so carefully?’ illustrates this. The fact that he’s found out everything he can about her ‘so carefully’ coupled with the word choice of ‘gathered’ and ‘hoarded’ makes it obvious that he has actively sought out this information, and then continually poured over it. Jimmy/Snowman only knows ‘slivers’ of Oryx which he has carefully compiled and tried to mould into an Oryx shaped character (much like the reader has to do) in order to get any idea about her and her elusive past. We can question to what degree, Oryx is a character in her own right, and to what degree we are just fed a collection of misinformed scraps from Jimmy/Snowman’s unreliable view.

The rest of the paragraph illustrates and confirms our suspicions that Jimmy/Snowman’s account of Oryx's is made up from a mismatch of different perspectives and stories: judging from her reaction to the picture that Crake and Jimmy both keep these are often incorrect. During this paragraph the word ‘story’ is used seven times and ‘stories’ a further once. Oryx’s history is like a fictional tale that’s been drafted and redrafted and Snowman now ‘riffles’ through the pages of it trying to construct a satisfactory image of her. Atwood writes ‘but Jimmy had never heard those’, the word ‘heard’ accentuates the idea of storytelling but more specifically the oral history of storytelling. Like Snowman’s tales to the Crakers, Oryx's 'story' is an intrinsic part of the oral tradition of storytelling that Atwood redevelops for the novel. Each person who tells her story changes it or add something new so that the end result is very different to the original. Atwood stresses how many people have influenced Oryx’s ‘story’ with a rhetorical list that reads:

‘her mother’s story, the story of the man who’d bought her, the story of the man who’d bought her after that, and the third man’s story- the worst man of them all, the one in San Francisco, a pious bullshit artist’

Yet in the previous sentence she writes about how Oryx, Crake and Snowman already each have their own story illustrating Oryx’s history.

Snowman is the last to know Oryx’s story, however, his version is the most flawed: he admits that it is ‘a more romantic version’ where as her own is ‘not very romantic at all’. Here, his sentimentality corrupts his storytelling in the same way that it corrupts his perspective of history in the novel. Because Jimmy/Snowman is the main narrator the view the readers have of Oryx is misguided and unrealistic. It is mentioned that Crake has a story but it is never told, we can only assume that, like Jimmy, Crake believed that Oryx was the little girl from the screen cap they both kept. Because Crake kept the picture we know that had a profound effect on him and suggests that he was actively looking for the little girl from the porn film when he found Oryx.

Whereas, Oryx gives the reader the least information and the greatest amount of misdirection, despite it being her history; this suggests that there things we will simply never know about it. Direct quotes from her are minimal and normally useless or evasive; when she does answer Jimmy’s questions it is an obvious fabrication to pacify him. Although Section Six is about Oryx it is recounted through the unreliable narration of Jimmy/Snowman, using his words and biases. Also, Oryx is only ever mentioned in conjunction to other people, whether this is Uncle En or Jack or someone else. She is never granted a separate identity and (as one of the few female characters) Atwood is possibly making a point, through her, about the role of women in historical events and how they are ignored, over sentimentalized or forgotten entirely. There are more versions of Oryx than any other character. She has the most fragmented identity, yet, is less concerned with her past than characters like Jimmy/Snowman (and presumably Crake) who pour over her 'stories' trying to make a version that suits their purposes.

Before Oryx, Atwood still alluded to the changeability of history. In their teenage years, Crake and Jimmy played videogames like ‘Blood and Roses’ and ‘Barbarian Stomp’. In these games, Atwood emphasises the revisionist nature of history as the point of these games was always to challenge the limitations of conventionally agreed upon history. In Barbarian Stomp, ‘you had to start out with the historical disposition of energies and go on from there… Crake and Jimmy vied with each other to see who could come up with the most obscure pairing’. Even the tag line is ‘Barbarian Stomp (see if you can change history!)’. In Blood and Roses, bloods (bad events from history) were pitted against Roses (the good events/achievements) could be bargained or exchanged to change past events with history becoming nothing more than a commodity. If a rose was placed against a blood ‘the atrocity would then vanish from history, or at least the history recorded on the screen’. In this line, Jimmy has to clarify to himself that he was not changing history showing the ease with which people can be convinced (often by the media) to change what they believe occurred. If a video-game can cause this effect, it is plausible to think that people could forget, rearrange or fictionalise events if prompted to. In Section Two, Sharon is the only person to believe that life in compounds and life before compounds are not synonymous, others, like Jimmy's dad, had been convinced otherwise probably without even realising it.

Maybe the contemporary audience of the book should heed Sharon's warnings as many of the concepts in the novel have been taken from newspaper cuttings detailing modern day scientific advancements. Presumably the events of Oryx and Crake take place shortly after 2002 when the novel was published, allusions to the 'dot com era' and the occurance of natural disaster's that global warming currently threatens suggest this. Ironically, however, it is the corrupt and slum like area of the pleeblands to which Atwood's audience can most identify, whereas the consumerist pre-apocalyptic society may appear nightmarish. Atwood has said that her novel is a piece of 'speculative fiction' where the contemporary audience can visualise the potential of the 2002 world to take the 'slippery slope' into Atwood pre-apocalyptic one. However, many critics of the novel disagree with Atwood's choice of genre, referring to it instead as a dystopian piece. Michiko Kakutani, a writer for the New York Times, wrote 'once again she [Atwood] conjures up a dystopia, where trends that started way back in the 20th century have metastasized into deeply sinister phenomena'; although this acknowledges the role of contemporary 20th century society in shaping the history of the pre-apcoalyptic world it also recognises it as a piece of dystopian fiction. However, Atwood may be satirising how historical perspective can shape our view of important events. Is the post apocalyptic or the pre-apocalyptic world a dystopia? Which is a paradise? The answer changes depending on whether you are seeing through the eyes of Jimmy/Snowman, Crake, the Crakers, the compound public or the contemporary reader. Maybe Atwood is speculating that modern obsession with scientific advancements could bring about the occurrence of our own pre-apocalypse style dystopia.

The human mind is willing to except new explanations and views of events and Atwood in her novel ‘Oryx and Crake’ exploits this fact to highlight the argument that "history" isn't synonymous to static fact. Events are twisted, stories told, occurrences moved around or wiped out entirely and all perspectives differ. In a last ironic twist, the ending of the novel, ‘Zero hour, Snowman thinks. Time to go’, will forever be interpreted differently by Atwood’s critics and readers. There will never be a definitive end, and, depending on the perspective of the reader and their personal view of events in the novel, they will interpret what Snowman/Jimmy does next entirely differently. Atwood's novel definitely highlights the concept that history breeds ambiguity rather than certainty; she alludes to it being synonymous to literature as both will always be reinterpreted and redefined.
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