Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx & Crake is a brilliant and compelling read. The protagonist, Snowman, tells us the story of our future and its undoing as the attempt to feed everyone, provide healthcare and satisfy an unending desire for sex and youth, takes us beyond a divided society into a new world where Snowman may be the only normal human left.  Whilst the future world of guarded compounds and an intellectual elite busy playing with our DNA to keep humanity limping along on the earth, is one cartoons have long made our children familiar with, Artwood’s telling emphasizes the darker side of these experiments and the uncaring nature of market forces. But Snowman is not elite. He is a wordsman, useful only for his marketing potential. His life is as barren as any salaryman, until his old best friend from school, Crake, takes him to the richest compound and puts him in charge of marketing his latest products aimed at enhancing sexual prowess while secretly containing birth control elements, or so Crake tells him.  Crake is also working on a top-secret project to reinvent the human race.

Crake’s new breed of men are spliced with various animal DNAs to weed out the potential for violence through eliminating sexual disappointment and therefore ownership. Crake keeps them in a false wooded dome and has Oryx, a woman whom both Crake and Snowman have adored from afar since they were teenagers watching her porn, now a lover to both men, teach the Crakers. Both Crake and Oryx make Snowman promise to look after the Crakers should anything happen to them and of course something, a knock-out virus unsurprisingly developing in areas trialing Crake’s latest product, does happen to the whole world. And then Snowman is left to wander this new empty world with the Crakers doing the only thing he has ever been good at, spinning stories.

It is these stories that make Oryx & Crake different to many other speculative visions of the future. Snowman has always loved language, collecting old, unused words. He understands that words can become obsolete in the face of social change, but a resonance of meaning lingers on in modern versions of the language that left them behind. Narrative is written into the very words we speak and in the face of a world without any but Craker humans, all that Snowman has is narrative. Even the Crakers, hard-wired against hierarchy and violence, can’t be stripped of a desire to know who made them and why and in this need to explain their world they use narrative to rework Snowman’s stories turning Crake and Oryx into mythical, godlike beings and giving Snowman a last laugh: their need for narrative will muddle the waters of the evolution Crake imagined for them.

At the end of the novel, Snowman glimpses three old-fashioned humans through the trees and we are left wondering what will happen, eager to reach out for the next book in the trilogy.

Oryx & Crake is a pleasure to read. It turns a barren future into everyday experience, leaving slithers of hope in a future where most of humanity has rotted with disease. At the end, what do we have left? Stories. That is the only art that holds a dying race together, or builds a new one. I’m looking forward to the next book and will read it after A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra next week, and The Infatuations by Javier Marias the week after.

Wounding by Heidi James

What I hope for most from reading is to be forced into new avenues of thought, or even old avenues that feel rusty or could be further excavated. Reading Wounding did exactly that. The novel is about Cora, a woman in her thirties, seemingly with everything: a loving husband, two children (boy and girl), a good job, a house with a garden. But Cora is not happy, she is lost, she has slipped into a world in which the demands of others, specifically of the family, define her. They define her body – the marks that childbirth leaves; the power of instinct to enforce a soothing hand – and they empty her mind: she must do what is expected of her, she must mimic a happiness she does not feel because marriage and children have robbed her of selfhood.

Half of the narrative is in Cora’s husband’s voice. He tells us the story of how they got together and their life as a couple. He is so desperate to make their marriage work, but he fails to really see Cora. He believes she is intimately close to her children, not following carefully thought out steps to manage their well-being.

Wounding is painful to read because it asks difficult questions we prefer to avoid. At the heart of Wounding is what society sees as the unnatural mother, the monster we hide in a labyrinth of excuses, tiredness mostly. Every mother has experienced a longing to be alone and a subsequent feeling of horror once the longing is granted – we feel lost; what are we now the needs of others are not there to direct our actions? – every mother has lost control, shouted, felt remorseful, a failure. Cora is the deepest expression of those anxieties and though she does nothing beyond what could be tamed into normality, her coldness is shocking, her behaviour to her son on one walk to school when he steps in dog mess, is shocking, but Cora understands this, she understands her own monstrosity and seeks to absolve herself in pain. Some may find this search unnerving, it is a religious sort of purging she seeks, and eventually it consumes her. The pain remakes her, allows her to feel herself again. The beginning of the novel suggests that that remaking process is ongoing, that the challenges of marriage and parenthood cannot be easily shrugged off, and remain even after the darkest of actions.

Whilst these are essential modern themes – what is a modern, educated, independent mother? – ones that Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin tried to address amidst much controversy, Heidi James’ novel is not only contentious but, unlike We Need To Talk About Kevin, it is also beautifully written. You feel drawn in to the extent that I almost couldn’t breath as the words compelled me to absorb myself in Cora’s world. It felt like Wounding was in conversation with my favourite female writers – Elfriede Jelinek, Marie Darrieussecq, Zeruya Shalev, Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag – highlighting new ideas and turns of phrase for our lives as we live them right now.  Wounding is a beautiful, brutal novel that should be on the top of all the most important reading lists of 2014. Out in April and published by Bluemoose Books, make sure you pre-order your copy now.

Next week I will be reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, followed by A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, The Infatuations by Javier Marias and The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees.

The Mall by S. L. Grey

I was excited about reading the duo that is S. L. Grey and The Mall was no disappointment. Set in a shopping mall in South Africa, The Mall is like reading a computer game. Rhoda, a black English coke head, and Daniel, a white emo bookshop employee, get lost searching for a boy Rhoda was meant to be minding for a friend. They think they have found themselves in the unfinished basements and grounds of the mall extension, but soon realise they have entered a new world of subterranean filth, through which they are instructed and threatened by text messages to their phones that no longer have signal or battery. Chased by some heavy breathing monster, they eventually make it to what their messages call the market, a new mall in which the rules of the game are once more reinvented.

This mall takes the modern consumer world to its extreme. Beauty enhancement is no longer simply about large breasts and six packs, it’s about amputation. It is fashionable, and encouraged by management (the texters), to be painfully thin or grossly over weight – the easier option given the food, which has greater sugar, salt and fat content than any fast food of our world. Salespeople or Customer Care Officers, are happy to be chained to their cash registers and have an implant in their brains that enhances their helpful attitude. Shoppers literally shop till they drop, shops competing over their custom. There are a small number of those that chose to flaunt the system, but they live miserable, mad lives hidden in warren like tunnels, breedings rats and sleeping next to their own shit.

Despite the gripping nature of the plot and the intriguing changes that both Rhoda and Daniel undergo individually and together, I think I had hoped for something more dramatic, but in fact, the surreal differences of the new mall are more challenging than overt horror. There is a structure to the mall more coherent than anything in ours: everyone knows their place, their world is limited and their expectations managed (even famous celebrities have paunches and saggy breasts). I might have wanted the new mall to make our own consumerism seem closer to the brink of that level of exploitation (which of course it is but in different ways), or to seem more free in contrast, but comparing the worlds is more complicated and perhaps more brilliant than that. The Mall makes us ask whether contentment is best found in constraint and these uncomfortable thoughts make The Mall a haunting read without even stopping to question what management gets from it all.

If you like horror that pokes a few fingers at modern life, The Mall is for you.

This coming week I am taking a sneak preview at Wounding by Heidi James and the following week I will be reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, a book that’s been on my reading list for far too long! Any further suggestions for future reading would be very welcome.

The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr

The Last World is a reworking of the banishment of Naso, Publius Ovidius, told by one of his admirers, Cotta, who leaves Rome under false papers to verify the rumour of Naso’s death. Tomi, on the Black Sea, is Naso and Cotta’s last world. We aren’t sure at the end of the novel if either man is dead, but they are lost to the gothic landscape of Tomi whose mountains and gorges are at the mercy of a cruel nature that sends storms and landslides as well as heat waves and fertile rains.

Unsurprisingly, Metamorphosis is the inspiring wind beneath the sails of The Last World. Because in the novel Naso burnt his only Metamorphosis manuscript, Cotta’s journey is as much to uncover the poetry as it is the poet and the lost manuscript allows Ransmayr to reinterpret and reinvent the tales of Metamorphosis in the town of Tomi. Despite the strange liminal time period, where Rome has microphones, a projectionist can give film performances in Tomi, and the people have cans and batteries but still need fire for heating, we are led into a world in which human transformation seems more than credible. There are nice touches that link past literature to more modern myths – Lyceon, the ropemaker that Cotta lodges with, is revealed but unnamed as a werewolf – or draw intellectual connections only hinted at in the annals of history – Pythagoras becomes Naso’s servant when he recognises a man of his experience and understanding in Naso.

There were also moments in The Last World that sprang on my imagination with a fierce and beautiful power. For example, when Cotta first finds Naso’s retreat in the mountains he stays overnight on a reeking pelt by the fire. He is then woken up by the entrance of a herdsman whose head and shoulders are covered in a teeming blanket of eyes. The herdsman comes to sit by the fire, his cow lowing beside him, and is then lulled into a half sleep by beautiful music that mysteriously echoes across the mountainside, his eyes opening and closing in tired waves. Suddenly the music stops and a shadow darts into the room killing the herdsman with an axe. As the blood bubbles up through his skull, the herdsman’s eyes fall from him, lodging fast to the planks of Naso’s floor which rise into the feathers of a peacock that then disappears off into the night leaving Cotta screaming. Here, as throughout the novel, we are allowed to doubt these transforming, monstrous visions, as either dreaming or the result of some unusual natural occurrence. The inhabitants of Tomi are particularly adept at letting miracles drift into the mundane.

Despite all of my pleasure at parts of the book, and despite its hold over me at the novel’s end, The Last World did not grip me in the way I think I had hoped it would. Whether it was the time I chose to read it or whether it was simply my lack of classical knowledge, I’m not sure. What The Last World did do, was make me want to go back to Metamorphosis. It also reminded me of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso, which was perhaps less radical in its retelling of old stories, but which I enjoyed more. Ultimately, The Last World is a brave and imaginative work that reminds us of the enduring, adapting strength of story as a means to make sense of our world.

Next week I’m reading The Mall by S L Grey and the following week I’m taking a sneak peak at Wounding by Heidi James, which comes out in April this year. Further suggestions for the reading list would be most welcome.