Fu­ture prison feels like home

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Re­becca Giggs is a writer and aca­demic.

Re­becca Giggs The Heart Goes Last By Mar­garet At­wood Bloomsbury, 306pp, $32.99

How to re­spond to the de­ci­sion of an au­thor to re-en­vi­sion, over and over, the af­ter­math of our present pol­i­tics? Re­turn­ing to a Mar­garet At­wood fu­ture feels like throw­ing open the doors to a loved sum­mer­house through which dozens of strangers have since passed un­seen. Yes, the fur­ni­ture is po­si­tioned as be­fore, there are the same num­ber of rooms in the same con­fig­u­ra­tion, but now the backgam­mon set rat­tles with too few pieces, the cur­tains have been re­placed and new and lurid crock­ery leers from the cup­boards. The fact that the house is, in fun­da­men­tals, as was makes the small dif­fer­ences all the more strik­ing.

Ded­i­cated At­wood read­ers will find them­selves in fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory in her latest novel, The Heart Goes Last. The themes of this fic­tional dystopia in­clude a so­cial experiment en­acted in a gated com­mu­nity (see Oryx and Crake), women com­pelled by the regime into var­i­ous forms of sex­ual and emo­tional servi­tude (see The Hand­maid’s Tale) and lib­erty lightly ex­changed for co­er­cive se­cu­rity (as in The Year of the Flood). Even the ghastly head­less chick­ens — bio-en­gi­neered into liv­ing parts for ‘‘im­proved’’ an­i­mal wel­fare — make a re­run.

At­wood’s literary vi­sions have al­ways mapped on to con­tem­po­rary trends, so it is no sur­prise she builds her worlds layer up, each be­ing rum­pled by the to­pog­ra­phy of the book be­neath, the book be­fore.

Since the turn of the mil­len­nium her pre­dom­i­nant pre­oc­cu­pa­tion in fic­tion has been imag­ined ex­trap­o­la­tions on en­vi­ron­men­tal col­lapse. But The Heart Goes Last takes off in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, one that was fore­shad­owed in At­wood’s 2008 non­fic­tion book Pay­back: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. This is a novel set against eco­nomic melt­down, a nar­ra­tive for a post-global fi­nan­cial cri­sis read­er­ship. The Heart Goes Last will be la­belled spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, but it is as much con­cerned with the shell games of mar­ket spec­u­la­tion and cap­i­tal as with the literary genre.

Char­maine and Stan are mem­bers of what some com­men­ta­tors have la­belled the mod­ern pre­cariat, an eco­nomic class tilt­ing pre­car­i­ously on the edge of ru­inous poverty, their fi­nan­cial vul­ner­a­bil­ity height­ened by a lack of as­sets and un­sta­ble em­ploy­ment. The pair live in their car, search­ing job sites on a pre­paid phone and sus­tain­ing them­selves on sec­ond-day baked goods, sal­vaged from strip-mall sales tubs, as they coast through the shut­tered sub­ur­ban fringe.

Parked at night, Char­maine fears rape. Strange and des­per­ate men come thump­ing on the sedan’s roof, jin­gling the han­dles. Some of them carry makeshift weapons. The ro­mance be­tween Stan and Char­maine rusts in this acrid ten­sion; they’re only just hold­ing it to­gether, their phys­i­cal in­ti­macy is aban­doned. Though Stan is per­pet­u­ally with­out work, Char­maine makes a lit­tle cash as a wait­ress in a tawdry joint called Pix­elDust. It is there that she first hears about the Positron Pro­ject and its prom­ises of a bet­ter life.

Here’s how it works: hav­ing been vet­ted by a co­terie of spu­ri­ous charm­ers, Char­maine and Stan are re­lo­cated to the town­ship of Con­silience — a re­vived node of the ur­ban bad­lands, at the cen­tre of which is a prison. In Con­silience, they each oc­cupy two, ro­tat­ing roles. For one month, do­mes­tic idyll. Char­maine and Stan are al­lot­ted their own home (com­plete with downy tow­els and a sculpted hedge), ful­fill­ing full-time work and corny, con­stant en­ter­tain­ment. The fol­low­ing month the cou­ple are to en­ter the prison (Positron), where they will un­der­take me­nial labour and live sep­a­rate but com­fort­able lives in the men’s and women’s wings.

Dur­ing that time an al­ter­nate duo move into Char­maine and Stan’s home to en­joy their 30 days of leisure and civic par­tic­i­pa­tion. These back-to-back peo­ple (in the par­lance of to­day’s in­dus­try) are meant to go un­no­ticed by Char­maine and Stan — their only vis­i­ble trace fresh linen on the bed and a set of coloured lock­ers in the base­ment. The Positron Pro­ject claims full em­ploy­ment and so­cial in­clu­sion as a re­sult of this man­dated carousel of peo­ple and jobs. But it comes at the cost of ab­di­cat­ing free­doms both large and small. Up­per­most in the minds of its in­hab­i­tants, the cit­i­zens of Con­silience can­not ever leave.

Lust is, of course, the first un­do­ing. By chance Stan dis­cov­ers a note, slid be­neath their re­frig­er­a­tor, sealed with a fuch­sia kiss (and how Roz, from At­wood’s ear­lier novel The Rob­ber Bride, would have cocked her eye­brow at his dwelling so long on the par­tic­u­lar shade).

Soon Stan is stalk­ing the woman who lays her head on his pil­low in his ab­sence: his ob­ses­sion blooms elab­o­rately around this femme fa­tale. As it turns out, though, it is Char­maine who falls into a self-pro­claimed “an­i­mal episode” with her counter part­ner, staged in un­clad build­ings on the edge of town. Soon the wheels are spin­ning off in all di­rec­tions. Char­maine is en­listed into Positron’s dark, hushed pro­gram of so­cial im­prove­ment. Stan is trapped in a vice­grip by the cor­po­rate turn­coat Jocelyn, who de­ploys him for both ne­far­i­ous and self-serv­ing pur­poses. Will Stan’s crim­i­nal brother en­act a res­cue, or is he long gone?

At­wood’s dry wit per­vades this novel, though at times it is pressed into an un­com­fort­able par­ody. Hav­ing been neu­ro­log­i­cally re­con­di­tioned, a woman forms an in­ex­orable erotic at­tach­ment to a plush toy. Sex-bots mod­elled on celebri­ties pro­vide more than one kind of es­cape. In Ve­gas casi­nos, re­plete with gim­crack dou­bles and im­pos­tors, the char­ac­ters gam­ble with un­cer­tain out­comes. Gone are the re­li­gious at­tune­ments to the new or­der that ap­peared in pre­vi­ous nov­els, but slen­der hope is ul­ti­mately in­vested in the media, and in the au­da­cious acts of fad­ing tele­vi­sion stars.

As a nov­el­ist At­wood is a supreme artist of the coda, the end that drags its heels and re­veals some­thing un­ex­pected. This book does not dis­ap­point in this re­gard. Her larger ques­tion, whether a prison can ever be an in­ten­tional com­mu­nity, is a provo­ca­tion that speaks di­rectly to our present age.

AT­WOOD’S DRY WIT PER­VADES THIS NOVEL, THOUGH AT TIMES IT IS PRESSED INTO A PAR­ODY

Cana­dian

writer Mar­garet At­wood

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