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Jun 16 2009

The problem of endings: Review of Oryx and Crake

Almost everyone has at least heard of Margaret Atwood’s excellent futuristic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I enjoyed that book and now can also strongly recommend her 2003 offering Oryx and Crake, a thought-provoking look at the future.

It would be hard to summarize the plot without giving away too much information so instead I want to look at the novel’s structure and the problems with writing fiction in general, and futuristic or science fiction in particular.

In telling a story, one way is simply to tell it chronologically, starting at the beginning and following the characters to the end. That is somewhat old-fashioned. The structure of Oryx and Crake follows an alternative pattern that is fairly common in modern fiction. It starts with the story close to the end that has many puzzling, intriguing, and unexplained features, and then through a series of flashbacks that are interspersed with the forward chronology, the puzzling elements are slowly explained. Of course, the events in the flashbacks move much faster than the speed of events in real time so eventually, towards the end of the novel, the flashback story catches up with the real time story, and from then on the narrative moves only forward in time.

Another storytelling technique, which was used in another good novel A Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich that I read recently, is to start with a short and graphic and puzzling event, and then proceed to have different narrators tell their seemingly independent stories in flashbacks until the stories merge at the end, and the original vignette is explained.

In the case of Oryx and Crake, the story starts with a single human character who calls himself Snowman living alone in a primitive state with the decay of Earth’s destroyed civilization all around him. He lives in a tree surrounded by dangerous and unfamiliar animals, with only a dirty bed sheet for clothing, and barely exists on a subsistence diet that he scavenges from the debris and trash around him, suggesting that the collapse of civilization is quite recent. But he is not entirely alone. There is a small colony of people nearby who seem almost but not quite human, childlike in their speech and behavior, able to eat and digest grass and other plant forms that we cannot, and who seem to revere him as some kind of prophet or guru. Who are these people? How did they come to be? And what happened to destroy everything? The unraveling of these mysteries (in this case in the form of Snowman recalling the past) forms the core of the novel, and it is gripping.

In the process of telling the story, Atwood raises some deep questions about the paradoxes of progress. She basically extrapolates the science and technology we now have and poses the question of how far are we willing to go with the powerful new knowledge we possess, especially when it comes to the ability to tamper with genetics and create new life forms. Some aspects of the novel, in which a few biological research companies make fortunes by marketing dubious anti-aging and sex and health products to consumers eager to cling on to youth, already exist.

She also ponders the question of how much inequality are we willing to tolerate. Are we heading towards a deeply bifurcated society, with the few elite living and working in communities that are completely segregated from the rest of society and yet controlling everything for everyone?

One of the biggest problem that a teller of tales faces is how to end the story. It is relatively easy to spin scenarios. It is more difficult to see beyond the immediate consequences and to have the characters develop. I have never written a novel because while I can think of interesting plots, I soon get defeated by how to progress beyond a certain point.

Nowhere is this problem of endings more acute than in comedy where one can imagine developing a funny sketch but then flounder about trying to bring it to a close, searching for an elusive punch line. Many film comedies suffer because of this. Monty Python solved this problem in their TV series of sketch comedies by deliberately breaking the spell and abruptly inserting a cartoon or otherwise jumping to the next sketch with no continuity. This non sequitur method did not work when it came to their first feature-length film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That ending was unsatisfying, especially since up to that point the film was terrific. This may be because there was a unifying narrative to the film that made the viewers more emotionally invested in expecting an outcome, and they expected a better resolution. Their next film Monty Python’s Life of Brian had a much better ending.

Classical storytellers tended to use closed endings. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, end with either happy-ever-after final scenes in the comedies or practically everyone dying in the tragedies. Some modern fiction writers follow that same pattern. In the Harry Potter books for instance, there was a satisfying climactic scene where all the major issues are resolved and everything was explained. There was even an epilogue describing the lives of the main characters many years later, which actually was a bit of overkill that could have been dispensed with.

This kind of closed-ending can be satisfying to the reader, but it also shuts down speculation and can be artificial. Real life rarely has such closure. The authors of more sophisticated modern novels tend to avoid such pat endings. An alternative way is to end abruptly, to just bring down the curtain, leaving the reader to speculate on what happens next. This can be dissatisfying to the reader, like watching a comedian who goes to elaborate lengths to set up a joke and then tells you to supply the punch line yourself.

On balance, I am a low-brow reader who likes closed endings, where there is a clear denouement. Maybe that is why I still enjoy the who-dunnit mystery novel genre of the type made famous by the Sherlock Holmes stories or the Agatha Christie novels, where events leads up to climax and resolution where everything is explained, and the tension is broken. With many modern novels, even those that I liked, after some time I forget how they ended, because they did not end in a memorable way but simply stopped. The tension dissipates slowly.

Oryx and Crake also ends with the reader wondering what comes next. But don’t let that deter you. It is a terrific book.

3 comments

  1. 1
    dave

    I am a big fan of Oryx and Crake and recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction or apocalyptic fiction

    The development of Oryx in the book is quite good and I found her attitude towards her own life very interesting. For example, when talking about her childhood she didn’t play the victim card. Rather, she brushed most of it aside with lines like, ‘That was movies.’

    As an aside, the audio book version read by Campbell Scott is very good.

  2. 2
    Norm Nason

    “The Handmaid’s Tale” was also made into an excellent movie in 1990, staring the late Natasha Richardson. Recommended.

  3. 3
    Mike Pirnat

    Thanks for the review; Oryx and Crake sounds really interesting. You may be interested to try out Neal Stephenson’s recent Anathem if you haven’t already.

    What makes the technique of flashbacks from different perspectives really fun is when the different versions of the story are contradictory, as in Kurosawa’s classic film Rashômon. One of my favorite bits from “The Simpsons” references this…

    MARGE: You liked Rashomon!
    HOMER: That’s not the way I remember it!

    For some reason, that joke never gets old to me. :-)

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