I'm not going to say that my reading is going to stand up all that well alongside these other literary behemoths, but I'm not NOT going to say it either. That's right, Ben Tanzer, I just called you a behemoth.
Even for someone who reads as much as I do, three or four novels per month for pleasure and again as many for work with Silverthought, and countless short stories and non-fiction on top of that, there once in a while will come along something that feels less like a gentle nudge and more like being hit by a freight train. The last time one of these literary sledgehammers hit me was when I picked up Cormack McCarthy's The Road, and put it down finished five or six hours later after having forgotten that the world existed. That was, I think, 2006-ish, and five years later it's happened again. The book this time? Margaret Atwood's 2003 spec-fi masterpiece Oryx and Crake.
This was one of those experiences that my friends and I talk about from time to time where we pick something up once, twice, maybe half a dozen times, and just can't get into it, and then somehow the right confluence of attitude, time, and circumstance hits us and the piece finally connects. I had taken out Oryx and Crake from the library several times, read the first chapter, put it down, and returned it because I just hadn't felt the need to pick it back up before the due date. This time, though, determined to get through it just to say I'd done it, I instead got the audiobook from the library and listened to it while I was driving back and forth to work. I can say now, a week later after having devoured it and its companion novel The Year of the Flood, that virtually the only flaw of Oryx and Crake is the fact that that first chapter doesn't grab harder. Because, and I do not exaggerate, the remainder of the book was one of the half dozen most superb pieces of sci-fi/speculative fiction I've ever read. Game-changing-ly superb. Like when I read Orwell's 1984 or Jack London's The Iron Heel, I had that old familiar feeling that this was one of those books that would forever influence my work from that point forward.
Where to even start with these books? Well, I guess the best place would be to describe what they are, for those who don't know. The storyline is one of eco-terrorism, global pandemic, capitalism-gone-totatitarianism, and finally the end of the world and what comes after, told from the point of view of half a dozen characters including the two young men who are central to the plot, their common friends, lovers, family members, and associated supporting characters. Oryx and Crake is primarily about the two men, Jimmy (Snowman) and Glenn (Crake) and their lifelong friendship that evolves from having grown up in the same corporate-controlled utopian compound. Both brilliant, both slightly outcasts, they end up weaving in and out of each other's lives through high school and college until they're both employed by mega-corporations themselves. Though their lives diverge, they remain friends until the end of the world, of which the actual event is the story's revelation/climax. Their shared intellectualism in the face of a world that seems bent on simply chugging ahead with the wasteful, soulless, destructive, image-obsessed status quo binds them together, as does their love for a mysterious girl named Oryx.
The Year of the Flood is a companion novel set in the same geographic region during the same timeframe as Oryx and Crake, but is told from the point of view of several of the supporting characters from the first novel, including some of Snowman and Crake's girlfriends, their underground resistance friends, and various other notable personalities only hinted at in Oryx and Crake. Of the two, Oryx and Crake is so flatly brilliant that it's my decided favorite, but The Year of the Flood was also excellent and in particular the ending was beautifully done. Without giving anything away, I will say that if you read Oryx and Crake, you've not really read the ending until you finish The Year of the Flood as well. With the two books, Atwood creates this marvelous double-crescendo ending sequence that turns what seems at the end of Oryx and Crake to be a Lord of the Flies-style non-ending into the pause before a more robust, fitting, and epic finale.
There's just so much to like about these books. The science, the biology and anthropology alone, must have taken Atwood years to synthesize into the concepts and plot line she weaves here. The setting is fresh and interesting and manages to jump off the page, and Atwood's characterization, which was always good but has come light-years since The Handmaid's Tale, is as good in Oryx and Crake as I've seen from her. And of course the format is just about as innovative as it gets. A double story rather than a series or a trilogy, which is the regular yawning usual and something I haven't seen since Greg Bear's Hammer of God/Anvil of Stars companionate novels, and even better, concurrent ones that have highly woven plot lines and manage to create an ending that's endlessly more deft and satisfying than the typical, functional three-act structure. My brain is already working on ways to incorporate the spirit of this playfulness into some of my own work. Screw with structure, twist the conventional into something better, something cleverer, something that gets more to what you want to say...
I've had a few days to digest these books and give them some thought and I've settled on the fact that what really sets them apart from most of the post-apocalyptic fiction I've read is that even though the characters feel in very present, real peril at all times, the books ultimately are about how good friends are for the soul, and how they can make something unbearable bearable, and how even if the silly nonsense that we call "the world" fell apart, as long as there were humans left to make friends with, we'd more or less ok. That's not, of course, the plot of the story, but these books leave you with this distinct impression.
Although the year isn't over yet, and I've got some terrific books on my reading list at the moment such as Samuel Delaney's Dhalgren, Larry Niven's Ringworld, and Neal Stephenson's Anathem, all of which have garnered high praise from people I respect, I'm going to call this the year of Oryx and Crake & The Year of the Flood. It's been about five years since I've read anything so haltingly brilliant and that beckoned so directly at my own work, and it would be a tall order to match that any time soon.
One of my best purchases at Printer's Row Lit Fest this year was a copy of Lindsay Hunter's book Daddy's, which I've been meaning to get my hands on for a while. Those familiar with Chicago's literary scene, particularly the many local reading series events, will know Lindsay by her phenomenal, riveting reads. Often funny, loud, irreverent, sweaty rants of pure awesomeness, her short stories start like the sweet tang of spicy Buffalo sauce and then burn the living hell out of your guts on the way down.
I'm ashamed now, because of how good the book ended up being, that I was skeptical at first if her printed work was going to be as good in my quiet living room chair as it was being howled at me through a microphone in a bar by Lindsay herself, but I'm here to assure all of you doubters that not only is Daddy's every bit the authentic experience in book form, but several of the stories here which I've not heard her read live quickly became some of my favorite work of hers. Also, happily, the cadence of the words on the page was such that while I was reading them I was able at times to easily conjure her voice in my head using phrases like:
And then there was that day we had a dinner for you because you were leaving and I had the lady in town make you a five-layer fudge cake with a crushed potato chip layer, and on the top in script she wrote Food Luck instead of Good Luck, and I didn't say anything when I picked it up because Food Luck was goddamned right, you know?
And no, I didn't have to hunt for that, I just literally opened the book to a random page and copied the first sentence. That's how Lindsay this book is, and really, let's be honest, for this book to BE Lindsay Hunter, all those riotously hilarious and still sorta-spooky turns of phrase, all that hellacious southern swagger, is all we really want or need.
But hey, since you asked, it's also by our friends at Featherproof, who turned it into a tacklebox that's opened horizontally and read like a folded letter instead of a book, and full of their usual earmarks of "we realize there's a human being on the other end of this book that likes to be entertained in more than just one way"-ishness, including such small but welcome touches as unobtrusive but oddly eye-catching illustrations and fine details that you'll notice obliquely but which have editors and book designers like me drooling (a particularly nice title page, and clever, innovative layout throughout).
The verdict: Hunter loaded for bear, Featherproof weaving their book-voodoo, and me left wondering if I wouldn't like flash fiction a hell of a lot more if it were all this good. If you like to read books out loud, this might be an early Christmas present to give yourself. My favorite story of the whole thing? Marie Noe Talks to You About Her Kids gave me goosebumps. Not metaphorical emoticon internet goosebumps, I'm talking it turned the flesh of my arms into gravel.