You know those writers of the 1930s who, mired in the existential doubts of their day, nonetheless managed to churn out a prodigious number of pages? Margaret Atwood brings them to mind. In works such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the MaddAddam trilogy, the prolific author has shown herself to be finely attuned to the evils and folly imperiling the planet — rampant consumerism and environmental degradation in particular.
Yet her fiction, though anything but sunny, is sanguine. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is framed by an enlightened future. From the depredations of the world of MaddAddam, a hopeful synthesis of natural forces emerges.
And now we have her new novel, “The Heart Goes Last,” which begins in a gloomy near future of scarcity and violence for the many, and carnivalesque plenty and power for the lucky few … and somehow ends up at a pink and blue Vegas wedding (“pure enchantment!”) featuring three singing Elvises, five Marilyns in taffeta and a fountain of mermaids with mics, surfers playing guitars and Cupids pouring water from the mouths of fishes.
In the giddy tradition stretching from Candide to Alice to Dorothy, a naif is our plucky pilgrim tenderfooting through what would be a nightmarish landscape if it weren’t so darn goofy. And “darn” is a favorite word of our heroine, Charmaine, who might have sprung straight out of a country song, with her sad beginnings, her stockpile of bromides courtesy of Grandma Win, her innocent blond prettiness and her irrepressible sexy spirit. Her counterpart is Stan, whose own winsome innocence takes the form of the blundering husband at the mercy of his maleness.
When we meet these two they’re living in their car in a world so bereft of security and opportunity that they jump at the chance to participate in an experiment in full employment — a closed community of twin cities, one a prison, the other not, where everyone switches monthly between being prisoners (with prison work, provisions and constraints) and townspeople (with houses and jobs occupied by their “alternates” every other month).
If it sounds bizarre, it is — and anyone would wonder, as Charmaine and Stan seem not to, how exactly this might be a moneymaking venture for its corporate backers. But when the nature of Charmaine’s prison job as Chief Medications Administrator becomes clear, the business model begins (almost) to make a sick sort of sense. “Prison abuses! Organ-harvesting! Sex slaves created by neurosurgery! Plans to suck the blood of babies! … How could such things have been allowed to happen?” Looking around, of course, we might also ask: How not?
Nothing so surprising there — which is, after all, what Margaret Atwood does best: Take what’s happening all around us and put it on the slippery slope of fantastic fiction.
But in the middle of it all is a human story in fairy-tale form: sweet little Charmaine, who wants to be good, wants to want only Stan, and good old doofusy Stan, who wants her to be bad, but only for him. Of course they get mixed up with others with less pure motives and hearts — and by the time they get to the unreality of Vegas they’ve been through so many permutations of mistaken identity, misdirected romance, fake deaths and misuses of power that the wrecked world they once fled has receded into a realm of make-believe.
And we’re left with what’s always been Margaret Atwood’s subject: need vs. want, compulsion vs. freedom: Which would you choose, or would you just rather not?
Ellen Akins teaches in the Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA program. She lives in Wisconsin.