One of the themes of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake seems to be conditionality.  Many of Snowman’s day-to-day thoughts revolve around an obsession with conditionalities:  “He’d be legendary, if there were anyone left to relate legends… If only he had an auditor besides himself, what yarns he could spin, what whines he could whine” (307).  Snowman would be X if Y.  If only Y, Snowman would be X.  Snowman’s self-identity is often dependent on what could have been, on extenuating circumstances that might have changed everything.

Kierkegaard, father of existentialism, said “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”  For Snowman, this freedom exists mostly in the past, while his anxiety persists in the present.  Musing about time, Snowman concludes that if he does not look at the present too closely, he is protected from the present destroying him:  “He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo” (147).  Once again, destruction is hinged on an if-clause:  The present will only destroy Snowman if he looks at it too clearly.  

In their conversation about art, Crakes asks, “Who’d write if they could do otherwise?” (167).  Jimmy presses him.  “I mean,” Crake says, “when you can’t get the other, then…”  Everything, it seems – including art – is buoyed by if-clauses. 

Prior to the Snowman’s reminiscence of the worldwide epidemic, Snowman is haunted by the idea of conditionality: “If only haunts him.  But if only what?  What could he have said or done differently? What change would have altered the course of events?  In the big picture, nothing. In the small picture, so much” (317). 

These musings parallel Atwood’s concerns about one potential future of the world – a future in which if only haunts us.  As speculative fiction, Oryx and Crake observes that we may be on a path toward sophisticated gene alteration, but reminds us that regret cannot be altered.  Perhaps novel-writing in general is obsessed with conditionalities: If we tweak this, what happens next?  If we add this to the childhood, what happens to the adult?  The ethics of genetic engineering revolve around this same question: What if?

– v2009

~ by v2009 on February 19, 2009.

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