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Guided Reading Group Part 3- Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Triology

Dr. Catherine Bates led the 2014 Guided Reading Group through a series of discussions about Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Triology.

In 1973 Atwood suggested: ‘Power is our environment. We live surrounded by it: it pervades every everything we are and do, invisible and soundless, like air…So many of the things we do in what we sadly think of as our personal lives are simply duplications of the external world or power games, power struggles (“Notes on Power PoliticsActa Victoriana 97.2: 7).

Although she wrote this as a supplement to her 1971 poetry collection, it still seems relevant to her work today. As we discussed in last night’s reading group: in her MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood envisions a world, in which: scientific development, corporate power and consumerism are inextricably linked; the internet sites teenage boys watch in the ‘privacy’ of their bedrooms make money from screening (and manipulating) global atrocities and exploitative child sex trafficking; CorpSeCorps, originally a security company protecting the most power multinational corporations is now working as the corrupt and all-pervasive police force of the world; the secret of the Secret Burgers sold in the pleeblands could be that you are eating somebody you know; and, the pills you are being advised to buy and take by your doctor could be the very things which are making you ill.

These links between consumerism and commodification, scientific development and exploitation, policing and marketing are at the core of Atwood’s dystopic imagining of a future world, which really does seem to resemble our own.

Oryx

We began by thinking about Oryx, her origins and her relationship with Jimmy and Crake. They first see her on HottTotts, ‘a global sex-trotting site….it claimed to show real sex tourists, filmed while doing things they’d be put in hail for back in their home countries. Their faces weren’t visible, their names weren’t used, but the possibilities for blackmail, Snowman realizes now, must have been extensive. The locations were supposed to be countries where life was cheap and kids were plentiful, and where you could buy anything you wanted’ (Oryx and Crake: 102-3). While none of the little girls on the site had ever seemed real, ‘Oryx was three-dimensional from the start’ for Jimmy – he is disturbed by the sensation that she is looking right at him: ‘Then she looked over her shoulder and right into the eyes of the viewer – right into Jimmy’s eyes, into the secret person inside him. I see you, that look said. I see you watching. I know you. I know what you want.’  We discussed what Jimmy projects onto Oryx here – he constructs a narrative to suggest they have a connection: is this to try and deal with his guilty feelings of attraction towards her; is it because he is disturbed by the way she has punctured his denial that the others are real – and to deal with this he has to decide she is special and can see him too?

We all agreed that Oryx remains a mystery – but this is as much to do with the fact that what we get of her is always from Jimmy’s perspective (even when she is dead, he is creating a mythology around her with and for the Crakers). She is also always an object of exchange between Jimmy and Crake – Crake prints out and keeps a picture of her, and later hires her as a live-in prostitute which he shares with Jimmy. Jimmy takes a while to realise this – it is at this stage he asks Oryx to tell her story, but (to the frustration of much of the reading group!) he shows an ability to listen to and understand her perspective without letting his own needy reactions get in the way: he wants her to be a tragic victim which he can come in and save – as it was pointed out in the group, his need to be the hero of her story, shows his inability to understand his own exploitative role within it. He first sees her when he is consuming the pornographic role she is playing – he is part of the sex industry and he remains so in her relationship with her. We debated whether he had any ethics or self-awareness – does he want to be the hero of her story, and her protector because he feels guilty on some level about the way he discovered her (watching child porn?), or is Atwood giving us Jimmy as an example of the international sex industry which thrives because of the Jimmies who watch while never understanding their own culpability? I also suggested, however, that however problematic Jimmy’s behaviour is, there is some sense he wants to be compassionate (perhaps, some little sense?) in comparison to the cold and calculated behaviour of Crake who buys Oryx and uses her to manipulate Jimmy right to the end.

We also discussed the importance of Oryx’s origins – Atwood is making a point about the international sex-trade and the continual exploitation of the poorer ‘disposable’ people in the East (or global South) by the richer ‘West’ (or global North) – Said’s Orientalism is still at play.

Is Oryx passive? Are there stronger women?

It was suggested that Oryx is quite a passive character – she spends her life being bought and then performing to please her owners – to challenge this, we discussed what Atwood was saying about power structures in the novels. Oryx is bought as a child – on the one hand she has no choice but to please her captors, or run away to almost certain death. She not only pleases her captors, she becomes a successful performer making herself very valuable – in this way she gains power within the restricted arena she has been placed. This continues to be the case throughout – while she is still an object of exchange with Jimmy and Crake in the Compound, she has reached a position of relative respect (within the sex industry), and she is in a position of some power when it comes to the Crakers within with the Paradice dome: she is still being constructed by others after her death, but she is being constructed as a Mother Goddess: this is a very gendered role, but it is powerful one.

This discussion led us to think about the other women: Toby and Amanda are both strong, powerful and independent. Amanda travels – it is she that tells is most about the rest of America – and she is the one who carve out her own career as a successful artist. She is also the one woman who survived a relationship with Jimmy unscathed. She seemed like Oryx, but stronger – both learnt to perform the roles people wanted to get what they needed (but Amanda remained in a more privileged situation, because of her global positioning as a Westerner, perhaps). However, while Toby keeps her agency throughout Year and MaddAddam, Amanda is almost destroyed in MaddAddam – we questioned why Atwood chose Amanda, who had been so inspirational, creative and strong throughout Year to be the one to be almost destroyed by the horrific sexual violence from the Painballers and then the unfortunate misunderstanding from the Craker men.

We talked about so much more

I am running out time and have written too much and we talked about so much more. Such as:

  • the backstory of CorpSeCorps’ rise to almost complete power: they began as a private security firm, took over from the police and then became the ultimate, all-powerful and pervasive protectors of corporate interests: this reminded the group of the privatisation of elderly care, large parts of the criminal justice system, universities and education, healthcare and war  in the UK and America
  • the pharmaceutical industry in the trilogy – scientific development is inextricably linked to corporate interest: lives become disposable. For many in the group, this seemed so relevant to many of the international health crises of our times: the AIDS crisis got so much worse in African countries because treatment was withheld for profit reasons (and because some lives – white lives – are seen as more valuable that non-white lives). And we are seeing this happening again with the Ebola crisis.
  • the increasing and soon-to-be all-pervasive power of multinational corporations – we ended our discussion by talking about the neoliberal drive in the US and the UK to give more and more power to business and take it away from politicians.

And so the discussion ended at this important and scary point: we ended by thinking about the role of literature and art in challenging this neoliberal logic. Amanda provokes with her bioart – the Gardeners try to provide a different narrative within their songs and storytelling sermons – the Crakers do with their singing and collaboration. And Atwood does by raising all these issues as a warning, a provocation, an invitation for us to reach the self-awareness Jimmy seems unable to reach.

I would love to know what you think about any of these issues – it was a great discussion but we want to know what you think.