Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

IMG_1991I discovered Oryx and Crake the same way I used to discover a lot of books: by sifting through the titles in a second-hand shop. There’s nothing quite like that warm smell of time-worn pages that fills such a place, nor the anticipation of never knowing what treasures you’ll find tucked away on the shelves. I was in university at the time I came across it, and still at least a year away from reading anything by Margaret Atwood through my curriculum. This is still my favorite thing she’s written.

I couldn’t put Oryx and Crake down, and it never left me afterwards. In fact, when I moved abroad after graduation, I took that copy with me, right alongside The Lorax and two Calvin and Hobbes collections. The thing was, this book was still haunting me. I eventually gave it to one of my English-speaking coworkers just for the want of sharing it around.

So what was it about Oryx and Crake that endured in my mind so much? I’ve pondered that over the years. It’s a book I’ve recommended to others often, but over that time I was losing a clear understanding of just what it was about it was that struck a chord so strongly with me. Was it the storyline itself, the writing style, Atwood’s dark humour, or the characters?

It was all those things. I was inspired by the way the story is told, alternating between the present post-apocalyptic world and the protagonist’s recollections of his life prior to the destruction, leaving nary a dull moment along the way. At the same time, I was intrigued by Atwood’s way of laughing blackly at where our present global society might be heading, with fictional websites like brainfrizz.com, specializing in live executions, and massive, cartoonishly named health and beauty corporations like AnooYoo pandering to the most vain, desperate and wealthy.

But out of everything, it was the character Oryx that kept coming back to me most. Eventually all I really recalled of her was that she’d been filmed in Asia-based child pornography and that she was a vastly enigmatic character that I’d never been able to fully get a grasp of. Recently, I got my hands on a new copy of Oryx and Crake, and finally gave it a second reading.  I took much more from it this time, and while in some ways Oryx remains as mysterious as ever, I realize that she is one of the features that has long haunted me about this book.

In early 2012 I visited Cambodia. It was the most impoverished country I’d ever been to, and still is. On a six hour bus ride between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap I don’t even remember us passing through any towns. Outside the windows were vast stretches of flat land dotted with sugar palms, jungle, and families milling about what were mostly just huts near the roadside. While there was naturally more wealth in the cities, I was begged often for money by children and even elderly people who were there specifically to target the comparatively rich tourists (if you can afford a plane ticket to fly to their country, you are better off financially then most of the Cambodians you meet will ever be).

Exploring the ruins of Angkor, as fantastic as they are, was even more heart-wrenching at times. Girls and boys, who I pegged to be as young as five in some cases, would trail behind me, barefoot, trying to sell me post cards, knick-knacks, or simply asking for some money (“one dollar, please, I want to go to school.”)  Some of these children were able to communicate in multiple languages due to an upbringing spent speaking with the various tourists passing through.

One girl, maybe six years old, proudly counted to ten for me in four or five languages, then asked me to play tic-tac-toe with her. We crouched in the shadow of a thousand-year old stone archway and she drew the Xs and Os grid in the dirt with a stick. She won a few moments later. “Okay, I won, so you will buy something from me,” she said.

“Wait,” I laughed. “I didn’t agree to that.”

“But I won,” she said, sounding cheated. “Please.”

I didn’t buy anything from her.  She may have sounded cheated, but this was a little girl who has mastered the sales routine taught to her.

It’s not easy to harden your heart to a child, especially one that has next to nothing, but when travelling in such parts of the world you have to do it more often then not.  The sad reality is that children like these, scattered around tourist hot spots in Cambodia, are there not necessarily because they can’t go to school, but because their parents or guardians deliberately keep them out of it so that they can bring in money by selling trinkets, begging, or other activities that prevent them from receiving an education. I’m not in a place to condemn anyone’s decisions, as I’m sure parents everywhere act on what seems like the most beneficial choice from their standpoint. Poverty begets desperation and naturally narrows the tendency to look to the long term. The need for food, shelter and the basic materials of life are always immediate.

This phenomenon is what leads Oryx to be taken away from home as a small child. It’s never revealed exactly where she came from, and not even she remembers, though it’s alluded in general that she was born in some Southeast Asian country. She grew up in a village in the countryside where everyone lived in huts. A man with a gold wristwatch came to the village and bought children from their mothers. Oryx was one of them. She was taught to sell roses on the city streets to foreign couples and later to perform in pornographic videos for kiddie-porn sites.

The enduring thing for me about Oryx is how mum she stays on the details of this as an adult. She is constantly interrogated by her incensed lover, Jimmy, on her complex past of exploitation and child pornography, yet she gives fairly vague answers and laughs away the questions that target the ugly heart of the matter. When she is directly asked if she was raped as a child she responds simply that the world is filled with beauty and we should only focus on beautiful things. Jimmy, she says, is only looking at the dirt under his feet.

Is Oryx so seemingly unaffected by her past because it’s the only life she’s known, one in which her body is something to be rented out, bought and used as others wish to use it? Or is her blithe avoidance of the most tender questions a coping mechanism she’s developed to deal with memories of a childhood that was stolen from her and sold to a parade of sex dealers?

In Cambodia, and various other countries, sex tourism is a constant reality. Men enter the country, bringing money, and if they talk to the right people they can get what they want. This includes children, both boys and girls, in clandestinely arranged meetings. There is a demand that fuels a system wherein children are bought from their parents and taken away for sexual purposes. Where there is such poverty that a percentage of people are willing to offer a child’s body for profit, there will be someone there to exploit it.

After the second reading I have refreshed my memory of Oryx, but I have a different, and I hope fuller, perception of what she came from and what forces shaped her past.  As I read this time, I saw in her glimpses of those young girls and boys in Cambodia who spend their days tagging alongside tourists, hoping to make a dollar or two. They are there instead of in school for any number of reasons, but those reasons stem back to being born into a family of have-nots instead of the haves. Yet Oryx is still a mystery to me, and that is why I find her such a cleverly crafted, fascinating character. I think Atwood wanted to leave us puzzling over her, the same way that her lover Jimmy does. How could someone who had a past like hers be so positive and appear not to dwell for a moment on what came before? How could she have the faith in people she does, and the compassion?

Or is the better question, for her peace of mind’s sake, how could she afford not to?

Pages: 374  FOA: 20,282

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5 thoughts on “Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

    • Zach MacDonald says:

      Thanks! It’s great to hear from someone who loved the book as well. There’s so much to be discussed in it besides Oryx, but c’est la vie. 🙂

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