Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Character in a Post-National World: Neomedievalism in Atwood's Oryx and Crake

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Character in a Post-National World: Neomedievalism in Atwood's Oryx and Crake

Article excerpt

This essay reads Atwood's Oryx and Crake through the lens of the International Relations theory known as neomedievalism. This lens illuminates the more subversive elements of the text as Atwood questions the viability of a post-national world and challenges the capacity of the modern novel to represent it.

Unlike its Booker Prize-winning predecessor The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake received lukewarm reviews when it appeared in 2003. Detractors tended to share the same critique: the novel's eponymous characters Oryx and Crake both lack psychological depth and plausibility. For instance, Michiko Kakutani calls the novel "a lumpy hodge-podge of a book" and complains that "the novel's villain, Crake, is a cardboardy creation, and so for that matter is the beauteous but elusive Oryx" (E9). Sven Birkerts decries that "its characters all lack the chromosome that confers deeper human credibility" (A12), while Oliver Morton claims that Oryx and Crake "feel more like plot devices than people" (79). Atwood's "cardboardy" characterizations of Oryx and Crake have proved problematic for literary critics as well. In "History and Allegory in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake," Francoise Storey writes, "Oryx and Crake as characters seem to be devoid of personality, as if their symbolic value superseded their importance as characters" (132). Storey's assessment might explain why a diverse array of critical approaches to the novel routinely interpret Oryx and Crake through archetype or allegory. For example, J. Brooks Bouson claims that Crake "is presented as an amalgam of the mad-impersonal-amoral scientist figures found in literature and popular culture" (145-46). Bouson is not alone in expressing such a view. In fact, critics such as Earl Ingersoll (170), Barbara Korte (161), Cynthia Kuhn (400), and Sharon Rose Wilson (47--48) all read Crake through the "mad scientist" archetype. Roger Davis (245), Stephen Dunning (95), and Dunja Mohr (18-19) each view Oryx and Crake, along with Snowman, as representative of the Christian Trinity. And Sarah Appleton goes so far as to read the entire story as a product of Jimmy's imagination, whereby "Crake" and "Oryx" represent multiple parts of Jimmy's psyche.

While reviewers like Kakutani lament the disappearance of Atwood's "storytelling skills, so nimbly on display in her 2000 novel 'The Blind Assassin'" (E9), critics assume that Atwood characters who are devoid of personality or depth must serve some higher purpose. Both readings of Oryx and Crake err in approaching the novel as the product of the author of The Handmaid's Tale--the work with which it is most often compared. Instead, Oryx and Crake represents the culmination of what Eleanora Rao calls Atwood's "postnationalist phase" (101). Rao contends that, since Atwood's 1991 work Wilderness Tips, the author has put "into question narratives of national attachment by refusing to adhere to the limitations of the nation-state and its related discourses of territory and identity" (112). Oryx and Crake presents the apotheosis of this new poetics because of the neomedievalism with which Atwood renders her post-national society. In a neomedieval context, Atwood's portrayals of Oryx and Crake become not evidence of an author's waning storytelling skills or unrealistic characters in an "almost-allegorical novel" (Hollinger 467), but rather key pieces of a subversive narrative strategy.

Neomedievalism was first conceived by Hedley Bull, in his seminal 1977 text The Anarchical Society, as "a system of overlapping authorities and crisscrossing loyalties that hold all people together in a universal society" (246). Since then, but particularly since 9/11, it has become a prominent metaphor in International Relations (IR) to describe a world of simultaneous globalization and fragmentation where the nationstate persists, though weakened. Such a world resembles that of Western Christendom during the Middle Ages, when the universalism of the Catholic Church coexisted with the fragmentation of kingdoms into fiefdoms. …

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