Margaret Atwood’s “The Heart Goes Last” opens with two down-and-outers named Stan and Charmaine living in their “third-hand Honda,” staving off hungry marauders who prowl by night. They lost their home and jobs in a colossal financial meltdown, when “the whole system fell to pieces, trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheets like fog off a window.” He sells his blood for much-needed cash, and she tends bar at a once-fashionable watering hole where the patrons now turn tricks or deal drugs.
With the world falling to hell all around them, they are faced with a difficult choice: They can continue eking out a dangerous existence on the outside or sign on to an outrageous social experiment called the Positron Project, where residents alternate between living in cozy, cookie-cutter homes for one month and being locked up as prison inmates the next month. The purpose is to solve the problems of unemployment and crime simultaneously, a spurious goal that nevertheless can sound appealing when it is delivered with sugar-coated propaganda and the promise of a warm bed and hearty meals (especially when you’ve been surviving on garbage).
Of course, there is a catch. Once you’re in, you can’t get out. Stan is suspicious, as he should be. The place is surrounded by a “high black-glass wall’’ and a “seeing-eye boundary,” and potential residents are given a barcode when they enter. This is not your typical gated community. But Charmaine is an old-fashioned girl who misses clean linens and the homespun life she lived after her grandmother rescued her from unnamed abuse in childhood. The availability of simple comforts guides her decision. “The bath towels,” Atwood writes, “clinched the deal.”
This is quintessential Atwood territory, a bleak dystopian landscape littered with shady types who engage in twisted sexual manipulation and scientific engineering reminiscent of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Oryx and Crake.” She describes this kind of novel as “speculative fiction,” because it depicts a plausible world. And the writing here is so persuasive, so crisp, that it seeps under your skin.
The novel, which began as a series of four episodes on the digital publishing start-up Byliner, showcases Atwood at her funniest — if the book is also, at times, a bit obvious. The mastermind of Positron is a smarmy fellow simply named Ed. It is clear from the start that he is not only a con, but also a predator. Yet the details are delicious (Charmaine majored in gerontology and play therapy, for instance, and Positron pipes in a soundtrack of Doris Day standards). The writing gets especially sharp when the project begins to unravel. Charmaine and Stan find themselves embroiled in masochistic affairs with the “alternates” who occupy their home when they are in prison. From that point on, the novel races along at an almost madcap pace, and the Positron experiment becomes more hilarious and horrifying at the same time.
When bad elements in the community suddenly disappear, they are said to have been “transferred” or succumbed to mysterious “health problems.” Surveillance cars prowl, and Charmaine observes that the whole town is under a bell jar. Evil doings are explained with euphemisms. As the prison’s “Chief Medications Administrator,” Charmaine is charged with performing something called a “Special Procedure,” but you know it’s not all that special for the patients.
And then there are all the obscene, money-grubbing things going on beneath the squeaky clean veneer of the Positron experiment, including involvement in the organ-transplant market, mandatory knitting circles, the development of sex bots, and brain manipulation, to name a few of the more fun ones. Oh, and there is a band of Elvis impersonators who live in a den called the Elvisorium.
The fast-paced novel is hard to put down when it comes screaming to its clever and terrifying conclusion. For all the humor, Atwood is really questioning free will. In a world of charlatans and positive-speak, can anyone really choose their own fate? Can the protagonists, who willingly signed on to a twisted experiment, ever regain their freedom? Atwood is Canadian, and her dystopian novels are often set in a post-apocalyptic United States. She has created a world in which opportunists will say anything to gain profit or power or perhaps a cheap thrill, which resonates with the posturing that has become commonplace during an election season that has only just begun. Thankfully, fiction, at least for now, out-trumps reality.
THE HEART GOES LAST
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 308 pp., $26.95
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.