Margaret Atwood has long been a wry, incisive prophet. From “The Handmaid’s Tale” to her “Oryx and Crake” trilogy, she’s exposed our current ills by peering down the path and discerning perils fast approaching.
In that time-traveling mode, I’ve just returned from next Tuesday and can report that her upcoming novel is a silly mess.
Several chapters of “The Heart Goes Last” appeared a few years ago in serial form on Byliner under the title “Positron.” At the time, Atwood told NPR that she was inspired by the serial productions of 19th-century novelists such as Charles Dickens. “The closest analogy is probably TV sitcoms,” she said.
There’s some truth in advertising there, which should have tempered readers’ expectations, but “The Heart Goes Last” was highlighted as one of the fall’s most anticipated books. Updated with that plaintive title, an ominous cover image and the publisher’s absurd puffery about its brilliance, this novel seems genetically engineered to trick buyers into taking it seriously.
It certainly starts seriously enough. The scene opens on a city strafed by unemployment and crime, as though the Great Recession of 2007 had screwed ever downward until the structure of civil society snapped: “The whole card castle, the whole system fell to pieces,” Atwood writes, “trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheets like fog off a window.” Our heroes, Charmaine and Stan, are a once-middle-class couple now reduced to living in an old Honda somewhere in the ruined Northeast. Stan soldiers on, Dumpster-diving and moving the car every few hours to stay ahead of the gangs. His wife buoys herself by recalling the vacuous aphorisms of her Grandma Win.
These opening scenes offer a sharp portrait of the financial rot that destroyed so many North American cities and almost permanently destabilized the economy. We know that many frightened and idle people turn with varying degrees of readiness to violence or despair, but what Atwood shows with such caustic wit is the way economic stress renders once-absurd solutions suddenly plausible. Given a surplus of criminals and a paucity of jobs, why not get government out of the way and let corporate America cure both problems at once?
“Tired of living in your car?” an understanding man asks on TV. “Remember what your life used to be like? Before the dependable world we used to know was disrupted? At the Positron Project in the town of Consilience, it can be like that again. We offer not only full employment but also protection from the dangerous elements that afflict so many at this time. Work with like-minded others! Help solve the nation’s problems of joblessness and crime while solving your own! Accentuate the positive!”
That pitch, infused with racist code words and the stale elixir of market magic, could have been lifted from any number of presidential campaign speeches. But Atwood has arrived at something even more sinister by following the trendlines of our contemporary madness for locking people up in for-profit prisons.
The name Consilience is derived from “Cons + Resilience,” and the inmates — nay, residents — are admonished to “do time now, buy time for our future!” As Stan and Charmaine learn, eager volunteers who enter (and can never leave) this walled town are divided into two rotating groups: For one month, half the population lives in lovely suburban homes. Then everybody switches, and those suburbanites spend the next month in prison. “Think of the savings, with every dwelling serving two sets of residents!” the chief executive crows. It’s “time-share taken to its logical conclusion” — something like North Korea run by the Disney corporation.
As a satire of unregulated markets, this is rich, and the early scenes race by, equally grim and funny. “There were so many advantages,” Atwood writes in the voice of her corporate huckster. “Who wouldn’t rather eat well three times a day, and have a shower with more than a cupful of water, and wear clean clothes and sleep in a comfortable bed devoid of bed bugs? Not to mention the inspiring sense of a shared purpose [and] the assurance that you were contributing to the general good, and a toilet that flushed.”
Things fall apart, naturally. A long line of dystopian satires has programmed us to expect every brave new world to flash its soylent green side sooner or later. And as usual, it’s people! Unfettered by law or conscience, the greedy executives of Consilience devise ever more grotesque ways to extract profit from their alternating prisoners and suburbanites.
But what’s more surprising than the corruption of Consilience is the quick collapse of this potentially insightful novel about unbridled capitalism. Maybe the fractured process of composition is to blame for the jarring unevenness of “The Heart Goes Last.” But whatever the cause, just as Atwood begins exploring the horror of living in an incorporated terrarium, the story deflates into a flaccid sex comedy. Even when chickens are involved — no, especially when chickens are involved — this is pretty unbearable stuff. The plot rambles, the sharp edge of Atwood’s satire dulls, and we’re left with campy characters gyrating away chapter after chapter. Then some of them dress up like Elvis, in gay and straight varieties. And then it gets weird . . . and there are robot prostitutes and unspeakable accidents during the testing of those robots. And Charmaine may be involved in a for-profit euthanasia scheme that begins to seem preferable to finishing this novel.
Having abandoned any intelligible pursuit of its dark themes early on, the story limps to a tidy and thoroughly false resolution.
Some disasters can’t be avoided. This one can be.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 308 pp. $26.95