Future prison feels like home
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
writer Margaret Atwood