Atwood’s dystopian satire is far-fetched but entertaining

Atwood’s new novel starts out believably enough – the economy has taken a dive. Stan and his wife Charmaine have lost their home and are forced to live in their car. When vandals harass them, they have to scram and find another place to park. It’s not a good time.

They apply for the Positron Project, an economic experiment in which residents are given jobs and a nice house to live in six months out of the year. The other six months they live in the community’s prison.

The desperate couple is approved, and they move in. A shower! Clean towels! A bed to sleep in! A dishwasher! They don’t seem to mind sharing the house with their alternates, and they don’t even seem to mind spending half the year in prison. They are kept busy with their prison jobs, which mostly involve knitting and tending chickens.

Already, I’m confused. Why do they have to live in the prison half the time? They aren’t criminals. If it doesn’t make sense to me, why is this not questioned by the residents? But for the sake of the story, I accept it and move on with the story.

And it’s a compelling story. We can see that there is something sinister going on behind the scenes of the glossy Stepford-ish community because we are told as much: The somewhat spineless Stan is warned that there’s no going back, that no one ever gets out alive, but he signs the contract anyway, since his naïve wife has her heart set on it.

The residents of the twin towns of Consilience/Positron have no contact with the outside world. They are allowed to watch TV, but mostly 1950’s TV shows and movies. The music they are offered is Doris Day and Bing Crosby.

Charmaine herself is somewhat of a Doris Day type, always trying to look on the bright side. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when she is late getting out of the house on switchover day, and runs into the man who lives in the house when she and Stan are in the prison. They begin a torrid affair, right then and there, and before long, Stan and Charmaine are wrapped up in a plot from which they can’t escape.

The book poses a lot of interesting questions: How much control over our own lives are we willing to give up? Would we be willing to sacrifice our morality and our dignity? And how much autonomy do we even want?

It is a throwback to “1984” and “Stepford Wives,” but the fact that I stayed up too late reading this crazy page-turner is a testament to its originality. It was unpredictable, and I wanted to know what would happen next, despite each plot twist being more far-fetched than the last.

Perhaps the real question Atwood is asking is “Is this really so unbelievable?” If the science were possible, would someone do the things they do in this book? We all know power corrupts, and if there’s a market for something, however immoral, there is always going to be an evil someone who will try to profit from it, and herds of idiots who will follow him.

I realize this is sci-fi, but even within that genre, I want to believe. I want to be convinced. But I could have forgiven the silliness of some of the plot devices, if the characters didn’t behave so out of character.

One character, in particular, is such a wild card that I wonder why Atwood didn’t write her as two separate characters. It would have made more sense. Maybe it was supposed to reinforce the suspense and the feeling that you don’t know who you can trust. But it was distracting.

Stan’s brother’s name is Conor – Con for short – and he’s a con man. It’s little things like this that foreshadow the eventual obviousness that the novel is meant to be a farce, but if it’s a comedy, it’s a disturbing one.

It’s an interesting read, as long as you’re willing to suspend disbelief for 320 pages. It’s a quick 320 pages because there’s never a dull moment. (There’s also crazy sex stuff; you’ve been warned.) I would feel better about recommending it, if the place where dystopian tale meets satire had been written a bit more seamlessly.

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“The Heart Goes Last”
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese; September 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

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