Domestic disturbance

Domestic disturbance

Margaret Atwood’s new novel is a prickly marriage plot disguised as a campy dystopian thriller. It’s also her most blistering social critique since The Handmaid’s Tale

(Image: Christopher Wahl)

The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood’s new novel, takes place somewhere in the northeastern U.S. in the near future. An economic meltdown has led to mass unemployment, homelessness and crime. The super-rich have fled to floating offshore tax havens, and the poor have gathered into marauding gangs. Amid the chaos, Charmaine and Stan, members of the millennial middle class, attempt to carve out a future. Having lost their jobs and newly purchased starter home, the couple are living out of a third-hand Honda. It’s an extreme vision of the insecurity facing the 30ish set today—a world in which the manual for everyday life has been torched and its inhabitants are desperately seeking guidance.

The novel delivers it in the form of Consilience, a Pleasantville-style town with a prison called Positron at its centre. Law-abiding citizens like Stan and Charmaine can volunteer to spend one month in Positron, where they’re employed in manual jobs, and one month living in the comfort of a cheerful house, working as guards or town administrators. While they’re in prison, another couple—their “alternates”—live in their home, and vice versa. The social experiment ensures full-time employment and housing. All Stan and Charmaine have to do is sign a contract for life.

The dark premise is one of many in Atwood’s stable of speculative fiction, which has its roots in the 1985 feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale but launched in earnest with the 2003 release of Oryx and Crake, a grotesquely imaginative post-apocalyptic novel. At the time, critics considered Atwood’s new sci-fi book a departure into the lowbrow—a fleeting experiment with genre. She proved them wrong, releasing two more volumes set in the Oryx and Crake world, each one funnier, looser and more twisted than the last. They were enjoyable end-times romps, but they sidelined the intimate observations of family, marriage and friendship that drove her earlier works. The Heart Goes Last offers the best of both Atwoods: an ingenious dystopian concept played out inside a modern-day marriage plot.

Atwood has always been an astute satirist of middle-class mores. Except this book emerges at a moment when economists are fretfully watching the North American way of life disappear. Our paycheques have stagnated, and occupations that would have once supported a family have slowly evaporated, leaving people to buy their middle-of-the-road lifestyles on credit. The result has been the death of the two-car-garage, two-kid domestic dream.

The novel is part satire, part plausible forecast of the near future—and it’s bound to have newly mortgaged couples sweating in their chinos. Stan and Charmaine are both utterly recognizable characters, with middle-brow mall wardrobes and suburban goals. Stan, once destined to be a breadwinner, is now the kind of post-recession sad sack that’s become a punchline in recent years. He stresses over being “nutless” and “having the balls of a tadpole” (Atwood’s images of emasculation are viciously lucid). He wishes that Charmaine was wildly attracted to him the way she once was—an antidote to his impotence. Charmaine, meanwhile, dreams about returning to the simpler times of childhood. Both are seeking security in their own ways: he in sex, she in fantasy. Atwood has some sympathy for them, but she mostly depicts their desire to look backward as naïve and even dangerous.

Consilience offers them a solution to their problems: a throwback ’50s idyll that fetishizes a time when people identified as happy and everyone knew their place. It’s an insidious form of misogyny obscured by optimism. Doris Day and Bing Crosby tunes play over loudspeakers, vintage Marilyn Monroe movies loop on the TVs, and the town’s official theme song is the barn-raising music from the 1954 musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which a family of virile woodsmen kidnap women and seduce them into becoming their wives. There’s even a new form of neurosurgery where Stan can hard-wire Charmaine (against her will) for lustful, lasting monogamy.

Consilience’s technicolour motif feels eerily familiar: Hollywood is rebooting old movies faster than it makes new ones, menus read like inflated diner specials from the ’50s, and fashion is largely an ongoing ode to decades past. Even social media, one of the defining modern inventions, has turned every moment into a gauzy #tbt.

What’s at stake in the novel, however, isn’t just a lack of originality, it’s a lack of free will, as nostalgia becomes a postmodern opiate. For a while, the couple are soothed by their retro roles. But, as the plot thickens, the dark underpinnings of the town are exposed. From there, the story unloads a blistering parody of the corporate opportunism and materialism that control people like Stan and Charmaine. In the end, Atwood’s characters achieve a perverse kind of picket-fence ideal, but it relies on their ability to repress basic human instinct.

This dark vision of the future could come off as a heavy morality tale—The Handmaid’s Tale, for all its brilliance, was a bleak and ponderous read. What makes Atwood’s recent work feel so fresh is her unbridled play with pop literary forms. She originally published the first few chapters of The Heart Goes Last serially as an experiment for the website Byliner. To keep readers clicking—including 800,000 Twitter followers providing real-time feedback—she built in pulpy cliffhangers and plot twists. As a result, the book is crammed with S&M flourishes, a Shakespearean double wedding and a campy escape plot in which Stan joins both a troupe of Elvis impersonators and the Green Man Group (a spinoff of their blue brethren).

You get the sense that Atwood is having a great time, gallivanting between genres as she tries to get her young marrieds out of their apocalyptic bind. That winning sense of curiosity is what keeps her dystopian obsessions relevant—unlike Stan and Charmaine, she’s always looking ahead, never back.

The Heart Goes Last
By Margaret Atwood
Out Sept. 29