December 14th, 2015

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

Wow, this is a weird book.  The beginning reads a lot like parts of the Maddaddam trilogy, with a grimly realistic description of a couple, Stan and Charmaine, who have lost their house and their jobs and are forced to live in their car.  "There's been a number of former car owners flung out onto the gravel, right around here; knifed, heads crushed in, bleeding to death.  No one bothers with these cases anymore, with finding out who did it, because that would take time, and only rich people can afford to have police."

Then Stan and Charmaine apply to the Positron Project, an organization that promises them employment and, even more appealing in Charmaine's eyes, their own house.  When they get there, though, they find that they don't actually get to live in the house full time.  They alternate every month with another couple, and during the month the other couple is living in the house they have to go to jail.

And here is where the book lost me.  Try as I might, I couldn't think of any reason for this bizarre set-up.  Do they want the prisoners' cheap labor?  But Stan is pretty sure his job in the chicken coops could be automated; there's no real reason for him to be there.  And the people who apply to the project seem willing, even eager, to work for low wages, to do anything, really, as long as they have a job.  Are the town's founders trying to save on space?  But there are abandoned houses all over the city, any one of which could be fixed up for Alternate couples.  For a while it looked like Atwood wanted to comment on the trend toward privatized prisons, but then this is dropped and she never returns to it.

The only reason I could think of is that Atwood wanted to explore the farcical aspects of having an affair with someone who lives in your own house but who you almost never get to see.  Which, as it turns out, is not all that funny.  Atwood's brilliance lies in closely observed social commentary, in small ironic observations, not this broad comedy.  And the comedy continues to go astray, even when her characters visit Las Vegas, which, you might think, is such a huge target no one could possibly miss it.  There are gay Elvis impersonators -- and here, as elsewhere, Atwood seems slightly behind the times: gay men, thankfully, aren't intrinsically funny anymore; these days you have to work harder for your comedy.  There is a parody of the Blue Man Group called the Green Man Group.  There are descriptions that seem to go on forever of a sex robot factory, with elaborate explanations of what features people want to pay for -- yes, we get it, men are pigs.  People have operations, or are forced to have operations, that cause them to fall in love with whoever they imprint on when they wake up -- and this is presented as just another aspect of this wacky, madcap society, and not, well, rape.

I'm probably over-thinking this, applying science-fiction filters to something that's supposed to be satire.  But the beginning, with its harrowing description of what it's like to be homeless, set me up to expect an entirely different story, and I never recovered from the swerve into farce.  And although it may not seem like it from this review, Atwood is one of my favorite writers, someone whose books I return to again and again.  The Blind Assassin, Cat's Eye, The Handmaid's Tale -- these are brilliant novels.  Which is probably another reason I was so disappointed with this one.