Author: Snyder, Katherine V
Date published: December 1, 2011
Journal code: PSNO
Any fictional text, however realistic, portrays a world that is not real. But speculative fiction-as Margaret Atwood designates her futurist, dystopian novels, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Oryx and Crake (2003), and The Year of the Flood (2009)-offers a particular and explicit challenge to its readers' sense of the temporal distance separating the fictional mise-en-scène from the contemporary real world. Dystopian speculative fiction takes what already exists and makes an imaginative leap into the future, following current sociocultural, political, or scientific developments to their potentially devastating conclusions. In Atwood's words, speculative fictions explore "the consequences of new and proposed technologies in graphic ways by showing them as fully operational," which is something that "'novels' as usually defined cannot do" (In Other Worlds 62). Yet the imaginative effects of dystopian literary speculations depend precisely on their readers' recognition of a potential social realism in the fictional worlds portrayed therein. These cautionary tales of the future work by evoking an uncanny sense of the simultaneous familiarity and strangeness of these brave new worlds.
The future as imagined in dystopian speculative fiction must be simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable, both like and not-like the present (see Suvin 71; see also Appleton, Howells, and Mohr). In order to grasp the caution offered by the tale, we must see the imagined future in our actual present and also recognize the difference between now and the futureas- imagined. Thus, the reader of such fiction must sustain a kind of double consciousness with respect both to the fictionality of the world portrayed and to its potential as our own world's future. In Atwood's Oryx and Crake, for example, we find a near-future world that both approximates and projects forward from the political, socio-economical, technological, and climatological givens of our present moment. In the near future as imagined by Atwood, elites work and play in manicured gated communities, while everyone else is relegated to dangerous urban jungles known as pleeblands; biotech corporations command their own secret police forces such as the CorpSeCorps (short for Corporation Security Corps, but also, more grimly, Corpse Corps); genetically engineered life forms are trademarked and marketed for medical purposes and lifestyle enhancement; and the dire effects of rising sea levels and droughts associated with global warming are accepted by a younger generation that mocks the nostalgic longings of their parents and grandparents for a long ago golden age. The futurist setting of the novel suggests that we are at risk of coming to such a pass, though some readers may feel that this is already substantially, if not literally, the way we live now.
Readers of Oryx and Crake are not alone in their temporally uncertain, or doubled, relation to the novel's dystopian mise-en-scène. For Atwood's protagonist-born "Jimmy" but introduced to the reader as "Snowman"-the futurist dystopia sketched above is already a memory. Oryx and Crake opens with Snowman awakening to a bleak, post-apocalyptic world that makes the socio-economic disparities and biotechnological threats of his past, a past in which he was still "Jimmy" and a past that stands as the reader's possibly inevitable future, look rosy by comparison. We don't immediately understand what has happened to Snowman's world, or when, but as we continue to read, we apprehend that Snowman believes himself to be the sole survivor of a global pandemic that has extinguished the rest of humanity. Gradually, we learn of Snowman's largely unwitting, yet also willfully unknowing, complicity in a scheme by which a bioengineered super virus was disseminated across the globe. The same mad scientist (Jimmy's best friend Crake) who masterminded the pandemic also bio-engineered a small tribe of genetically "improved" trans-humans, primitive but gentle replacements for humanity, who have been left under Snowman's care to inherit the earth. From the retrospective point of view of the novel's last man, as well as from the prospective point of view of the novel's reader, the difference between past and present, between our nearer and later future, is all the difference in the world. It is the difference between a human future and no future at all.1
The novel thus orders time, for both reader and protagonist, with respect to the breakpoint of apocalypse: pre- and post- are its main markers of temporality. Not only does the pandemic bisect time into "before" and "after" for its sole survivor, it also disrupts his immediate relation to time. It is no coincidence that one of Snowman's first acts when the novel opens is to look at his stopped wristwatch, an act that only confirms what he already knows, or what he can no longer know, about time: "A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is" (3). As we soon come to understand, he is marooned in time, cast away between a human past and a post-human future, cut off from the past yet unable to move beyond it. Like the abominable legend after which he re-names himself, Snowman is a relic of a lost world, a postapocalyptic atavism who has lived past his own time and conceivably past the human epoch. His re-naming is his attempt, albeit an unsuccessful one, to erase memories of the past in order to come to grips with the present: "'My name is Snowman,' said Jimmy, who had thought this over....He needed to forget the past-the distant past, the immediate past, the past in any form. He needed to exist only in the present, without guilt, without expectation....Perhaps a different name would do that for him" (348-49). Snowman is haunted by memories of the past, or, rather, he is himself a kind of ghost, a specter of the past who haunts an unimaginable present yet is denied the consolation of a future: "[I]t's given Snowman a bitter pleasure to adopt this dubious label. The Abominable Snowman-existing and not existing, flickering at the edges of blizzards, apelike man or manlike ape, stealthy, elusive, known only through rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints" (7-8). Troubled by an urgent sense that his time is running out, Snowman's sense of time itself is troubled and, with it, his very sense of self is troubled.
Indeed, Snowman's post-apocalyptic plight literalizes the temporal disruption that has come to be understood as a hallmark of traumatized consciousness. Contemporary trauma theory has identified temporal delay, along with other distortions of temporality, as a key way in which trauma manifests itself. According to Cathy Caruth, trauma "is not experienced as a mere repression or defense, but as a temporal delay that carries the individual beyond the shock of the first moment. The trauma is a repeated suffering of the event, but it is also a continual leaving of its site" (Trauma 10). In this formulation, temporal delay is as much a way of coping with a traumatic event as it is a sign that the event could not be coped with at the moment when it occurred, a sign that the event was, and is still, traumatic. As Caruth, following Freud, describes it, a traumatic event only has its full impact upon the individual in retrospect, after a later event triggers the psychic effect of the earlier event. Thus, a trauma is always composed of at least two moments in time that stand in a mutually determinative relation to each other. The future moment activates the meaning of the past moment, but that past moment also endows the future moment with meaning; the past determines the future, but the future also retrodetermines, or gives new meaning to, the past.2
The doubled temporality of dystopian speculative fiction thus bears a marked resemblance to the doubled temporality of trauma. Whereas trauma theory conceives of the present in its vexed relation to the past, dystopian speculative fiction imagines the present in its vexed relation to the future. But both dystopian speculative fiction and trauma theory reflect on the permeable boundary between reality and fantasy, whether that fantasy is prospective or retrospective, projective or retroactive. In other words, dystopian speculative fiction and trauma theory alike concern themselves with what is here and now, as well as with what will be or may already have been lost. For example, the post-apocalyptic futurist scenario in Atwood's Oryx and Crake, as in dystopian speculative fiction more generally, produces in its readers a mingled, even contradictory, sense of self-recognition and non-recognition, of identification and dis-identification with the portrayed subjects of unspeakable loss. As we read, our anxiety that our own clock may be inexorably counting down toward global environmental catastrophe is coupled with relief-or is it denial?-that we have not yet crossed the threshold of the unthinkable. The novel teeters, and we teeter with it, on the unstable brink that separates real from imagined, now from later, an exercise that blurs the line between what is inside and outside the self, between what is already present in our world and what may be yet to come.
Oryx and Crake further blurs these lines by juxtaposing the putative ultimate catastrophe of human extinction in Snowman's present with a series of smaller scale traumas that shaped his past from his earliest childhood memories forward. The novel does not imply that such different orders of trauma are commensurate. Losing one's mother at a tender age is not the end of the world. It just feels that way. But that is Atwood's point. The pandemic that marks the split between the novel's two time schemes stands as a singular, time-stopping, world-ending event, and it also stands as a repetition of earlier traumatic events in Snowman's private life. The novel demonstrates how the trauma of the protagonist's early losses, his delayed incorporation of unmourned losses and possibly of the unmournable absences upon which his very subjectivity is founded, sets the stage for the re-enactment of cataclysmic trauma on the global stage. By juxtaposing the horror of human extinction with more mundane, private losses, or even with absence as a defining condition of human subjectivity itself, Oryx and Crake challenges its characters' and readers' attempts to draw a cordon sanitaire between what happens at home and what happens in (and to) the world.
Atwood's plotting of pandemic in the novel thus emphasizes the futility of attempting to quarantine an individual's subjective interiority from relations among historical subjects who are connected to each other in ever-widening, overlapping circles of power and obligation: the familial, the corporate, the national, the global, the non-human and the post-human. The political danger of collapsing such distinctions, both for Atwood's novel and for my reading of it, is that such a move may occlude differences between existential absence and historical loss, as well as differences among relative degrees and kinds of trauma; it may, as well, risk obscuring the difference between traumatized subjects and the perpetrators of traumatizing violence (who may, admittedly, themselves experience forms of trauma).3 Yet there are potential conceptual gains to be made from such juxtapositions as well, especially insofar as they highlight the imbrication of the familial and the global in the constitution of human relations and human subjectivity itself. By showing us how the doubled temporality of trauma may disorder the everyday and the end-of-days alike, Atwood's novel provides the reader with a template for proleptically mourning a global fate that may already be unavoidable or, alternatively, for prescriptively re-writing humanity's seemingly inevitable demise.
My attention to the role of trauma in Oryx and Crake develops from and extends a substantial body of criticism that has flourished in a recursive relation to Atwood's ever-expanding oeuvre. Over the four decades of her prolific writing career, at least four book-length studies and many shorter readings of Atwood's work that assume an explicitly psychoanalytic perspective have been published, as well as countless others that treat issues of subjectivity in her fiction more variously. (See Bouson, Gupta, Mycak, and Rao. See also Tolan.) The two most fully sustained psychoanalytic readings of Oryx and Crake approach the novel from the perspective of ego psychology in order to focus upon Crake as an emblem of therapeutic modernity (Dunning), and from the perspective of Lacanian analysis in order to read Oryx as a feminine subject whose laughter signifies resistance to the object economy (Hall). My own approach here, by contrast, deploys the insights of contemporary trauma theory in order to focus upon the novel's main protagonist and focalizer, the character whose experience and perspective structure the narrative. Snowman's double status as the text's primary survivor of and witness to trauma fundamentally shapes the novel's treatment of the complex interplay between memory and fantasy, between individual and collective experience, and of the affective and ethical obligations presented at the crossroads of human history and futurity.
In what follows, I shall limn the ways that Atwood's novel enacts the temporal disturbances that complicate the "post"-ness of both the postapocalyptic and the post-traumatic. The first section of my essay examines how the narrative's doubled time scheme manifests the temporal delay that is a defining feature of trauma and contributes to the protagonist's disrupted sense of self and of his place in the larger world. The second section considers the epistemological disturbances, especially the blanks and repetitions, that disturb Snowman's post-apocalyptic subjectivity, with particular attention to the indeterminate status of the voices-both remembered and fantasized, both singular and plural, both individual and generic-he hears in his head. The third section argues that the novel portrays the protagonist's pre-apocalyptic past as already disrupted by earlier traumas associated with sexualized violence, and that his vexed witnessing of these scenes of origins and endings invokes the reader's own complex ethical and affective engagement with this fictional world. The fourth section of the essay further assesses the role of traumatic witness within the text by attending to its portrayal of the returned gaze as a crucial element of mediated spectacle. Finally, the last section turns to the virtually verbatim repetition of the lines that introduce the opening and closing chapters of Oryx and Crake, a repetition-with-a-difference that shapes our understanding of this post-apocalyptic novel's conspicuously open ending.
The Narrative's Doubled Time Scheme and the Temporal Doubling of Trauma
Oryx and Crake foregrounds the temporal disruptions of trauma most explicitly in its narrative's doubled time scheme. The novel does not simply begin in the protagonist's post-apocalyptic present, then leap back to the preapocalyptic beginning of the story to explain how this fictional world came, and how our world might yet come, to such a pass. Rather, the narrative alternates in consecutive chapters between the present story of Snowman and the past story of Jimmy, moving forward in a more-or-less linear fashion through each story until the point at which the past "catches up" with the present. While both time schemes move forward in an essentially chronological manner, that of the present is structured around a physical journey backward. Snowman retraces his steps to the place that marked the beginning of the end for humankind as a whole and for him as an individual.
The destination of his arduous reverse journey-a journey filled with lifethreatening dangers: injury and infection, sunburn and starvation, attacks by fierce, genetically engineered animal hybrids including "pigoons" (pigs with human DNA used to cultivate spare organs for human transplant surgery) and "wolvogs" (wolf-dog hybrids)-is the "Paradice dome." This is the bioengineering laboratory in which Crake and his team created and housed a new species of transhumans, known as "Crakers." The dome is a kind of man-made Eden, a highly controlled environment in which these new Adams and Eves were kept in an enforced state of innocence, cordoned off from all knowledge deemed by their human maker to be confusing, risky, or otherwise contaminating. Their only human contact was Oryx, Crake's lover and soonto- be Jimmy's lover as well, who is charged by Crake with visiting them daily and teaching them fundamental lessons in "[b]otany and zoology....In other words, what not to eat and what could bite. And what not to hurt" (309). And the dome is also where Jimmy seals himself in with the Crakers to sit out the worst of the pandemic until a shortage of provisions necessitates their exodus.
When Snowman journeys to Paradice, he is covering ground that he has traveled before: his trip back to Paradice reverses the path he followed between the (plot) time when the pandemic hit and the (narrative) moment when the novel begins. Yet that original trip out of Paradice is unrepresented during the bulk of the story's telling. It is a narrative blank, comparable to post-traumatic amnesia. This blank gets filled in only after the past and present time schemes converge late in the novel, a convergence which takes place, significantly, after Snowman returns to Paradice, "ground zero" for the pandemic, the traumatic event that divides then from now, pre-apocalypse from post-apocalypse, Jimmy from Snowman. And it is only after this temporal and physical convergence that Snowman's present narrative begins to move forward without the past simultaneously unfolding in the even-numbered chapters. The alternation between present and past time schemes ends with chapter 12, which narrates the final events of the past and the first events of the present. In the remaining three chapters of the novel, the narrative remains in the present. (See Appleton 18-20, Cole 5, Hollinger 456, Howells 170 and 173, and Osborne 28 and 31.)
But the present time of the novel's last three chapters is hardly untethered from the past. It is far from a quasi-amnesiac "now" into which we awaken, as Snowman does in the novel's opening chapter, lacking temporal moorings to orient us in relation to what has come before. By this point in the story, we have retraced Snowman's route, both his physical return to the Paradice dome in the present and his life story from childhood through to adulthood. We at least know where he has been, if not where he will end up. Thus Chapter 13 is structured around a flashback-indeed, the greater part of this chapter is analeptic-to the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Oryx and Crake. The action of Chapter 13, in other words, transpires as much in the past of the plot as it does in the present of the narrative. But, significantly, the past here is already post-apocalyptic: it begins after the end of human history and stands as the beginning of a new history.
Whereas chapter 13 is predominantly analeptic, focusing on past events that occurred before the moment at which the novel opens yet still after the apocalypse, chapter 14 remains largely in the post-apocalyptic present, with Snowman leaving the Paradice dome to return to the Crakers whom he has left on the beach. This journey in the present clearly involves a repetition: it is Snowman's second trip out of Paradice, a trip down an all too familiar road. Such repetition suggests the implausibility of a fresh start or a new beginning for Snowman. And yet, even though his path out of Paradice inexorably retraces his earlier voyage, it is the first time he has undertaken this journey from the dome in the present, and this is a significant difference. Snowman still hears voices. He will undoubtedly remain haunted by the past, but the temporal syncing of the story with its telling in these final chapters suggests an amalgamation of past and present that holds possibility for his individual future as well as for the future of humanity.
Thus, when Snowman ponders in the novel's final chapter-entitled "Footprint," in homage to Daniel Defoe's famous castaway-whether or not to reveal his existence to the other human survivors he discovers on the beach, he does so with the knowledge that any attempt at human contact may be his last act: "From habit he lifts his watch; it shows him its blank face. Zero hour, Snowman thinks. Time to go" (374). Does "[t]ime to go" here mean that it is time for him to face his postponed but inevitable death, or that it is time to try, once again, to live? And if it means time to live, does living mean rejoining and rebuilding humanity, or eliminating these other human survivors in order to afford the posthuman Crakers a better chance at survival?4 The novel's final words, and Snowman's last thought in the book, signal both the strong possibility of a final ending and also the slim but real chance of a new beginning, one that repeats the past with a difference in order to make possible a future imperfect.
Lost Memories: Snowman's Post-Apocalyptic Present
The temporal disturbances manifest in the novel's doubled time scheme are most explicitly registered by epistemological disturbances, both blanks and repetitions, that shape its rendering of Snowman's post-apocalyptic present. Oryx and Crake begins with Snowman waking before dawn to a sunrise that is both strange and familiar, or perhaps strange because it is familiar: "On the eastern horizon there's a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender" (3). Something "deadly" has happened here, but what? And when? The reader, like Snowman, opens her eyes upon an uncanny world whose origins are insistently present but unreadable, whose history is inescapable yet inaccessible. The present-tense narration of this new but compromised dawn hints at a traumatic past event yet withholds the context that would allow the reader to understand what has happened, or is still happening, or what it all means.
The narrative's present-tense rendering of Snowman's consciousness registers his disturbed epistemological relation to the past. His post-traumatic mental landscape, like the post-apocalyptic physical landscape upon which the novel opens, is cluttered with random "things from before" (7), things whose meaning in and for the present is dubious at best:
"It is the strict adherence to daily routine that tends towards the maintenance of good morale and the preservation of sanity," he says out loud. He has the feeling he's quoting from a book, some obsolete, ponderous directive written in aid of European colonials running plantations of one kind or another. He can't recall ever having read such a thing, but that means nothing. There are a lot of blank spaces in his stub of a brain, where memory used to be. (4-5)
He remembers yet does not remember; the past impinges yet is irretrievable. Those "blank spaces" on the colonial map that Conrad's Marlow recalls longingly in Heart of Darkness-"When I grow up, I will go there," Marlow remembers his childhood vow-are here replaced with the "blank spaces" in Snowman's memory, spaces that obscure the origins of the fragments cluttering his consciousness.5
Throughout the post-apocalyptic strand of the narrative, Snowman continues to hear voices in his head, some of them authoritative written voices comparable to that of the colonial handbook described above, some of them the spoken voices of significant and not-so-significant others from his past: the voices of Crake and Oryx, of his father and mother, of former teachers and school friends, even those of an anonymous "motivational lecturer" (237) and a "stand-up comic" (37). Most often, however, the voice that Snowman hears speaking to him in the absence of all actual human voices is not a specific aural memory associated with a particular person, but the aural hallucination of an unidentified yet intimately familiar woman's voice whispering in his ear. When he first hears this voice, he identifies it as that of a "professional sexskills expert" he had once "bought" (11).6 As it continues to whisper in his ear throughout the narrative, in tones ranging from seductive to mocking, from consoling to demanding, from wistful to matter of fact, we come to recognize its imaginary female speaker as both utterly generalized-an everywoman who is variably a prostitute, his mother, a friend, his lover-and at the same time utterly specific: Oryx playing all of these roles.
Reflecting on the many incarnations of Oryx in his memory, Snowman asks himself whether there ever was "only one Oryx, or was she legion?"
But any would do, thinks Snowman as the rain runs down his face. They are all time present [sic], because they are all here with me now.
Oh Jimmy, this is so positive. It makes me happy when you grasp this. Paradice is lost, but you have a Paradice within you, happier far. Then that silvery laugh, right in his ear. (308)
At the same time that the voice in his head helps Snowman to maintain his melancholic fantasy of the continued presence of his beloved, it also tells him otherwise: that "silvery laugh" mockingly undoes the comforting assurances of the voice's words. (See also Hall 194 and Spiegel 127-33.) The voice's quotation of Michael's consolatory line to Adam at the end of Paradise Lost is ironic not only because of the patent absurdity of its suggestion that Atwood's bereft last man may now enjoy a post-apocalyptic paradise within but also because of the attendant assumption that he had ever enjoyed a prelapsarian paradise without. Oryx and Crake challenges the very notion of a golden age by portraying Snowman's pre-apocalyptic experience and subjectivity, his life as Jimmy, as fundamentally shaped by trauma.
Traumatic Witness and the Pre-Apocalyptic Past
We have seen how Atwood's novel deploys a doubled time scheme to manifest trauma's temporal doubling, and how it portrays Snowman's posttraumatic mental landscape in the post-apocalyptic present as simultaneously riddled by blanks and cluttered with debris, a psychic wasteland whose meaning is grounded in loss. Here, I will argue that the novel not only portrays the post-apocalyptic present as a time of repeated trauma, but that it also portrays Snowman's pre-apocalyptic past as already disrupted, indeed as fundamentally constituted, by earlier traumas. The narration of Snowman's past is organized around a series of scenes that, as Jimmy, he witnessed in his childhood and young adulthood. These scenes all foreground, albeit in different ways, sexual violence, unknowable origins, and the paradoxical status of the witness to and survivor of trauma. (See Lukacher 24-25 and Morganstern.)
The structuring of Oryx and Crake's narrative around such witnessed scenes is crucial to the novel's interweaving of absence and loss, insidious and event-based trauma, personal suffering and global cataclysm. These scenes reveal not only trauma's doubled temporality, but also the ways in which these presumably separate registers or orders of trauma are mutually imbricated. The pandemic-a singular traumatic event of global proportions, yet one that replays past private traumas for the protagonist-marks the moment at which these two registers of the narrative collide, or the moment at which they are revealed to have been one all along. When the pandemic hits, the novel's domestic plot crashes into its global plot, or, rather, each plot explodes, blossom-like, to reveal the other within. Its familial and sexual plots of kinship, intimacy, and estrangement are shown to be of a piece with the pandemic bioengineering plot, a plot that at one level concerns genetic speciation, hybridity, and extinction, and at another concerns infection, sabotage, and surveillance. The trouble at home at once predetermines and is retrodetermined by the cataclysmic world events around which the narrative is structured.
In this way, Atwood's novel portrays trauma as the shock or wound that disrupts the integrity of the subject, and also as that which is already present within the subject, indeed as that which constitutes the very structure of the protagonist's self. This portrayal is consistent with the paradoxical status of trauma as an unprecedented event and also as a secondary trigger that retrodetermines the meaning of earlier events for the subject. In structuring Snowman's life story around recollected early traumatic scenes, the narrative demonstrates how he experiences the trauma of the pandemic as the return of the interior from without. It is this uncanny aspect of the protagonist's experience, I contend, that is fundamental to the imaginative investments of the reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. Post-apocalyptic fiction serves as rehearsal or preview for its readers, an opportunity to witness in fantasy origins and endings that are fundamentally unwitnessable. We are horrified and yet thrilled to see ourselves and our world in the unthinkable plight portrayed here, and even more horrified and thrilled to see the origins of this plight in ourselves. Disavowal inevitably accompanies such a traumatic self-recognition: the reader insists to herself that the self-recognition is, in fact, a mis-recognition, that this world is not our world...or what may become of our world in the future. For the reader of post-apocalyptic fiction, as for Atwood's post-apocalyptic protagonist, such a protective, self-defensive stance does not have a single or intrinsic meaning. Denial may produce repetition, but it can also serve as the grounds for the refusal of repetition, or for repetition with a difference.
Chapter 1, as already seen, opens upon a quasi-amnesiac present in which Snowman is haunted by fragmentary memories of the past. Chapter 2 begins the story again, this time with a fairy-tale preamble that wishfully invokes yet ironically denies the notion of prelapsarian innocence, of childhood as a time before a fall into knowledge: "Once upon a time, Snowman wasn't Snowman. Instead he was Jimmy. He'd been a good boy then" (15). (See also Appleton, Howells, and Osborne.) Jimmy's story proper then begins with his "earliest complete memory" (15) of observing, together with his scientist father, a bonfire in which the infected corpses of genetically modified lab animals are being incinerated, a memory which cedes almost immediately in the narrative to an even earlier memory, this one of a self-inflicted haircut and his ineffectual attempt to hide the evidence from his parents by burning the clippings. What links these early memories, in addition to the burning smell, is Jimmy's association of them with the fights that he witnessed between his parents, apparently frequent spectacles for which he served both as audience and pretext. The culmination of each marital blow-up that he witnesses, the time he spends alone with one parent or the other, seems to fulfill his unspoken wish to become, however fleetingly or fantasmatically, his mother's or father's significant other rather than a third wheel to their marriage. These memories, then, involve deeply ambivalent feelings: a conflicted sense of empathetic identification playing against voyeuristic sadism, of anxious pleasure against frightened horror. The actual or fantasized fulfillment of his wish is both exquisitely pleasurable and excruciatingly guilt-provoking for the child. The apparent return of his interior world from without, this uncanny confirmation of the power of his wishes, is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.
The psychic and narrative dynamics of these early familial scenes-scenes whose meaning is retrodetermined by the traumatic events that shape the pandemic plot-are replayed in the novel's climactic scene, the scene to which Snowman literally returns over the course of the post-apocalyptic narrative. Snowman's return to the Paradice dome is a return to the "birthplace" of the Crakers and to the refuge from the pandemic that he shared with them. But it is also a return to the scene of a crime. Most obviously, Paradice was the site of Crake's Promethean crimes of re-creating humanity in an image of his own making and of bioengineering the germ of genocide, a scene of transgressive origins and endings. But the dome houses a spectacle that even more literally suggests a Freudian primal scene: the sight of the moldering corpses of Oryx and Crake, intertwined in an eternal deathly embrace. Snowman can trace the origins of the pandemic directly to this tableau of love and loss. The novel even suggests that, for him, the global trauma of the pandemic merely confirms the more devastating personal trauma of the loss of these significant others: "The worst of it was that those people out there-the fear, the suffering, the wholesale death-did not really touch him. Crake used to say that Homo sapiens sapiens was not hard-wired to individuate other people in numbers above two hundred, the size of the primal tribe, and Jimmy would reduce that number to two" (343). I would revise Jimmy's estimate of the quorum required for human individuation slightly upward to a count of three: in this foundational scene of desire and abjection, as in the primal scene as traditionally conceived by psychoanalytic theory, it takes two-plus one to watch.
Snowman knows that this tableau mordant awaits him upon his return to Paradice because he had a hand, albeit a forced one, in its making. In the novel's climactic moment, as in the traumatic scenes of his childhood that predetermine and retrodetermine this traumatic event, Atwood's protagonist witnesses, and then repeats, an act of sexualized violence, albeit one that could equally plausibly be described as an act of murderous altruism. Upon witnessing the unthinkable spectacle of Crake slitting the throat of the fatally infected Oryx, Jimmy reacts by committing an act that is equally unthinkable: he shoots his best friend, the fatally infected Crake. This overdetermined act combines Oedipal rebellion with filial compliance, patricidal vengeance with tender mercy, transgressive desire with horrified revulsion. While Jimmy recognizes that he is enacting a script Crake has written for him, this recognition does not make the script any less compulsory. In retrospect, Snowman understands that Crake had most likely plotted the entire course of events: from his recruitment of Jimmy as his second-in-command, to Oryx's supposedly clandestine seduction of and sexual liaison with Jimmy, even to the denouement of Oryx's mercy killing and Crake's assisted suicide on the threshold of the dome. In retrospect, he understands that "once upon a time," back when he was still Jimmy, he had already been in possession of this knowledge, even though he willfully averted his gaze from it. "We understand more than we know" (328), thinks Snowman as the narrative recounts, at last, the traumatic events that ended Jimmy's world and began his own.
Jimmy is a coerced witness and unwitting accomplice to this pivotal scene of love and loss, but he is also its survivor. Without doubt, he remains in thrall to Crake, both in the act of killing him and in accepting responsibility for the Crakers after their creator is gone. In the double bind of this Oedipal dilemma, betraying the symbolic father is paradoxically the ultimate act of filial allegiance, not to mention sexual intimacy (see Barzilai). Yet once Snowman's return to Paradice retrodetermines the death scene's meanings, the narrative disclosure of their final exchange registers a potential shift of power: "As Jimmy watched, frozen with disbelief, Crake let Oryx fall backwards, over his left arm. He looked at Jimmy, a direct look, unsmiling. 'I'm counting on you,' he said. Then he slit her throat. Jimmy shot him" (329). However manipulative it may be, Crake's "direct look" nonetheless acknowledges a truth that has, until Snowman's return to the scene of the crime, been hidden in plain view. Snowman may only have the power to execute Crake's will, but his traumatic witnessing of this scene ultimately deepens his earlier recognition that he has been anointed as Crake's agent; his fuller understanding of the ethical implications of that role may permit him to revise the script in the future, even while he unavoidably plays out his assigned part.7
Looking Back and Traumatic Repetition
It is no accident that this crucial scene of traumatic witnessing culminates with a returned gaze, a mirroring gaze that inverts the onlooker's position yet stands, in this hall of mirrors, as a new spectacle. Indeed, scenes of looking back, imagined by this protagonist as shared moments of authenticity and truth, are among the most privileged of the novel's scenes of traumatic witness. These scenes are not all as emphatically Oedipalized as the one described above, though they do tend to focus on symbolic origins and endings, love and inevitable loss, presence and unavoidable absence. One key scene of the returned gaze as spectacle occurs as the culmination of an early tour de force passage in which Atwood details the online peregrinations of the adolescent Jimmy and Crake, her prose evoking the accretive and proliferative, sensational and desensitized, "highly connected yet deeply fragmented" (Kelly 466) experience of Internet spectacle. (On the role of media and gaming in Oryx and Crake, see especially Bouson  and Dunning, as well as Bergthaller 736, Cooke 116, and Spiegel 124.) On one of the many pornographic websites they frequent, "HottTotts, a global sex-trotting site" (89), the teenage boys catch their first glimpse of Oryx as a third-world child prostitute who, with two other young girls, is performing oral sex upon an adult male customer whose face is obscured by a mask: "Oryx paused in her activities. She smiled a hard little smile that made her appear much older, and wiped the whipped cream from her mouth. 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" (90-91) Crake captures, downloads and prints this image of Oryx's searing returned gaze, and gives Jimmy a copy.
In saving "the moment when Oryx looked" (91), Crake and Jimmy engage in a form of fetishistic souvenir-collecting similar to those of the globe-trotting sex tourists whom they watch online. We are told that the act of downloading Oryx's image "could be dangerous-it could leave a footprint for anyone who might manage to trace a way through the [hacked computer] labyrinth-but Crake did it anyway" (91). Indeed, we sense that this danger is a crucial part of the pleasure, especially in light of the reflection on the previous page that "few of these [disguised sex tourists] wanted to be spotted by the folks back home, though the possibility of detection must have been part of the thrill" (90). The fulfillment of the touristic desire for authenticity depends upon the tourist's ability to authenticate the experience, to save the moment by capturing it in visual form, especially when this act of authentication is fraught with at least a modicum of danger. The experience of having sex with one of the locals is confirmed, both fulfilled and completed, by recording the experience. In much the same way as the online digital recording serves the sex tourist, Jimmy's print-out functions for him as an authenticating souvenir: "None of those little girls had ever seemed real to Jimmy-they'd always struck him as digital clones-but for some reason Oryx was three-dimensional from the start" (90). Even though he wants to believe that he has glimpsed the real Oryx in this image of her contemptuous gaze, in his fantasy what he sees is only her seeing the "secret person inside him." That is to say, he sees primarily a reflection of himself.
What stands here as a fundamental scene for the narrative's constitution of Jimmy as a desiring subject, as his literal first look at Oryx, is thus emphatically non-originary and non-authentic, a conspicuous substitution for the "real thing." The arrested image of Oryx's look back at the camera is a sexual fetish that discloses absence while also enabling Jimmy to disavow that lack. It is, as well, a commodity fetish that inexorably stimulates his insatiable desire for further substitutes. We are not surprised then, given the confounding of origins effected by Oryx's first on-screen appearance to Jimmy, that her subsequent entrance into his life and the novel's plot is also mediated by visual technology. Jimmy spots her image on one of the closed-circuit screens on which Crake monitors the progress of the Crakers sequestered in the Paradice dome. He experiences his on-screen vision of Oryx, who is here shown, once again, staring back into the camera, as uncanny; this image repeats the familiar image of her from his past but also reveals the non-primacy of that earlier scene: "Gazing into those eyes, Jimmy had a moment of pure bliss, pure terror, because now she was no longer a picture-no longer merely an image, residing in secrecy and darkness in the flat printout....Suddenly she was real, threedimensional. He felt he'd dreamed her" (308).
Yet, in retrospect Snowman recognizes that this "fatal moment" of Oryx's arrival-"Because now he's come to the crux in his head, to the place in the tragic play where it would say: Enter Oryx. Fatal moment" (307), imagining it as a stage direction in a play script-is just one among any number of seemingly fundamental scenes in the story of his past, moments that have in common a fundamental non-primacy. Oryx is always already remote, both virtual and aloof, always already gazing back at him with that "stare that went right into him and saw him as he truly was" (308). Their relationship is fundamentally mediated by the visual technology of the closed-circuit camera and by the prior claim that Crake holds over Oryx's affections. The onscreen image of Oryx is clearly a stand-in for Oryx's presence, but even in person she is a substitute for an always already lost object.
Jimmy's glimpse of Oryx's returned gaze on the monitor thus reveals the primacy of loss in Oryx and Crake and its more general logic of substitution. In addition to repeating the earlier spectacle of her looking back at the viewer on HottTotts, this image also replays one of the novel's most powerful scenes of traumatic witness: Jimmy's viewing of the videotaped recording of his mother's execution. A team of CorpSeCorps agents had screened this grisly spectacle for the college-aged Jimmy as part of one of their routine interrogations, conducted several times each year after his mother's disappearance from the OrganInc compound and from Jimmy's childhood:
[T]he Corpsmen had the sound turned down because they wanted Jimmy to concentrate on the visuals, but it must have been an order because now the guards were taking off the blindfold. Pan to close-up: the woman was looking right at him, right out of the frame: a blue-eyed look, direct, defiant, patient, wounded. But no tears. Then the sound came suddenly up. Goodbye. Remember Killer. I love you. Don't let me down.
No question, it was his mother. (258)
Under the team's questioning, Jimmy explains that "Killer" was his childhood pet, a genetically spliced raccoon/skunk that his mother had "liberated" when she left home. Jimmy understands that she mentions Killer to confirm her identity for him, but the cryptic message-a message both from the crypt (posthumous) and encrypted (coded)-she relays is not entirely legible, even to him. He wonders, "[W]hat did she mean about letting her down?" (259) even though he already seems to know the answer. (See also Barzilai 108.)
It would be futile, of course, since Jimmy is being polygraphed, for him to deny the shock of recognizing her on screen. Yet he experiences his enforced cooperation with the CorpSeCorps as doing just what his mother has warned against: "There, he'd done it. Another betrayal. He couldn't help himself" (259). Later, he worries that his confirmation of his mother's identity could put her in danger, should it turn out that the video of the execution had been faked, should his mother prove to be still at large: "If so, what had he given away?" (259). That his mother could still be alive is not inconceivable, given the novel's emphasis on the technology of simulation and the culture of cover-ups, but his wishful fantasy is nonetheless telling. His fantasy that she still lives is inseparable from a complex, even self-contradictory, sense of betrayal, a sense both that he has betrayed her and that she has betrayed him. He cannot wish for her to be alive, moreover, without the fear that that he has or will let her down, that he has given away or will give away secrets that might be essential to her survival. In Jimmy's anguished consciousness, wishing his mother alive means being always in danger of causing her death. Yet, as the addressee of this videotaped farewell, he can only feel, once again, betrayed by the absent mother who has, once again, left him behind.
The videotaped gaze of his dead mother, a traumatic return of his internal world from without, anticipates the returned gazes, first of Oryx on screen and later of Crake in the dome, as key scenes of witnessed witnessing in the novel. Like those other scenes, the meaning of this scene of maternal return is grounded in longing and betrayal, in affective bonds and ethical obligation. Tellingly, Jimmy has no memories of his mother as fully present to him, only as alternating erratically between inauthentic attempts to simulate ideal motherhood and more genuine, but equally disturbing, emotional vacancy: "on some days-days when she appeared brisk and purposeful, and aimed, and steady...[s]he was like a real mother and he was like a real child. But those moods of hers didn't last long" (30). His mother was always uncanny to Jimmy, a distressingly robotic or zombie-like figure who haunted his childhood even while she was still alive and at home.
Jimmy's mother's parting act of sabotage-before fleeing the Compound to join a "green" resistance movement, she extracts biotech trade secrets from Jimmy's father's computer, then smashes it to pieces, leaving the shattered bits behind as a "wordless message" (61)-thus retrodetermines the meaning of the bonfire that opens the novel and is itself retrodetermined by the pandemic that marks the novel's climax. Like those acts of biological sabotage that precede and follow it, his mother's act of domestic and corporate sabotage reveals the permeability of the lines, the supposedly inviolable cordons sanitaires, that seem to separate inside from outside, us from them, home from away. In Oryx and Crake, extinction starts at home.
World Without End?
If the doubled temporality of trauma requires repetition without origin and an endless regression of love and loss, it nonetheless also permits repetition with a difference, repetition as reworking. Retrodetermination does not mean that the past can be changed, but it does allow for the possibility that the present meanings of past events can be. Loss may be inevitable, it may even be an absence that is always already present, but historical subjects can, to varying degrees and in different ways, remake their present relation to loss. Hence the mirroring of the returned gaze allows for the potential for change in the witness to and survivor of trauma. This potential is suggested, I would argue, in the verbatim repetition of the opening lines of the novel's first and last sections, sentences that describe Snowman waking to the sound of "the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wishwash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep" (3, see also 371). These opening and closing passages are the same yet not. The difference in their meanings accrues, in large part, from the almost 400 pages of narrative that elapse between them. But their differences matter because of, not despite, their repetition. (See Appleton 20-21, DiMarco 192, and Osborne 35.) By the end of the novel, both Snowman and the reader have been here before. Once again, Snowman hears the onomatopoetic, rhythmic "wish-wash"; once again, Snowman wishes that his world were not a wash, that his wishes could wash away the devastation produced by the mind of man; once again, he "so wants to believe" that he can awake from the nightmare of reality to find that it is only a bad dream, that his interior world has not returned, traumatically, from without.
The novel, however, does not end here. It ends, as we have seen, on the beach with the decisive yet indeterminate internal declaration: "Zero hour, Snowman thinks. Time to go" (374). Should "time to go" be taken as a grim acknowledgment of the imminent extinction of both the individual and the species, or does it signify a positive engagement with futurity, whether that future may be human, post-human, or both? Does "zero hour," a phrase that also appears on the novel's first page, mark the end of time or its new beginning? The alternate temporal significations of these phrases resonate with the dual connotations of apocalypse: its popular, contemporary association with a catastrophic end of the world, and its classical association with the millennial revelation of a new age. The novel's indeterminate final words resonate as well with the dual temporality of traumatic discourse in which two moments in time stand in mutually determinative relation to each other, with the past inexorably shaping the future but the future also retrodetermining the past. The novel's conspicuously open ending begs for either completion or continuation of the story, a demand which is partly fulfilled by The Year of the Flood, Atwood's 2009 companion piece to Oryx and Crake. The demand for a firmer sense of an ending may also prove to be gratified by a projected third companion volume, which would make Atwood's post-apocalyptic series into a trilogy. But the open ending also insists to the reader, the witness to this speculative fiction, that the future remains to be seen.
My emphasis on Oryx and Crake's portrayal of familial and domestic relations as prologue and analogue for the near-future obliteration of the human race, the individual past as both a point of origin and an iterative rehearsal for the end of history, brings into focus the dialectic between despair and hopefulness that characterizes this post-apocalyptic novel's vision of the future. The logic of substitution that structures the subjectivity of Atwood's protagonist around an endless regression of traumatic scenes of love and loss, a sequence of defining moments of recognition and misrecognition, provides a template for our own imaginary witness to the end of the world in this fiction. This post-apocalyptic novel, like post-apocalyptic discourse more generally, allows us to experience the pleasure and horror of seeing our own interior worlds nightmarishly returning from without. The post-apocalyptic at once allegorizes and literalizes the psychic mechanisms of trauma, both everyday, systemic, "quiet" traumas and unimaginable yet inescapably real historical traumas. By portraying such cataclysmic endings and new beginnings, post-apocalyptic fictions such as Oryx and Crake enable us to witness the unwitnessable and to survive the unsurvivable. Such fictions allow us imaginatively to rehearse the end, a rehearsal that itself stands as both traumatic symptom and potential cure, as acting out and working through, as repetition and repetition-with-adifference. Our awareness that such apocalyptic visions of human futurity mirror our own inner fears and desires does not mean that all trauma, whether individual or collective, will be consigned to the past, but it does help us to confront our status as subjects of history by looking to the future.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY
1 On Oryx and Crake as last man fiction, see especially Korte; on Robinson Crusoe as literary intertext for Atwood's novel, see Barzilai, DiMarco, Ingersoll, and Ku. On the mad scientist and the monster, from Shelley's Frankenstein forward, as two other intersecting literary archetypes, see especially Bouson (2004) and Cooke, Ingersoll, and Ku.
2 In my description here of the mutually determinative effects of the past and present moments that constitute trauma, I am glossing Freud's theory of Nachträglichkeit, a concept which has been translated variously as "afterwardsness," "deferred action," "retroaction," and "retrodetermination" in English, and "après-coup" in French (see Eickhoff; see also Wyatt, especially 215). But I am also emphasizing the notion of "memory as multidirectional: as subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; as productive not privative" (Rothberg 3). The dual directionality implicit in Freud's theory of Nachträglichkeit has particular relevance for dystopian speculative fiction, which predicts the future in order to prevent it from actually happening as envisioned.
3 By emphasizing how Jimmy's "quiet traumas" anticipate and arguably shape the apocalyptic pandemic around which the novel's plot is structured, I am foregrounding the ways that systemic and punctual losses shade into each other, and how the boundaries between absence and loss refuse to be clearly drawn. I have thus strategically chosen to deemphasize certain theoretical distinctions-between insidious versus event-based trauma (Brown), systemic versus punctual trauma (Forter), absence versus loss (LaCapra)-that have organized critical debate within trauma studies over the past two decades.
4 Bouson (2004) similarly glosses the deliberate ambiguity of "time to go" and its contribution to the indeterminacy of the novel's conclusion (153). For pessimistic readings, see Barzilai 108, Ingersoll, and Mundler. Appleton 21, Dunning, Howells 169, Mohr, and Osborne 44-45 offer more affirmative interpretations.
5 My reading of the traces of (post)colonial discourse within Atwood's rendering of Snowman's post-apocalyptic and post-traumatic consciousness is consistent with critical attention to the novel's treatment of subjectivity, nationality, and exile by Davis, Hall, Rao (2006), and Wright.
6 This seductive voice later relates Jimmy's satisfaction with her sexual services in a nightclub. She is identifiable as the same woman only by the fish-scale-like sequins on her costume, but she re-appears as one of the two main protagonists of Atwood's 2009 The Year of the Flood.
7 My reading of Snowman's limited but real potential for agency in this scene, and in the chapters of the novel that follow it, attempts to find a middle ground between more optimistic and pessimistic critical readings of the novel's open ending, as detailed in endnote 4 above.
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