by Edith Cody-Rice
Readers who know Margaret Atwood’s work seem to fall into two general categories. There are those who love her and those who just can’t read her. After Oryx and Crake, published in 2003, I essentially gave up, however, a writer friend keeps telling me that Atwood is “brilliant” so I thought I would give her another try with The Heart Goes Last.
Anyone who has seen Atwood interviewed knows that she has a wicked sense of humour, ironic and frequently hilarious. Her inventive humour is on display in nearly every page of this book. One smiles to oneself.
Once again Atwood has created a new world for her characters. Stan and Charmaine are formerly middle class Americans, now jobless, caught in the rust belt of middle America. From a promising start they have descended into living in their car, but their love holds them together. Hearing of a promising experiment in a new community, they sign up to live in a town centred around a prison. The odd thing is that every resident takes a turn as prisoner every two months and then reverts to civilian life for the remaining time. The community is divided into two groups so that one group plays civilians while the other plays prisoners. They exchange everything including houses with their ‘alternates’, those who are playing the opposite role.
All is controlled and apparently peaceful, a relief from the insecurity and brutality of the outside world until we begin to become aware of the control of the ‘founders’ and ‘investors’ in the experiment. This is, after all, a capitalist society and returns must be made to investors. The experiment must also be protected from naysayers. Atwood has a deft ear for corporate speak and a feel for the illogical vagaries of human nature which include the ostracizing of anyone who does not share popularly held opinion or who threatens a peaceful, if unthinking, existence.
The novel began as a serial on the Short-Form E-book Publisher website Byliner which published several episodes. It has now been extended and published in book form. This is just a fun book which is a humorous indictment of capitalism, greed and American style consumerism. Any deeper meaning, if there, is displayed in the dangers of letting others guide one’s destiny, in giving up freedom for security and into buying into dubious dreams. There is quite a focus on sexual antics, in fact much of the book revolves around them, sort of surprising for a 70 plus author, although perhaps only surprising to those under 60. As I read through the book, I kept wondering — how does she keep this all together, the plots and subplots and the humour of it all and wind them all so neatly together. She manages though, although she could have perhaps wound it up a bit earlier. At 306 pages, it is a bit long for the subject matter, but, it kept me locked on until the end.
The Heart Goes Last is published by McClelland and Stewart