I’ve read 8 of Atwood’s 16 novels – the ones I’ve read are all different and range in genre from historical fiction to contemporary fiction to sci-fi – I think most of her more recent works might be considered sci-fi in the dystopian setting sense of the genre but The Penelopiad (2006) takes place in the time of Homer’s Ulysses. But I did so enjoy the Maddaddam Trilogy, Blind Assassin, and Alias Grace.
The Heart Goes Last , more along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale mixed with Oryx and Crake could take place next year if Wall Street and the entire economy were to go belly-up. Homelessness, crime and poverty run amok. Stan, a robotics engineer, and his wife Charmaine, who works in geriatrics, are both unemployed, live out of their old car while she waitresses in a seedy barroom for eating money. Their main concern is the various thieves who want the car. Then Charmaine hears on television about a new project where, in exchange for work residents can have their own home, food and protection – in other words, considering the circumstances, their lives. But when you sign on – you can’t sign off – there’s no changing your mind later. Still, it might be worth it. The community is called Concilius and is attached to a large and old but remodeled prison now called Positron. Stan’s brother, not a good guy, warns them but the couple signs up anyway.
The premise is that residents pay now for their future later – the residents are prisoners for a month and then they go back to home and jobs for a month. The home is shared with a couple which does the “prisoner” routine on alternating months.
At first it’s like a dream come true and although Stan is skeptical, Charmaine totally buys into it decorating their home (which has alternate ownership) and living like a little Susie-Sweetheart – it’s all in your attitude. They have jobs and acquaintances – the beginnings of a life. Then Stan finds a note behind the refrigerator – it’s a very sexy note to someone from a woman named Jasmine. Stan starts fantasizing.
Of course there’s more to Concilius than meets the eye – some very unscrupulous goings on in the “for-profit” organization. The director, Ed, is obviously completely corrupt and, well, as promised in the ads, there’s no getting out – they’re the prisoners – safe from the bad-guys on the outside taking turns doing guard duty with each other on the inside. Who is the prisoner – what is prison these days?
I enjoyed the character of Charmaine, the rest felt under-developed or flat. I’m not sure about what the themes might be – the perils of “for profit” prisons perhaps, the temptation of creating human robotics to suit the desires of people who can afford them, the dangers of positive attitudes?
At some point there is a bit of a change in tone. Where the narrative starts out fairly realistic, typically dystopian and faintly horrific, the story-line takes over at about mid-way and it turns rather surreal, bizarre and very funny as Stan and Charmaine try to escape. It worked for me because I kept wondering about how it could end and Atwood can be quite funny, but some may find it off-putting. On the other hand, the novel is described by the publishers as being “wickedly funny and deeply disturbing … about a near future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free.”