What Roads will the Needs of the Human Condition Lead us Down? | Review of “The Heart Goes Last” by Margaret Atwood (2015) McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House Canada

Heart

Margaret Atwood has long been trusted as a writer who knows how to document the human condition. Her novels have been read with zeal by her fans for that reason and they are the centre of discussions and debates long after they have been published. And, no doubt, her latest novel The Heart Goes Last continues her well-earned reputation.

Page 3 Cramped

Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace with begin with. If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they’re lucky to have any kind of a car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger.

Charmaine feels that Stan ought to sleep in the back because he needs more space – it would only be fair, he larger  – but he has to be in the front in order to drive them away fast in an emergency. He doesn’t trust Charmaine’s ability to function under those circumstances: he says she’d be too busy screaming to drive. So Charmaine can have the more spacious back, though even so she has to curl-up like a snail because she can’t exactly stretch out.

They keep the windows mostly closed because of the mosquitoes and the gangs and the solitary vandals. The solitaries don’t usually have guns or knives – if they have those kinds of weapons you have to get out of there triple fast – but they’re more likely to be bat-shit crazy, and a crazy person with a piece of metal or a rock or even a high-heeled shoe can do a lot of damage. They’ll think you’re a demon or the undead or a vampire whore, and no kind of reasonable thing you might do to calm them down will cancel out that opinion. The best thing with crazy people, Grandma Win used to say – the only thing, really – is to be somewhere else.

There are a collection of writers that many of my English teachers wanted me to read, and Atwood was one of them. But they would have scolded me bitterly if I had brought the term ‘bat-shit crazy’ from out of the reality of my circle of friends and family and into their realm of formal teaching. It would be interesting to know if they recommend this Atwood novel based on the frank language of the book. Or do they bristle at it like other people I discussed the book with who deny that families are forced to sleep in their cars these days.

The story deals married couple Stan and Charmaine. They are desperate to survive the economic and social collapse of the world around them and the concept of moving to the town of Consilience has strong appeal to them. The closed-off community holds the fabled “Positron Project” where residents all have a job and a clean home to reside in for six months. On the alternating six months, Stan and Charmaine must enter the town’s prison and serve a six-month sentence. After the sentence, they can return to a civilian life. The concept has appeal to the desperate couple, they don’t hesitate to sign up.

Page 41 Haircut

“Have a good month outside?” asks the barber, whose name is Clint. Clint has a big T on his front because he’s playing the part of a Trusty. He’s not one of the original criminals, the ones who were still in here when the Project began: you’d never let a dangerous offender anywhere near those scissors and razors. Outside, when he’s a civilian, Clint does tree pruning. Before he signed on to the Project he’d been an actuary, but he’d lost that job when his company moved west.

It’s a familiar story, though nobody talks much about what they were before: backward glances are not encouraged. Stan himself doesn’t dwell on his Dimple Robotics interlude, back when he’d thought the future was like a sidewalk and all you had to do was make it from one block to the next; nor does he dwell on what came after, when he had no job. He hates to think of himself the way he was then: grimy, morose, with the air being sucked out of his chest by the sense of futility that was everywhere like a fog.

Atwood not only has captured a physical reality here but also an emotional reality as well. The protagonists are desperate for change and that reality is recognized by any outside organization. They sign up and – at first – all seems well. But then things change again and the couple is in an even more desperate situation than before.  Atwood uses words that are frank and vernacular which makes the story easy for many readers to grasp.

Page 136 White Ceiling

Charmaine hardly slept a wink all night. Maybe it was the screams; or they might have been laughs – that would be nicer; though if they were laughs they were loud, high and hysterical. She’d like to ask some of the other women if they heard anything too, but that’s probably not a good idea.

Or maybe her sleeplessness came from overexcitement, because really she’s super excited. She’s so excited she can only peck at her lunch, because this afternoon she gets to resume her real job. After putting in her morning session of towel-folding, she got to throw away the shameful Laundry Room nametag and replace it with her rightful one: Chief Medications Administrator. It feels blissful, as if that nametag has been lost and not it’s been found; like when you misplace your scooter keys or your phone and then they turn up and you get a rush of luckiness, as if the stars or fate or something has singled you out for a win. That’s how happy her rightful nametag makes her feel.

The other women in her section have noticed that nametag: they’re treating her with new respect. They’re looking at her directly instead of letting their eyes slide past her like she was furniture; they’re asking her sociable questions such as how did she sleep, and isn’t this an awesome lunch? They’re handing her small, chatty praises, like what a good job she’s doing with the blue teddy bears, even though she’s such a crappy knitter. And they’re smiling at her, not half-smiles either, but full-on total-face smiles that are only partly fake.

Margaret Atwood has earned her reputation as a writer who can document the human condition well with her novel The Heart Goes Last. Her language is frank and contemporary which makes this book a great piece of literature. A must-read for sure.

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s page for The Heart Goes Last

Link to Margaret Atwood’s website

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