Atwood Jumps the Shark in Last Third of New Novel

Margaret Atwood
Doubleday, 38 pages
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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 clichés 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.)


Fair Helen: A Thrill, a History Lesson, and Some New Vocabulary

Andrew Greig
Quercus Publishing, 384 pages
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If you want to immerse yourself in some challenging and rewarding reading, download Scottish writer Andrew Greig’s Fair Helen. (You’ll probably wish to download it as only hard cover copies have made their way to our shores.) Beware: Although the novel is written with Greig’s customary elegance, many of the terms that appear are from the Lowland Scots dialect and you’ll need to consult the book’s glossary for many of them. (I did a cut-paste-printout for the ones I was having trouble remembering.)

Is the effort worth it? I think so. Fair Helen is a 17th century historical drama/romance based upon a tragic ballad as filtered through Sir Walter Scott’s second volume of The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Got that? Let me explain. James VI of Scotland has just ascended to the English throne as James I and, in 1603, brought about the union of the two crowns. If you think this brought peace, think again. We’re still 200 years from the birth of modern nation-states, which means that regional identities trumped any sort of nationalism. That is to say, not only did people view themselves as Scots or English– the Crown be damned–they also subdivided.  A Lowland Scot knew he was different from a Highlander or a Glaswegian, just as he knew he wasn’t a Northumbrian or a Cumbrian (English). Since no one agreed on where the borders between any of these places lay exactly, vast tracts of the Borders were known as the Debatable Lands. Moreover, local power on both sides of the questionable divides lay in the hands of powerful families and clans, with lesser folk allying with whomever they thought could offer the best patronage and protection. 

Greig takes us inside a world of treachery, bloodshed, and shifting loyalties through an likely means: he imagines the back-story of Helen of Annandale, an Irvine family beauty about whom history knows next to nothing other than she is the tragic subject of a Scots ballad known as “Helen of Kirkconnel.” If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, Helen of Kirkconnel was the fair lovely face that set hundreds of horsemen and soldiers into bloody glens. The book is narrated by her cousin, Harry Langton, a scholar and writer more comfortable in Edinburgh than among the unwashed, unlearned, sanguinary warriors of the Borders. He’d not be there at all, were it not that he was born in the Debatable Lands and his boyhood friend Adam Fleming is on the cusp of becoming a laird. Adam is also one of the rivals for Fair Helen’s hand, the other being the violent and even more powerful Rob Bell.  In Greig's telling, Helen may have been fair, but chastity was not among her virtues. Within the patriarchal world of the 17th century, Helen is not at liberty to choose her future husband—acquisition of land, power, and patronage trumps love.
The novel is a complex tale of scheming, double-dealing, spying, politics, and shifting alliances involving Border families such as the Irvings, Bells, Scotts, Armstrongs, and Grahams. Each thought themselves noble and exalted, though history’s judgment is that most were petty tyrants with grandiose ideas. In short, Helen a pawn in a big game played by small men. Call it love, lust, and mayhem in a place where borders are abstractions and rights are asserted by the thrust of a blood-tipped sword. Fair Helen isn’t an easy read for those unfamiliar with Lowland Scots but, then again, neither is Sir Walter Scott. Wade through this—the thrills outweigh the required language lessons.      Rob Weir

Postscript:  Music plays a big role in this novel, as it does in many of Greig’s works. If you’d like some instrumental background accompaniment, secure a superb CD from Kathryn Tickell titled Debatable Lands. (Topic PRKCD50).  Tickell is a talented fiddler and is considered one of the foremost virtuosos of the Northumberland bagpipes, a much buzzy, sweeter, non-blown cousin of the Highland pipes. As this suggests, she hails from the English side of the Debatable Lands though borders remain hazy. When I visited Berwick-upon-Tweed a few years back I wasn’t certain if I was in England or Scotland. The answer? It depends on whom you ask!


Super Tuesday Special Edition

The Truth behind the Bluster

What if truth in advertising laws applied to political campaigns? Let’s imagine what that would look like for the seven remaining contenders and let’s give each a sound bite grounded in reality.


Donald Trump: A second-rate mind for a nation with third-rate values.

Trump is the very symbol of American decline, a bloviating snollygoster who appeals to all that is selfish, gauche, and mean-spirited in Americans. The fact that he hasn’t been laughed out of the race is its own statement about American stupidity. His actual business record is as thin as his hair, and his major achievement that he hasn’t yet managed to lose a $200 million inheritance. Look it up—it’s one failure after another with a wave of human wreckage left in Trump's wake. I’m surprised he hasn’t lobbied for the release of Bernie Madoff—that would make a great ticket. The Donald could claim that he wants a man at his side who understands the real workings of American business and one who shares his values. I think this Bernie will be tied up for a bit, so Trump ought to check out the availability of Ronald MacDonald. Theme song: “Send in the Clowns.”

Ted Cruz: I’m so mean my own mama don’t like me.

If this were the 1930s, Cruz would be a Father Coughlin Brown Shirt. Cruz is proof that Canadian niceness isn’t in the DNA. What does it tell you when no one in the Republican Party can stand this SOB? He’s meaner than a snake and more dangerous than a coiled cotton mouth. I don’t use the term “fascist” lightly, but he might well be one. And he’s so damn stupid he doesn’t even realize that the old-style rightwing would have seen him as brown-skinned, not brown-shirted. Perfect running mate: Rand Paul. Theme song: “Must Wanna Get Nasty.”  

Marco Rubio: Don’t I look good in my empty suit?

Rubio looks the most presidential looking of them all, but don’t be fooled: Donald Trump is way more liberal than Rubio. Rubio is Rick Santorum with a human face. He is pro-gun and anti-choice, anti-immigrant, anti-tax, and anti-New Deal/Great Society. His foreign policy is an ill-conceived bundle of nonsense packaged in rhetoric straight out of the Cold War. If you thought Obama was inexperienced and naïve, check out this dude. Running mate: Sarah Palin—she doesn’t understand nuance either. Theme song: “The Asshole Song.”

Ben Carson: Don’t be fooled, I really am crazy.

Ahh, the good doctor—black, affable, amusing, and did I mention that he’s black? A black Republican? Who does he think he is: Clarence Thomas? If you need further proof he’s nuts, ask him about dinosaurs. He’s comic relief for the GOP and the poor man is too far gone to realize it. Running mate: Simon Legree from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Theme song: “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-ha.”

John Kasich: Do you know me?

He smiles, he doesn’t drool, and not many people know a damn thing about him. Perfect! He ought to be the clear-cut front runner, but isn’t--proof that the GOP suffers from a mental malady known as Bencarsonitis. He’s the only Republican whose record is so obscure that he could actually win. Think of it—he’d be competitive in every state in the Union except Ohio, where they actually do know him. Running mate: Caspar the Friendly Ghost—no one sees him either. Theme Song: “Would You Like to be My Neighbor.”


Hillary Clinton: I’m (Kinda ) Like Bill: All of the smarm, but without the charm

Some of us in Massachusetts see Hillary as Martha Coakley times 50, but that’s unfair; Coakley was merely an inept candidate, not one with more baggage than Samsonite. Hillary is packaging herself as the “realistic” candidate, a much nicer term than “status quo.” I keep waiting, but it seems that all she has going for her is name recognition, sanity, and an extra X chromosome. Democratic voters need to be very careful, because only one candidate has more negatives than she: Ted Cruz. It’s not true that she’s more electable than Bernie Sanders—she’s the one Democrat who Trump stands a very good chance of defeating, especially if tons of disgusted voters stay home. Clinton has the Democratic Machine working to anoint her if the delegate count is close, but her campaign reeks of a desperation and an antiquarianism analogous to supporters such as Gloria “Jurassic” Steinem. Running mate: Too bad old faithfuls like Humphrey and Mondale are dead. Maybe Joe Biden would give it another whirl. Harry Reid? Theme song: “Yesterday”

Bernie Sanders: What you see is what you get

This election boils down to whether you want a charlatan or a honest person and here are only two candidates who actually say what they mean: Cruz and Sanders. It’s not hard for me to choose Rumpled Bernie over Nasty Ted. I keep hearing about how “unrealistic” it is to think a democratic socialist could get anything done. So what, exactly, is getting done now? If we must have stasis—and for the record, I think Sanders would be a much stronger leader than Obama—let’s at least elect someone with decent values who won’t lie to us. Running Mate: Yvette Clarke would be perfect—a liberal, African American, Republican member of Congress. Theme Song: “All I Have to Do is Dream.”  


Haymarket Squares: February Album of the Month

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If you stuck Tom Lehrer, Bill Bragg, and Phil Ochs in a bluegrass ensemble you might end up with something like The Haymarket Squares, a quintet that labels its music "punkgrass." The insouciance of punk is evident, though the Squares are funnier, more musically accomplished than most punk bands, and paint from a more diverse melodic palette–some blistering rock, a dollop of Spanish guitar, or a flight into klezmer. The artistic core remains bluegrass, but don't expect formula. The closest they come is the breakdown feel of "Horrible Intentions," but it's a song about how the armed guardians of the US border serve masters who profit from the very fears they manufacture.

That alone should tell you that the Haymarket Squares are a political band–a deliciously retro throwback to the days in which folk music was message music from the left of center, not a narcissistic look-at-me confessional. Like the late Utah Phillips, though, the Squares prefer humor to polemics. "Heaven" is a bluegrass gospel take-down of organized religion with lines such as "There ain't no heaven, got make one here." It's hard not to think of pompous fools like Donald Trump when you hear lyrics in "King Me" such as: "I'm a monarchist, and I'm here to say/I can solve the problems that we face today/If you bend the knee, and give all power to me/I will lead this land to glory, like no other king before me/Bringing back the aristocracy." They even make light of the national Security Administration: "Tell me your secrets, tell me you hopes/What you had for breakfast, your off-color jokes/I am a guy who will listen all day/Your new best friend-I'm the NSA." Even the title is funny: "No Such Agency." Remember the old Phil Ochs song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal?" Check out the band's update, "Part of the Problem."

When they wish, the Haymarket Squares can work up a righteous lather, as in "High demand," when they take on the National Incarceration State," or "Working Reward," a call-it-like-is comment on the war on wage earners: "It's a high-wire act/With the safety net in tatters and a target on your back." And there's a really sharp cover of the old Credence Clearwater anthem "Fortunate Son." Mainly, though, the Haymarket Squares force you to chuckle and contemplate. There's plenty that justifies revolt, but the great causes in "Let's Start a Riot" are ennui and boredom. Even the band name is tongue in cheek. Chicago's Haymarket was the site of a famed 1886 anarchist event, but these guys (Mark Alred, Jayson James, John Luther Norris, Marc Oxborrow, Mark Sunman) are based in Phoenix. True to their nature, their "Gritty City" (which sounds like something from The Pogues) is an anti-love letter to the Valley of the Sun. Or is a for-real love letter? The Haymarket Squares delight in keeping us off-kilter. Call this album witty, wicked, and deceptively weighty. –Rob Weir