Oryx and Crake, Modern Adam and Eve

techniques tracked:
-building tension with braided threads
-transitioning between threads by using objects

Oryx and Crake (2003), Margaret Atwood’s second work of science/speculative fiction (depending on how you define the genres) and first in her MaddAddam trilogy, intertwines postapocalyptic and apocalyptic plot threads, both revolving around the same main character, in a structure that ultimately replicates a loop. The apocalyptic thread unspools to reveal the events that led to the postapocalyptic environment in which the novel opens, and in which action is also ongoing. More specifically, in the postapocalyptic thread, the characters of Oryx and Crake represent a kind of reverse Adam and Eve. The main character is a third party who has dubbed himself “Snowman,” his own private joke in that 1) he considers himself abominable and 2) snow no longer exists. In the apocalyptic thread, Snowman is Jimmy, his former self, and we learn the specific nature of his former relationships to the eponymous pair who are apparently the forebears of all things living in this postapocalyptic landscape. Atwood subdivides her 15 numbered chapters into sections she titles (mostly) with one-word nouns that will make an appearance in those pages. The chapters themselves alternate every other one between the postapocalytpic-Snowman thread with the apocalyptic-Jimmy thread (though the latter chapters consist of more sections, more action unfolding in the past than the present).      

As the novel opens, Snowman wakes in a tree on a seashore and climbs down to eat some stashed mangos. He’s approached by some children (strange to us but less so to him) who ask him about some objects they’ve found, items from “before” that mix both unfamiliar and familiar elements of the world we the readers are familiar with:

A plastic BlyssPluss container, empty; a ChickieNobs Bucket O’Nubbins, ditto. A computer mouse, or the busted remains of one, with a long wiry tail.

(That BlyssPluss container will end up to have contained the virus that ended life as Snowman once knew it, as Snowman does in fact know at this point, but the reader won’t find out until near the end.) As Snowman interacts with the children he thinks both about Crake, their apparent creator, and the lore they’ve generated about himself “over such a short time – two months, three?” For protection Snowman wears a one-eyed pair of sunglasses. He hears women’s voices from his past in his head and yells for Crake to no avail.

We then get the start of the apocalyptic thread, going back to Jimmy’s earliest memory–a bonfire burning a huge pile of livestock that’s apparently been contaminated by some kind of bug, perhaps even intentionally. Jimmy lives on a “Compound,” first for OrganInc Farms, then later for HelthWyzer, companies his father works for as a genetic scientist experimenting on “pigoons,” animals grown to grow extra organs (including human brain tissue). Jimmy’s mother also used to do such work before she has an apparent crisis of conscience and her discontentment with life on the Compound grows. The need for such Compounds seems to have arisen from the acceleration of dire environmental circumstances:

…time went on and the coastal aquifers turned salty and the northern permafrost melted and the vast tundra bubbled with methane, and the drought in the midcontinental plains regions went on and on, and the Asian steppes turned to sand dunes, and meat became harder to come by…

Eventually Jimmy’s mother flees for the world outside the Compound known as the pleeblands, possibly with experimental data stolen from her husband; Jimmy will continue to be periodically interrogated about her whereabouts. In the meantime he’s become friends with a highly intelligent boy from school, Crake (though he doesn’t go by that name then). Together they surf disturbing internet sites Crake has accessed by hacking into his uncle’s account, including “HottTots,” where they are both captivated by the stare of an eight-year-old who will turn out to be Oryx; they also play computer games, including “Extinctathon,” in which players compete to see who can wipe out all living creatures first–and where his handle “Crake” derives. After high school, Jimmy attends the middling arts-oriented Martha Graham Academy and visits Crake at the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute, where he tours the students’ elaborate genetic experiments (including the development of ChickieNobs and wolvogs, bred to look like friendly dogs so you’ll approach and they can attack you). Crake claims to have discovered, via email hacks, a HelthWyzer plot to unleash diseases via its own products that it can then profit from peddling the vaccines for, and, further, that his own father was murdered for attempting to expose it. Jimmy also learns that Crake is still playing Extinctathon and has become a Grandmaster.

After graduating, Jimmy writes ad copy for AnooYoo while Crake works for the biggest and most influential Compound, RejoovenEsense. After Jimmy’s periodic interrogators show him a video of his mother being executed in a pleebland prison, Crake offers Jimmy a job. Crake has also hired as his staff the Grandmasters from Extinctathon, a group known as “MaddAddam,” who had been engaged in genetic vandalism against the Compounds’ creations before Crake persuaded them to work for him. (All the staff, including Crake, are using their Extinctathon names.) Crake has also hired Oryx as the teacher for his “Crakers”–genetically engineered humans bred to drop dead at 30. Though Crake apparently uses Oryx for sex, she carries on an affair with Jimmy, telling him how she was sold from her childhood village to a man who put her to work conning potential johns; after he died she wound up doing pornographic film work. Eventually a doctor who may or may not have had benevolent intentions flew her to America, and she (re)encountered Crake through the sex service Watson-Crick sponsored for its students. In addition to teaching the Crakers, Crake is having her fly all over the world distributing the new BlyssPluss pills, designed to increase libido, vaccinate from all STDs, and, in what Crake discloses to Jimmy as an unadvertised feature, sterilize its users.

One night before going out for pizza, Oryx makes Jimmy promise he’ll take care of the Crakers if anything happens to her. Jimmy, who Crake has made second-in-command, is called to the Compound command center and watches as outbreaks start simultaneously erupting in cities all over the world. He gets a tearful call from Oryx that they’re the same ones she distributed BlyssPluss to before she’s cut off. The next day Crake shows up outside the module where Jimmy’s locked himself; Jimmy lets him in when he says he has Oryx with him. When Crake slits Oryx’s throat, Jimmy shoots him. After waiting out the Red Death’s ravaging of the population, Jimmy decides to take the Crakers to the seashore.

In the ongoing postapocalyptic thread that picks up here in time but that’s alternated with the extended backstory of the apocalyptic thread, Snowman’s spraygun is out of virtual bullets, and the wolvogs are closing in. In addition, he’s slowly starving to death. He dodges the daily thunderstorm and laments pitfalls in the “laws” he laid out for the Crakers at the outset (designating rabbit as sacred instead of edible for instance, or bringing him only one fish a week), and gets angry they’re adopting some semblance of religion with Crake as god, which Crake himself would have hated, though Snowman realizes it’s his own fault from what he’s told them:

The Children of Oryx, the Children of Crake. He’d had to think of something. Get your story straight, keep it simple, don’t falter: this used to be the expert advice given by lawyers to criminals in the dock. Crake made the bones of the Children of Crake out of the coral on the beach, and then he made their flesh out of a mango. But the Children of Oryx hatched out of an egg, a giant egg laid by Oryx herself. Actually she laid two eggs: one full of animals and birds and fish, and the other one full of words. But the egg full of words hatched first, and the Children of Crake had already been created by then, and they’d eaten up all the words because they were hungry, and so there were no words left over when the second egg hatched out. And that is why the animals can’t talk.

The Crakers become increasingly hungry for Crake lore. Snowman pretends to the Crakers that he can communicate with Crake through his broken watch (which Oryx had described her former boss doing in a story from her childhood). He leaves his area to make a supply run out to the Rejoov Compound, visiting a house that eerily recalls to him his childhood home, and getting stalked and almost killed by some crafty pigoons along the way. He discovers a radio through which he can hear another human is still alive (though he forgets the radio when he makes his escape), and spies a column of smoke nearby he knows can’t be the Crakers’. He also finds a new pair of old sunglasses to replace his old ones with the one lens. A cut on his foot (from a sliver of glass from a bottle of bourbon he throws at a land crab) starts to become a problem.

Returning to the room where he shot Crake and where Oryx’s and Crake’s bones still are, he reads a note that he, Jimmy, wrote in the immediate aftermath expressing his suspicions about what Crake has masterminded (including experiments with bioforms on his own mother and Uncle Pete, who both died suddenly); he believes Crake got Jimmy to kill him intentionally. Snowman makes his way back to the shore, where the Crakers are having a very religious seeming ceremony in which they’ve made an effigy of Snowman to call him back. They tell him others like him have been there, and he considers parting advice to leave the Crakers with before going on his own to find them. Overcome with fever thanks to his foot, he locates three people at an encampment, and the book ends with him debating whether he should kill them or not.

While the structure of alternating chapters between the past and present threads is a simple way to differentiate them (and makes for a cool climactic section in chapter 13 when the pattern is broken due to Snowman entering for the first time a literal location Jimmy had once been), Atwood employs a more complicated craft technique within this structure to transition between threads: establishing the transition with physical external objects. Atwood is careful throughout to establish that she is not just unspooling Jimmy’s backstory for the reader’s benefit–it’s being unspooled because Snowman is thinking about it in his present postapocalyptic thread. Take the beginning of chapter 12, whose first section “Pleebcrawl” picks up physically where the previous chapter (a Snowman chapter as opposed to a Jimmy chapter) left off, with Snowman scuttling along a rampart trying to escape some pigoons. Instead of simply cutting to the next part of the Jimmy thread she needs to pick up in this chapter (when Crake is about to hire him to advertise BlyssPluss for RejoovenEsense), Atwood transitions there more naturally by having Snowman in the present mentally hit on an image that reminds him of this period:

No point thinking about it, not in this heat, with his brain turning to melted cheese. Not melted cheese: better to avoid food images. To putty, to glue, to hair product, in creme form, in a tube. He once used that. He can picture its exact position on the shelf, lined up next to his razor: he’d liked neatness, in a shelf. He has a sudden clear image of himself, freshly showered, running the creme hair product through his damp hair with his hands. In Paradice, waiting for Oryx.

While Snowman’s thoughts intrude on the telling of Jimmy’s story, they might do so in a way designed to provoke narrative tension rather than in a way that replicates the way thought actually works, such that looking back one wonders if Atwood is almost coy in her withholding, though such coyness remains concealed at the time and becomes apparent only once the reader’s finished the book and can thus be in the same position Snowman is–actually knowing everything that’s already happened. Take for instance the introduction of Ramona, who will eventually become Jimmy’s stepmother:

“Don’t pay any attention to them, sweetheart,” said Ramona. “They’re only teasing, you know?” Ramona was one of his dad’s lab technicians. She often ate lunch with the two of them, him and his dad. She was young, younger than his father and even his mother…

This moment is given entirely from young Jimmy’s perspective–no Snowman intrusion at all. And yet through such removal we still feel Snowman’s judgment of his younger self, as in a passage that underscores both Crake’s fascination with destroying civilization and Jimmy’s utter obliviousness to it:

     “Let’s suppose for the sake of argument,” said Crake one evening, “that civilization as we know it gets destroyed. Want some popcorn?”
     “Is that real butter?” said Jimmy.
     “Nothing but the best at Watson-Crick,” said Crake. “Once it’s flattened, it could never be rebuilt.”
     “Because why? Got any salt?”
     “Because all the available surface metals have already been mined,” said Crake. “Without which, no iron age, no bronze age, no age of steel, and all the rest of it. There’s metals farther down, but the advanced technology we need for extracting those would have been obliterated.”
     “It could be put back together,” said Jimmy, chewing. It was so long since he’d tasted popcorn this good. “They’d still have the instructions.”
     “Actually not,” said Crake. “It’s not like the wheel, it’s too complex now. Suppose the instructions survived, suppose there were any people left with the knowledge to read them. Those people would be few and far between, and they wouldn’t have the tools. Remember, no electricity. Then once those people died, that would be it. They’d have no apprentices, they’d have no successors. Want a beer?”
     “Is it cold?”
     “All it takes,” said Crake, “is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.”
     “Speaking of games,” said Jimmy, “it’s your move.”

The use of the beer and popcorn here, that juxtaposition of the mundane with the extreme, is the drumbeat of Jimmy’s obliviousness. (She also cleverly slips in that everything Crake is doing is, to him, the equivalent of a game.) The structure of the threads and their intersection to close the loop at the end (the past and present threads travel in different directions from the same starting point but then wind around to the same place–the airlock containing the eponymous pair) are designed to force Snowman to confront his guilt over what he did as Jimmy, the unwitting role he played in the apocalypse, which is all the worse for being unwitting: 

Crake’s emergency storeroom. Crake’s wonderful plan. Crake’s cutting-edge ideas. Crake, King of the Crakery, because Crake is still there, still in possession, still the ruler of his own domain, however dark that bubble of light has now become. Darker than dark, and some of that darkness is Snowman’s. He helped with it.

“Let’s not go there,” says Snowman.

Sweetie, you’re already there. You’ve never left.

That is to say, the chronic tension is Jimmy’s role in the apocalypse, and the acute tension is his figuring out/dealing with what that role was. The acute tension culminates with his potential choice between wiping out the remainder of the human race he’s come across, or allying himself with it.

Oryx and Crake are reverse Adam and Eves not only in gender but also in their relationship to life itself–they take their names from extinct animals. In the outset of the present thread, the introduction of the “Children of Oryx” and the “Children of Crake” make it seem as though we’re in a world that is being ruled over by some strange new deities, but we come to find out that these deities were no more than human.

Atwood leaves the resolutions of both past and present threads open-ended to an extent. The question in the present thread of who these people are Snowman has found or what he will choose to do with them seems to leave things open for the sequel. As for the past apocalyptic thread, we’ve come to understand where the Crakers have come from and how they all wound up on the seashore, and all signs point to Crake having calculatedly plotted to destroy civilization by distributing the JUVE virus in a pill supposedly designed to solve all human problems. What’s left open-ended here to an extent thread is Crake’s motivation:

Although various staff members of the BlyssPluss project contributed to JUVE on a piecework basis, it is my belief that none, with the exception of Crake, was cognizant of what that effect would be. As for Crake’s motives, I can only speculate. Perhaps . . .

Here the handwriting stops. Whatever Jimmy’s speculations might have been on the subject of Crake’s motives, they had not been recorded.

But there’s plenty of room and evidence for speculation. It seems he ultimately wanted to destroy the human race so his Crakers, the perfect bioform he’d envisioned and designed, could then take over the earth, but why exactly he should be willing to die for this is somewhat puzzling. (There is the evidence that he disdains old age in his programming of the Crakers to drop dead at 30, and the fact that he was supposedly working on “immortality.”) Perhaps the sequels will provide further answers. But we’re left after the first book with the uncomfortable possibility that we ourselves are a version of Crakers–that the (cough*religious*cough) stories we’ve been told about our own origins might be the product of genetic predispositions rather than the truth. 

-SCR

(image credit and credit)

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“The Height of Wonder-Bread, Upper-Middle-Class White Privilege”: Joshua Ferris & Jonathan Safran Foer

Yesterday I read the latest short-story offering from the outlet reputed to offer the best in the land, The New Yorker. In Joshua Ferris’s “The Abandonment,” a man who’s apparently a semi-famous TV actor believes his wife has left him when she fails to return from a bagel run, and so, in apparent despair, he goes to the apartment of a woman he’s recently met. (He knows where she lives because after leaving the event where they met, they took a cab that dropped her off first, but her falling asleep on the ride seemed to indicate little interest in him.) This woman has kids and her apartment is very messy, in stark contrast to the neatness with which his wife keeps their apartment. While he’s there he tells her about his wife leaving him, talking himself and the woman into believing that what he really wants is her messy lived-in lifestyle rather than his wife’s overly neat forced one. They make out, and by the time he finally leaves they’re talking like they’re going to run away together. He passes her grumpy husband and “sullen” sons as he’s on the way out of the building. When he gets home, his wife is there—she didn’t really leave him, but ran into a friend and went dress shopping and lost track of time. She can tell he thought she left him, though, because apparently this has happened before, a few times. They make dinner and forget about it.

So the titular “abandonment” at first seems to be the main character’s wife leaving him, but then is really his abandoning that other woman for his wife. The title also has overtones of acting with wild “abandon.” The chronic tension is the state of the main character’s marriage and his abandonment issues, while the acute tension is the main character’s believing his wife has left him and seeking refuge in a random stranger he then convinces himself he’s in love with. 

The story does interesting things with psychic distance, evident even from the first sentence:

When he returned to the bagel place, there was the usual line, but his hope dwindled with every face that wasn’t hers.

Ferris has told us what this character is thinking (his hope is dwindling because he’s looking for a girl he can’t find) but Ferris has not not told us anything about who that girl is–thus our interest is piqued; a question is raised, but not by closing off access to the character’s interiority. Eventually we put together that this woman is his wife and that she’s left him, surprising because the opening seemed to set us up for a scenario of unrequited love, that he might have been looking for someone he didn’t know very well, but in fact it’s the opposite. Then, when he gets to the other girl’s apartment, we have no idea who she is to him and only gradually learn she’s someone he just met; this is done again by focusing primarily on actions and dialogue rather than internal thought, and the internal thought we do get is only immediately relevant, perhaps coy in its withholdings but not unnaturally so, as with the opening.

While some of the conversation (about how people’s odors stand for their lives) might feel a bit heavy-handed, it does build an interesting psychological portrait of the character, who we learn had parents who got married and divorced multiple times, which by the end we come to understand is probably at the root of his intense fear that his wife will abandon him—though the marriage itself probably also has something to do with it. The conclusion leaves you (or me at least) hurting for the abandoned woman who might, at the very moment the main character and his reconciled wife are starting dinner, be abandoning her husband. What the story really captures in its almost abrupt ending is a certain callousness incumbent in white privilege: our main character may or may not have damaged someone else’s life irreparably, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that our main white male character is happy. This is just another day in his life, business as usual.  

Of course, the bad taste this ending leaves in the mouth is likely intentional on Ferris’s part, who is likely, hopefully, trying to call attention to this endemic callousness. But one does wonder—both if he’s actually trying to do that, and if doing that is, in the end, enough.

One wonders even more after looking at the collected list of stories Ferris has published with The New Yorker, which will come out in his first short-story collection next year: “The Breeze,” “The Fragments,” “The Dinner Party,” “The Valetudinarian,” “The Pilot,” and now “The Abandonment” share subject matter as similar as the structure of their titles (the one titular exception in Ferris’ New Yorker publication record being “Good Legs”): upper-middle class NYC couples struggling to connect. (Their titles are also somewhat reminiscent of the late James Michener’s: Chesapeake, Hawaii, Texas, Mexico, Poland, South Pacific, Space, as though each were the absolute and definitive account of that region, a symptom of white privilege if ever there was one.)

What makes Ferris stand out from his cohort is the technical tricks with which he treats common subject matter, like the first-person plural narration of his debut novel Then We Came to the End, about life in an advertising office. But he might be proving himself, if not a one-trick pony, then at least a trick pony. His success might ultimately have more to do with the culture he writes in than his writing itself. This is not to say his writing is bad—far from it. On a sentence and structure level, Ferris excels. But does he excel that much more than others who might be writing about content more worth reading? And more importantly, should I devote time to reading more of his work when, most likely, there are more just as equally decent writers out there than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime?

I might not have been pondering such issues had I not also just happened to read a Gawker review trashing another New Yorker story by a young white male New Yorker contributor, Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer is opening the 2016-17 Inprint Reading Series here in Houston, which offers the biggest literary names of the day, and is thus itself a reflection of the current literary landscape—more specifically, the diversity of that landscape. Of this year’s ten readers, three are white men (the American Jonathan Safran Foer and George Saunders, and the Irish Colm Toibin), not an overwhelming ratio, certainly, but these three white men get the stage to themselves for their readings; the women Lauren Groff and Ann Patchett read together the same night, as do the Lebanese American novelist Rabih Alameddine and Latin American novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez, as do the poets Ada Limon and Gregory Pardlo. The only other writer who gets the stage to herself is Annie Proulx. The conclusion to be drawn here is implicit but present: white writers are more popular, and white male writers are the most popular.

My own tastes, and therefore this blog, are equally reflective of this generalization; the majority of my personal posts here, if not the students’, are about white male writers; my favorite writers are George Saunders, Adam Johnson, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen (while recognizing that the latter two especially have their flaws). While there are many female writers and writers of color whose work I admire (Lorrie Moore, Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Egan, Miranda July, Toni Morrison, Tiphanie Yanique, Marlon James, just to name a few), clearly I have some work to do on the literary diversification front. Some might point out/argue that white male writers are more popular because there are simply more of them; it’s simply a matter of numbers. But the fact that there are more of them is precisely the problem. 

Gawker engages in the type of snarky insulting reviews that I personally prefer to abstain from (which might be why the writers don’t post their names on their articles), but, 1. Sometimes the quality of the insults have to be appreciated both for their prose and cleverness (whether or not you deem it an accurate assessment of the subject):

It is so inept that offering edits, other than “do anything else with your time,” misses the point.

Foer’s stories obscure, hint at and extend into no depths. He is all tip and no iceberg.

And 2. This reviewer, whoever he is, makes some interesting points. He charts Foer’s literary history, claiming that it’s all been downhill since the potentially promising opening paragraph of his first book, Everything Is Illuminated, published when Foer was 21. Like Ferris’, Foer’s was a debut that depended largely on technical tricks, though both these debuts were as successful as they were, in my opinion, because these tricks did result in an emotional payoff (though perhaps not for those who couldn’t get past the tricks).

I do not disagree with the review’s assessment that some of the language got cumbersome in EIL, though one commenter astutely criticizes the review’s criticizing this cumbersome language in cumbersome language:

“His arabesques fatten into ponderous and verbose associations.”

Apparently it’s contagious.

The review has pinpointed the craft issue at the heart of the problem with the story it’s ultimately about, “Love is Blind and Deaf”–that while EIL at least has “a strong idea of ‘character,’” this story does not. If the title didn’t clue you in, instead of character, it’s all about theme. Foer retells the story of Adam and Eve in a way that moves them further toward two-dimensional puppets rather than in the direction one might hope a literary recounting would aspire to–toward that of flesh-and-blood humans:

First they fought passively, then they despaired privately, then they used the new words ambiguously, then pointedly, then they conceived Cain, then they hurled the early creations, then they argued about who owned the pieces of what had never belonged to anybody.  

Insightful, if you consider the philosophical ramifications (how true it is that no land ever really “belonged to anybody”), but it’s hard to get invested emotionally in pure philosophy. The Gawker review’s criticism is more complex, and somewhat hard to follow, though far from off base: Foer is writing a fantasy about the time that preexisted our five senses, and thus preexisted judgment. This is evidence for the larger analysis that Foer, as in his own words from the story, “simply doesn’t exist enough,” that he is the product of and/or emblematic of the larger movement toward banal meaninglessness in contemporary literature, that “[f]or buyer and seller, the appearance of quality outshines quality itself.” The review accuses Foer’s characters of all being carbon copies of Foer. Indeed, the name of the main character in his debut hit was “Jonathan Safran Foer.” This seemed a novel trick at the time, so to speak, but if JSF doesn’t exist enough, as the review charges, i.e., he is nothing, then to have him at the center of his novels, as the review further charges, would mean his novels are based on nothing. Even if he does “exist enough,” you should only get away with such novel tricks once. Unless you’re JSF, the Gawker review charges, in which case “[a]nything after the first chapter doesn’t even need to be passable.” The review’s titular accusation that JSF is “blind, deaf, and dumb” must then mean that we the readers are, too. 

Only Foer’s third novel, Here I Am, out next month, will reveal the maturation of a prodigy or proof of the Gawker reviewer’s theory that we have come to accept as our new fictional God the type of “weak narcissism” with which Foer imbues his non-character Adam. And yet I feel conflicted about investing even more of my time in this white male writer to find out. 

At the risk of introducing more New Yorker writers, Jia Tolentino just reviewed two debut novels by women about white privilege that she defends as calling attention to the issue rather than fomenting or reinforcing it, claiming they make “an implicit case that the future belongs to” their—albeit fleetingly represented—minority characters:

Both “The Nest” [by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney] and “[Sons and Daughters of] Ease and Plenty” [by Ramona Ausubel] serve as good reminders that even stories with few characters of color are, in their own way, very much “about race.”

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the white writers who have cornered this angle on white privilege are female.

-SCR

(images courtesy of The New Yorker)

Wildlings and Krakens and Dragons…

“Wildlings, krakens, and dragons.” Mace Tyrell chuckled. “Why, is there anyone not stirring?”

A Storm of Swords, the third installment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, continues the disparate threads following the Starks spread far and wide, trying—and in some cases, just almost succeeding—but ultimately failing to make their way back to one another.

This book’s point of view pyrotechnics explode tension like Tyrion’s wildfire in the previous book’s climactic Battle of the Blackwater, and are at least one reason this book is worth investing the time to read instead of just watching the series. The book discards one of the points of view it took up in the second book (Theon is thus presumed dead, but late in the book someone claims he’s actually being held hostage) while continuing the other point of view thread that book added (Davos becomes King’s Hand to Stannis). Two new point of view threads are added—unlike the second book, the third introduces us to the points of view of characters we’re more familiar with—Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarley. Martin also pulls a new trick with the point-of-view alteration in a pair of climactic sequences—both weddings. While the point of view has generally been a loose A-B-C-D-E-F-G pattern that allows for some variation therein, for the Red Wedding and King Joffrey’s wedding, we get A-B-A-B sequences with Catelyn and Arya in the former and Sansa and Tyrion in the latter. The tension this pattern creates is part of what makes these two the most suspenseful and satisfying in the book and possibly the series thus far.

The prologue documents a rebellion by a handful of Night Watchmen, whose plot to kill Lord Commander Mormont while on the mission outside the Wall is foiled by snowfall, which prevents their fleeing as planned. The rebel leader, Chett, is about to kill Samwell Tarley anyway when a horn sounds three times—the signal that Others are coming. Then we get Jaime Lannister’s POV for the first time: he’s been freed from his cell at Riverrun by Catelyn, who disguises him to get him out the gate and assigns Brienne to get him safely to King’s Landing, where he can be exchanged for Sansa and Arya. Catelyn deals with the consequences of her decision to release Jaime as a prisoner. Arya’s on the road fleeing Harrenhall with Gendry and Hot Pie, attempting to find Riverrun (and dreaming, like Bran and Jon Snow, of being a wolf). Tyrion speaks to his father, who has stolen his job as King’s Hand, seeking Casterly Rock in recompense for what he did in the battle (and which he’s rightfully entitled to as heir since Jaime joined the Night’s Watch), but Tywin declares he’ll never get it and that he’ll hang the next whore Tyrion sleeps with. Davos is found washed up on an island after the Battle of the Blackwater and, taken to Stannis’s court, is arrested when he tries to kill Melisandre, whom he believes he survived to exterminate. Sansa confesses to Joffrey’s betrothed Margaery and her grandmother the Queen of Thorns what a monster Joffrey is. Jon is brought before the wildling king Mance Rayder and accepted as a member after Rayder reveals he saw him at the dinner that opened the series, when King Robert and the Lannisters visited Winterfell, and Jon reminds him he was seated as a bastard. Daenarys and her retinue are sailing for Pentos when Jorah convinces her to change course to buy an army of Unsullied (utterly obedient slave eunuchs), then makes a move on her and tries to convince her to take him as husband. Bran has learned to open his third eye and become his direwolf Summer whenever he wants, but Jojon the green dreamer is worried he’ll want to stay a wolf permanently, and wants to make for the Wall to find the three-eyed crow. Samwell’s first chapter comes late, after a few characters have already been repeated—he struggles to not die in the freezing mass exodus fleeing the Others, and proves himself not so craven when he stabs an Other in the throat with a dragonglass dagger.

While in negotiations to buy the Unsullied, Daenerys pretends she doesn’t speak the language of the scummy Kraznys mo Nakloz, who continuously insults her, thinking she doesn’t understand. The price for all the “men” she needs to take back her kingdom is high, and she finally offers one of her dragons as payment, but not for real: her dragon kills Kraznys as soon as he tries to take him in hand, and Dany seizes the town with the new army who have been informed they’re now under her command. Her army expands when she frees more slaves in other cities, but she struggles to feed them. She eventually finds out Whitebeard, one of the men who’s recently been attending her, and Ser Jorah are spies for men in Westeros, though both claim to be loyal to her now; Dany forgives Whitebeard but Jorah is not contrite enough and she banishes him. She decides to stay in one of the towns she’s taken for the time being to learn how to rule.

Jon Snow travels with the wildlings and, to keep his cover, has to break his vows as a brother by sleeping with Ygritte, the girl he almost killed for being a wildling scout in the second book before he saw she was a girl. He finds out the wildlings were in the Frostfangs seeking the Horn of Winter, rumored to be able to crumble the Wall if blown. As a group of them scale the Wall to take Castle Black from behind, Ygritte claims they didn’t find it. During an attack on their group by a direwolf that turns out to be Bran-as-Summer, Jon escapes from the group and gets back to Castle Black in time to warn them of the coming assault. The huge mass of wildlings, including mammoths and giants attack, and Jon holds the Wall with a small group (the wildlings tricked the rest into spreading out). Then Janos Slynt returns to the Wall insisting Jon is a turncloak for having joined the wildlings. Janos and his retinue force Jon to parley with Mance Rayder, figuring Jon will either be killed or prove himself a traitor, but then Stannis’s forces attack the wildlings and take Mance captive. Stannis wants Jon to become Lord of Winterfell (for which Stannis will absolve his bastardry) and Jon is debating whether to break his vows (again) in order to take what he realizes has been his lifelong dream when, largely due to the maneuverings of Samwell, he ends up elected the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.

Catelyn is introduced to Robb’s new wife, the Lady Jeyne Westerling, whom he married while he was away at war, thereby breaking his vow to marry one of the Frey girls, which he’d agreed to do in exchange for Lord Frey granting him passage across some bridge he controlled during one of the earlier wars. In exchange for Robb’s slight, the Freys demand Catelyn’s brother Edmure marry a Frey, and, thinking they have no choice because they need to keep the Freys in their pocket or their forces will no longer be strong enough to win the war, they go to the Freys’ pair of castles, the Twins, for Edmure’s wedding. It turns out to be a setup for the horrible old Lord Walder Frey to slaughter them. Catelyn tries to save Robb by taking a nearby halfwit Frey relative hostage, and slits the halfwit’s throat when they kill Robb anyway. Then the Freys slit her throat.

Arya and Hot Pie and Gendry are picked up by some Kingsmen, arriving at an inn where Arya is recognized and identified by her father’s former man Harwin. His group (outlaws) says they’re taking her to Riverrun to ransom her. A prisoner is brought to them—the Hound, Sandor Clegane, who has to fight a trial by combat for the charges against him, and after defeating Lord Beric Dondarrion, who then comes back to life from what should have been a mortal wound thanks to the power of the Lord of Light, the Hound escapes from the group, kidnapping Arya and taking her with him. Wanting to ransom her, he heads for the Twins, where he hears Robb and Catelyn are. They arrive just as the slaughter is starting inside, and see men running out to attack the camp of Robb’s bannermen. Arya wants to go inside, but the Hound declares her family is already dead. She makes a run for it anyway, but the Hound knocks her out. They travel aimlessly for awhile until the Hound gets in an altercation that leaves him with a mortal wound, and Arya leaves him to die slowly instead of granting him “mercy.” She wants to go to the Wall to find Jon, but can only find securing passage on a ship headed to Bravos, securing passage with the iron coin J’aqen Hgar gave her in the last book, which gets her treated quite nicely.

Sansa is relieved to not be marrying Joffrey, but then ends up married to Tyrion instead. He’s nice enough, however, not to ever make her consummate the marriage. She escapes King’s Landing with Dontos as Joffrey is dying at his wedding; Dontos delivers her to Littlefinger, who’s supposed to be at the Vale wooing Lysa Tully to marry him and who then kills Dontos and declares to Sansa that because he took her mother’s maidenhead, she is like his daughter and he will protect her. He hides her identity by declaring her Alayne Stone, his bastard daughter, but reveals to Lysa who she is when they get to the Vale. Lysa is thrilled to marry Petyr and after they wed she catches Petyr making a move on Sansa and blames Sansa for it, threatening to push her out the Moon Door over a 600-foot drop. Petyr comes in and pushes Lysa out the door instead, blaming it on the singer Lysa loved and everyone else hated.

By luck, Samwell survives the Others’ assault on the Night’s Watch’s main group on the Fist, then almost dies on the walk of the mass exodus, but succeeds in killing an Other. After the Night’s Watch rebellion kills Ser Mormont at Craster’s Keep, Samwell takes charge of Craster’s daughter Gilly and Gilly’s baby, winds up meeting Bran and helping his group outside the Wall through a secret gate, and, after he makes it back to Castle Black, talks the frontrunners for the Lord Commander position into giving up and supporting Jon Snow. He keeps his oath to not tell Jon Snow Bran is alive.  

Bran and his group, which includes Jojon the green dreamer and Hodor, are headed for the Wall on a mission to find the three-eyed crow. They hole up in a tower that Jon’s wildling group comes near, facilitating Bran-Summer facilitating Jon’s escape from them. Then Bran’s group holes up in a haunted castle where Jojon insists he dreamed there was a gate and where Samwell comes sneaking up a well with Gilly and her baby to reveal where the secret gate is.

Davos is called from his cell after his attempt on Melisandre and made the King’s Hand for his honesty and loyalty. As hand, he vehemently opposes an effort by Melisandre to kill Edric Storm, Robert Baratheon’s bastard son Stannis has charge of, to use the king’s blood to summon the stone dragon and take the kingdom. Stannis won’t listen to him, however, so Davos has Edric Storm spirited away in the night, an act for which Stannis is about to cut off his head until Davos gives him a letter that someone on the staff gave him that Stannis hasn’t seen—from Castle Black, requesting urgent help against the wildling onslaught.

Jaime tries to escape from Brienne as she leads him back to King’s Landing, but fails to defeat her in an elaborate swordfight—what will turn out to be his last after they’re immediately thereafter captured by Vargo Hoat’s Bloody Mummers, who cut off Jaime’s hand. They’re taken to Roose Bolton at Harrenhall, who sends Jaime back to King’s Landing but says Hoat gets to keep Brienne. Jaime returns and rescues her from a bearfight and takes her with them to King’s Landing, where she’s accused of killing Renley. Jaime reunites with Cersei and wants to give everything up for her and confess their love to the world but Cersei is unwilling to give up the throne. Tywin wants to marry Jaime off but he insists he will remain a member of the Kingsguard and no more. He gives Brienne the sword Tywin gave him that was forged from Eddard Stark’s old sword, and tells her to go uphold her oath to protect Lady Catelyn’s daughters.

Tensions steadily rise between Joffrey and Tyrion, who makes Shae one of Sansa’s attendants, and is thinking he might just take Sansa’s maidenhead the night of Joffrey’s wedding when Joffrey suddenly dies after forcing Tyrion to serve him wine. Sansa vanishes and Tyrion is arrested and put on trial for Joffrey’s murder (not unironic considering his brother Jaime incurred their father’s favor for kingslaying), during which Cersei has arranged a parade of witnesses against him, the finale of which is Shae, who betrays Tyrion with an elaborate made-up story. Tyrion is pressured to confess and told he might take the black instead of die if he does. The night before he’s to be beheaded, Jaime enters his cell and tells him Varys will lead him to a ship and that he’s helping him escape to pay a debt that Tyrion pressures him to admit is lying to him about Tysha, the girl he married that was supposedly a whore Jaime paid to–the story that she was a whore wasn’t true; Tywin made Jaime tell him that to “teach him a lesson.” Enraged, Tyrion stops Varys on their way out and climbs up a ladder that leads to an area behind the King’s Hand’s chambers, which is how Varys gets the info he claims he gets from his “little birds.” Tyrion enters the chamber and finds Shae in Tywin’s bed; she says the queen put her up to the story she told, but Tyrion chokes her with the King’s Hand’s chain anyway. Then he kills Tywin with a crossbow after he asks what he did with Tysha and Tywin calls her a whore again.

The third installment offers something the previous two did not—an epilogue, told from the point of view of a random Frey, Merrett, who’s on his way to some outlaws to ransom another Frey relative, considering his lifelong streak of ill luck. When he meets the outlaws, they take the money and make to hang him as well, as revenge for the Red Wedding. Merrett insists he had no part (though we know from his recent thoughts that he did) and that they have no witness, until the outlaws bring forth a gray-skinned lady who can’t speak because her throat has been slit: Catelyn Stark.

As noted, the climactic wedding sequences, particularly Joffrey’s, are highlights of the series-thus-far. Though Joffrey’s death was initially so satisfying because it appeared utterly brought on by his own horrible self: he was bent on tormenting Tyrion and then choked on Tyrion’s pie when he was trying to make a point by eating it about who was the dominant one. But then it turns out that it wasn’t just that; there was magic at play as well involving the amethyst in Sansa’s hair net. Which at first seems almost disappointing, but in the end Joffrey still likely brought about his own demise with his own awfulness; if he hadn’t been so awful so many people would not have wanted him dead. Martin does a nice job with the details of the feast and its 77 courses and other elaborate glories, eliciting a feeling in the reader of how it must be the very pinnacle of life, to be a king at your wedding feast, where no expense is spared, right before that feast is the very thing that kills him. Everything comes with a price.

This book’s token reference to the literal Iron Throne as objective correlative (talking about the discomfort of the seat itself as a way to get at the discomfort incumbent in the role of king itself) is embedded in a passage that nicely sums up the engine of the series’ whole conflict, the disarray created when a legitimate ruler is killed off with (supposedly) no heirs:

“If you only knew … that was a hard choosing. My blood or my liege. My brother or my king.” [Stannis] grimaced. “Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Ofttimes I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.”

“Why would you want it, then?” Davos asked him.

“It is not a question of wanting. The throne is mine, as Robert’s heir. That is law.”

 

-SCR