Book Review: Oryx and Crake

by Jack Downey '23
A&E Co-Editor


Arts & Entertainment


Book Review: Oryx and Crake

An Origin Story for a Brave New World

Madison Palmieri ’22

If there’s one thing Margaret Atwood is known for, it’s crafting dystopian tales that feel simultaneously foreign and all too familiar. While the acclaimed author is best known for The Handmaid’s Tale, this novel is only of many which evince her keen ability to make readers question their reality and the future to which it may lead.

Indeed, her 2003 book Oryx and Crake, the first installment of the MaddAddam trilogy, likewise forces readers into this uncomfortable but important position. In true Atwood fashion, the novel jumps from one period in time to another: readers learn of the narrative’s present day through the eyes of Snowman, who seems to be the only survivor of a cataclysmic event, and learn of the past events which led to this state of affairs from the perspective of Jimmy, the young man that Snowman used to be.

The present-day storyline sees Snowman struggle to survive in the wilderness with only strange new humanoids for company. He is haunted by voices and visions of his past, especially those of the titular Oryx and Crake. The former is the only woman he ever truly loved; the latter is the man responsible for the apocalypse and the creator of the humanoids—and Jimmy’s best friend.

In order to cope with the “brave new world” in which he finds himself, and perhaps to help the humanoid “Crakers” cope as well, he devises a mythology centered around Oryx and Crake, casting the former as a mother figure to the creatures of the Earth and the latter as a father figure to the humanoids themselves. Snowman presents himself as a sort of intermediary prophet between these “deities” and the Crakers.

The past storyline follows Jimmy as he grows up in an increasingly unhappy household, befriends Crake, and loses touch with him, though the pair ultimately reconnect. While a great deal of this storyline consists of worldbuilding, Atwood’s choice to present it through the young Jimmy’s eyes makes it natural and engaging. Indeed, readers learn of strange new creatures such as “wolvogs” and “pigoons” designed in labs alongside the young boy.

These two storylines merge at Oryx and Crake’s climax in a satisfying way, and while the novel ends with a cliffhanger, this is only because the complete story continues to unfold over the course of the two additional books that comprise the MaddAddam trilogy.

Although Atwood’s keen use of structure and compelling prose make this novel a fast-paced, hard-to-put-down read, it is frustrating that Oryx is relegated to the stereotypical role of the fairly helpless love interest, useful only for what she can offer the male characters. While Atwood’s skill and social awareness makes it evident that this portrayal is purposeful for what it can say about how society treats women, it is nonetheless disheartening that the novel’s only major female character is treated as such.

Overall, however, Oryx and Crake is a memorable read. It will force readers to think about what they do—and don’t—know about how the world they inhabit came to be as well as what they accept as true about this origin story. 

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Last Day on Earth

by The Cowl Editor


Portfolio


by Connor Zimmerman ’20

A shooting ray of sunshine runs across the pitch-black void surrounding it. The cold and lifeless void tries to smother the ray, but it continues to travel faster than anyone can comprehend. It races towards our atmosphere, hurling itself through the sky. It sees a lowly, decrepit house and finds its target. Flying towards the window, determined to penetrate past all barriers, it crashes through the window and strikes an elderly man in his face.

The elderly man wakes up in a fright. He looks over at his nightstand and sees that his alarm clock says 6:00 a.m. He slowly begins to hear the smooth jazz playing from it, as the door swings open. A sprightly man hurries in and turns the lights on. The elderly man shields his eyes, but the other one continues on with his routine. He places breakfast on the man’s nightstand, turns the alarm clock off, pulls the curtains open from the windows, and helps the elderly man sit up.

“James, today is the day.”

The sprightly man turns toward him and asks, “Master, what are you talking about? It is too soon.”

“When you have lived a life of over two hundred years, there is no such thing as ‘too soon.’ The universe sent me a message this morning as a favor for all that I have done. One day to enjoy all that I cherish.”

James nods his head and leaves the room. The elderly man eats his breakfast and slowly starts his routine. He gets out of bed, brushes his teeth, showers, and eventually gets dressed. Once he is finished, he walks into his library containing hundreds of shelves of books spiraling all around the room. They have been alive as long as or even longer than he has. He drags his finger across the spine of every book on a shelf near him. Eyes closed, he knows what he is looking for just by connecting with its inner energy. He finds the one he is looking for and picks it up off the shelf. He walks over to his chair and reads the pages and illustrations once again. Smiling, he tucks the book underneath his arm and begins to walk out of the house.

He walks down the street with no destination in mind. His senses pick up on the environment around him. The smell of the fresh-cut grass created after a long morning’s work. The screams of children playing with water guns to cool off on this hot day. The view of a young couple touring houses in the neighborhood hoping to find the one that they can call home. He senses it all and continues to walk down the street, albeit with a smile.

The elderly man continues to walk until he reaches the city. The smells, sounds, and sights all hit him at once. The smell of fresh fruit from the farmer’s market. The rhythmic sounds of an acoustic guitar street performer. The view of the skyscrapers standing proud over the people walking beneath. He notices all these wonders, yet he continues to walk. He finally reaches a park and finds a bench near a fountain under the shade of a tree whose leaves are losing their color. As he sits down, he hears the water cascading down from the top of the fountain. Drop by drop going into the pool beneath. Causing ripples to glide across the water, obscuring the coins beneath. He smiles and he waits.

***

A young girl walks through the park sensing all the wonders around her, and she cannot help but smile. The chirps of squirrels climbing the trees around her. The slow change of leaves from their once vibrant green to rustic orange. The laughter of friends having a picnic on the grass. Walking, she hears the distinct trickle of water that can only come from a fountain. She turns her head and begins to walk towards it. As she walks, she notices something shiny on the ground. She looks down and sees that it is a penny. Smiling, she picks it up and goes up to the fountain. She closes her eyes and whispers a wish. Tossing the coin into the water, she sheds a tear hoping that her wish will come true.

“You know if you say the wish it does not come true.” 

Startled, the girl turns around and sees an old man.

“Where did you come from?”

“I have been here for quite a while, waiting for someone to notice me.”

“What do you mean, notice you? This park is always packed on the weekends.”

“It takes a very special person to notice me.” He then extends his hand holding a book towards her. She looks at him, and he nods his head. She takes the book from him and instantly she can sense everything. She can see the water evaporating from the fountain on the hot day. She can feel the sweat forming underneath her own skin. She can hear the beat of the man’s heart in front of her. She drops the book and her senses go numb.

She fumbles for her words, but manages to rapidly ask, “What was that? What happened? What did you do to me?”

“I did nothing, child. You have a great power inside of you. You are connected to the universe like I am. It sent me here to tell you this and start you on your path. That book is only the beginning of a great journey…if you have the courage to take the first step.”

“What do you mean power? I am just a kid. My parents won’t even let me stay up past 10:00 p.m.”

“What did you wish for child?”

“I thought you said…”

“What did you wish for?”

“I wished that I could save my mom from dying…she has cancer.” 

“The power that you have is meant to be used to preserve life. To fight for it against that which will harm it.” The elderly man stands up and mutters something under his breath. Suddenly the rustic orange leaves of the tree above him slowly change into their once vibrant green color. The young girl steps back in astonishment, but she feels something wet dripping above her. She turns around and falls backwards as she looks at the water suspended above in the shape of a hand waving at her. “You see child, when you are connected to the universe, it allows you a power that few can challenge. It is your destiny to fight for it like I have.”

She looks towards the old man and stutters, “But how will I know what is right?”

“With time and error. But listen to the universe and you will never stray far from the path.”

The elderly man begins to walk away from the girl. She shouts, “Wait! Please don’t go, I have so many more questions.” The elderly man begins to fade away and the young girl finds herself shouting at nothing but the air. She looks at her side and finds the book by her feet. She picks it up and looks through the pages and illustrations. She tucks the book underneath her arm and begins to head back home. She senses it all and continues to walk with a smile.

***

The elderly man returns to his small decrepit house. As he opens the door, he finds James walking in a nervous pace. James races to hug him and says, “Where have you been? There is not much time left.”

The elderly man smiles and says, “The universe gives us all the time that we need. It allowed me to find its new champion and to enjoy my last day on this planet by sensing all its wonders one last time.”

Hands holding a book
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