2018 Book #8 - The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Another American dystopia, quite similar to The Year of the Flood, which I read last year. A catastrophic economic collapse has led to mass unemployment, most businesses shuttered, millions of destitute formerly middle-class workers, roving gangs of drug zombies... not quite an apocalypse but a 21st century version of the Great Depression. All the money has been sucked out of the economy by the high capital overclass. So basically what we've got now, just more so.

Into this wrecked America comes a corporate model community offering a sanitized suburban fortress. All you have to do is qualify, sign up for life, and you can have clean towels and brussel sprouts and a yard to mow and all the andoyne 50s music you can stomach.  Stan and Charmaine, who have been living out of their car, jump at the chance.

As you can imagine, the project is not as benevolent as the infomercials promise. It gets very dark. I don't want to give out any spoilers, but imagine a sealed-off world run by a corporation with the power to shape consumers' identities to its own ends, (even more than they do at present), using any means its evil psychologists can cook up. There's really no way to describe what happens without ruining it for you because the twists and turns are essential to the way the characters evolve.

One thing I like about Atwood's fiction is that her protagonists are not especially heroic. Stan & Charmaine are pretty average; they just happen to have stumbled into a world of deceit, treachery, high tech surveillance, and brainwashing. Another thing I like is the way she takes ordinary things and makes them totemic, makes them carry meaning that transforms as the characters and the setting do. (Frank Zappa used to call it "conceptual continuity.") Knitted teddy bears have a strange talismanic weight in this story. 

The plotting gets a bit overly baroque for my taste, with a good deal of elaborate scheming, but it all ends with the loose ends that appeared to have been tied up turning out not to have beeen so neatly knitted after all. A subtler unease surfaces. 

I wouldn't call this science fiction. There's a bit of not-yet-realized technology in it, but not much. I'd call it instead a Swiftian satire on contemporary America, one that delicately balances the poignant and the ruthless. The book is not perfect, but she's a serious talent, no question. I'm definitely going to read more by her.


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