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Atwood Jumps the Shark in Last Third of New Novel

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THE HEART GOES LAST (2015)
Margaret Atwood
Doubleday, 38 pages
* *

When it comes to dystopia, Margaret Atwood is a go-to name. Her 1986 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, is surely among the greatest works of that genre, and subsequent offering such as Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam are only a cut or two below. Atwood returns to things-fall-apart themes in The Heart Goes Last, but this time her major distinction is one I doubt she wants: one of the worst examples of a great writer thoroughly losing control of her creation. The first two-thirds of The Heart Goes Last has the makings of an important novel, but the last third spirals out of control in ways that can only be labeled "embarrassing." It's the kind of bad that if had been submitted in a fiction-writing class, the instructor would have handed it back with demands that it be reconceptualized and rewritten. 

[Warning: A few spoilers occur below.]

The best dystopian works build upon what is imaginable. Atwood has a killer premise–a not-so-distant economic collapse occasioned by greedy speculators has divided society into haves and have-nots (!). The have-nots are desperate–vast segments of the population live in Mad Max realms of thievery, rapine, and violence. At the center of this is a young couple, Stan and Charmaine. In better times they were the poster children for success–he a business high-flyer and she a medical social worker. Now they live in a used Honda, trying to scrape by with Charmaine's part-time job at a retirement center and Stan's ability to sense danger and move the car before gangs overtake them. Things are so bad that Stan must approach his brother Conor, a petty crook and fixer for bigger gangsters, for some cash.

Their life takes a turn when Charmaine hears a recruitment ad for a walled community called Consilience, with its promises of homes, clean sheets, showers, jobs, gardens, and community. There is, of course, a catch—as they learn when they attend the recruitment seminar: if you are accepted, you can't leave. Stan smells a rat, but yields to Charmaine's dreams of cleanliness and stability. Consilience is everything it's billed to be. The past is often a retreat when things go wrong, and Consilience is straight out of a gee-whiz view of the Golden Fifties: neat suburban homes with hedges and lawns, practical furniture, safe streets, and clustered neighborhoods. In fact, it's so Fifties that Consilience has banished things that might be viewed as disruptive—its entertainment options center on Doris Day, Bing Crosby, wholesome movies, and religious-values TV. But they quickly learn that Consilience is a literal con game. The Positron Corporation that runs the community has a motto: DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR THE FUTURE. 

Consilience is just half of the community, the other half being Positron, a prison. The whole deal is run by Ed, a combination Svengali and Big Brother. His vision of a well-functioning society is unique: each home is shared by two couples, but in alternating months. For one month Stan and Charmaine are 50s-style homeowners, while their alternates—whom they never meet—do time in Positron. When the calendar month flips, roles reverse. Still, Positron is gender-segregated but humane, more like a college dorm with work requirements. Residents think this is how the company makes its money and Charmaine doesn't question it as she's a 50s kind of gal at heart. But production based on crocheted teddy bears, electric scooters, and soft goods literally doesn't add up. Nor does all that wholesomeness, and when Stan finds a sexy note left by "Jasmine" for her partner "Max," Stan begins to fantasize about their wild sex life in dangerous ways. Charmaine also worries–about Stan's grumpiness, her desires, and her Positron job in "Special Procedures."

Great stuff so far. Atwood could have done a great take-down of faux Fifties values–after all, the historical Fifties were more tin than golden.* Instead, she jumped the shark. Rule one for all writers: avoid jolting tone shifts. After building a bleak future, establishing ominous suspicion, and placing her characters in peril, Atwood shifts to humor of the lowest, sophomoric proportions. I'll say nothing about the narrative, but the book's resolution depends upon all of the following: out-of-control libido, sexbots, Vegas, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe impersonators (some of whom are gay for seemingly gratuitous reasons), a woman sexually fixated on a Teddy bear, a takeoff on the Blue Man Group, and another special procedure that makes the old Clovers' pop song "Love Potion No. 9" seem scientific by comparison. Does this sound promising? Kirkus called the novel "dystopian clich├ęs played as farce," but that's too kind. It's simply bad.

Tell you what—read this novel up to the point where Stan is chosen to expose Positron, then email me: I'll tell you what happens so you don't have to cringe over each page that follows. Call it a public service on my part!  Rob Weir

* Historical footnote: The 1950s is often viewed by neo-cons are the golden past. It was also a time of paranoia, atomic nightmares, communist witch-hunts, brutal racism, patriarchy run amok, and pressures for conformity that led to rebellion. The Fifties, not the Sixties, was the true era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Infidelity, divorce, delinquency, and sales of sex mags skyrocketed. Rock music emerged along with rebels such as Beats and civil rights activists. It was also the era with the greatest number of drug addicts in American history: pill-popping housewives!  (For the record, Millennials also have much higher drug consumption rates than Sixties' Baby Boomers.)

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