Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Margaret Atwood's

When I read the reviews of this novel, I had to overcome some negativity on my part in my attitude about it because I felt that Atwood had copied an idea from Doris Lessing's Mara and Dann, which is also set in a chaotic future when everything is going to hell.

I am glad, however, that I decided to read Atwood's book. Oryx and Crake is an excellent story of how things could possibly go arwy with cloning and bio-engineering in the future.

Different from her futuristic novel, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is even bleaker. The runaway social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event. Jimmy, apparently the last human being on earth, makes his way back to where he used to work at the RejoovenEsence compound to gather some supplies. The reader is transported backwards toward that cataclysmic event as its full dimensions is gradually revealed.

Jimmy grew up in a world split between corporate compounds (gated communities metastasized into city-states) and pleeblands (unsafe, populous and polluted urban centers). His best friend was "Crake," the name originally his handle in an interactive Net game, Extinctathon. Even Jimmy's mother-who ran off and joined an ecology guerrilla group when Jimmy was an adolescent-respected Crake, already a budding genius.

The two friends first encountered Oryx on the Net; she was the eight-year-old star of a pedophilic film on a site called HottTotts. Oryx's story is a counterpoint to Jimmy and Crake's affluent adolescence. She was sold by her Southeast Asian parents, taken to the city and eventually made into a sex "pixie" in some distant country. Jimmy meets Oryx much later-after college, after Crake gets Jimmy a job with ReJoovenEsence.

Crake is designing the Crakers-a new, multicolored placid race of human beings, smelling vaguely of citron. He's procured Oryx to be his personal assistant. She teaches the Crakers how to cope in the world and goes out on secret missions. The mystery on which this riveting, disturbing tale hinges is how Crake and Oryx and civilization vanished, and how Jimmy-who also calls himself "the Snowman," after that other rare, hunted specimen, the Abominable Snowman-survived. Chesterton once wrote of the "thousand romances that lie secreted in The Origin of Species." Atwood has extracted one of the most hair-raising of them, and one of the most brilliant.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Doris Lessing
The Sweetest Dream

From Publishers Weekly

In lieu of writing volume three of her autobiography ("because of possible hurt to vulnerable people"), the grand dame of English letters delves into the 1960s and beyond, where she left off in her second volume of memoirs, Walking in the Shade. The result is a shimmering, solidly wrought, deeply felt portrait of a divorced "earth" mother and her passel of teenage live-ins. Frances Lennox and her two adolescent sons, Andrew and Colin, and their motley friends have taken over the bottom floors of a rambling house in Hampstead, London. The house is owned by Frances's well-heeled German-born ex-mother-in-law, Julia, who tolerates Frances's slovenly presence out of guilt for past neglect and a shared aversion for Julia's son, Johnny Lennox, deadbeat dad and flamboyant, unregenerate Communist. Frances's first love is the theater, but she must support "the kids," and so she works as a journalist for a left-wing newspaper. Over the roiling years that begin with news of President Kennedy's assassination, a mutable assortment of young habituEs gather around Frances's kitchen table, and Comrade Johnny makes cameo appearances, ever espousing Marxist propaganda to the rapt young dropouts. Johnny is a brilliantly galling character, who pushes both Julia and Frances to the brink of despair (and true affection for each other). Lessing clearly relishes the recalcitrant '60s, yet she follows her characters through the women's movement of the '70s and a lengthy final digression in '90s Africa. Lessing's sage, level gaze is everywhere brought to bear, though she occasionally falls into clucking, I-told-you-so hindsight, especially on the subject of the failed Communist dream. While the last section lacks the intimate presence of long-suffering Frances, the novel is weightily molded by Lessing's rich life experience and comes to a momentous conclusion.

While I am a huge fan of Lessing's writing and did my Master's thesis on Lessing, for some reason this novel irritated me. One thing I found particularily annoying was whenever problems arose in the "family" or whenever there were things to discuss, Frances would head for the refrigerator and pull out food and make a huge meal no matter what time it was. It was as if food would "fix" any problem. Or maybe it was the way that Frances "martyred" herself for these punk kids, several of whom were ungrateful shitheads. It is also irritating the way she overuses the term "kids" for the young people she harbors. Most of them aren't "kids", they are hoodlums who take advantage of her. Frances has a martyr complex which leads her to tolerate jerks who turned around and betrayed her in horrendously destructive, cruel, and selfish ways, and I found myself frustrated with Frances for not having thrown them out. Especially the bastard of an ex-husband Johnny who she lets waltz into her house unannounced at any time.Now that I have these things off my chest, I can now go on to the good points about the novel.

Lessing is hard on all the ideologies that are touched upon through the plot: she goes after communists, hippies, feminists, the internationalist development elite, journalists, and even Third World leaders. In other words, there are no simple answers; instead, the questions just get tougher. While there is a lot of humor in this, it is very dense, a kind of reverse history of idealism, showcasing the self-serving egotism that underlies the motives of virtually all the characters. What is amazing is how well it succeeds in bringing these ideas to life through the characters, though I found the second half of the book, much of which takes place in Africa, less strong than the first half.

I don't feel this is Lessing's best work. It was too short of a novel for such complex problems and ideologies she was attempting to examine.