“And the book for February for the Wednesday book club at Avid Reader is The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood,” said Fiona. I groaned inwardly and thought to myself, “I might not buy this book”, but then heard Fiona say, “the hardback edition is available at the paperback price.”
After close to a 15-year long absence from reading Margaret Atwood, I conceded it might be time to give her another chance. My break-up with Margaret Atwood was no less heartbreaking than a break-up with a close friend who had once been a confidante and life-line – a keeper of my secrets and desires – one of the few people who truly understood the way the world was, but better still, knew how to articulate it.
I loved the complexity of Bluebeard’s Egg – a fascinating contemporary rendering of the classic fairy tale. Atwood chose not to include the elements of stupefying horror we find in the older tales – the haunting images of dead women hanging limply from chains, the pools of splattered blood. Rather, in her tale, she takes us on a psychological journey through the deep, unexplored realms of the unconscious. The tale is told from the perspective of Sally, a middle-aged wife who obsessively tries to unlock the mystifying mind of her frustratingly unreadable husband, Ed.
I also loved the dark fairy tale themes explored in The Robber Bride, which has a feminist twist. Instead of an evil groom luring three innocent maidens into his lair to devour them one by one, Atwood created Zenia, a beautiful villianess (complete with capped teeth and implants), who sets out to destroy her three college friends by taking their men, spirit, and money.
In hindsight, I might have seen a schism coming. Although I acknowledge the genius of The Handmaid’s Tale – a dystopian novel and a work of speculative fiction about a future totalitarian Christian theocracy – I did find it polemic and, if I am honest, it was not really one of my favourite books.
But then along came Alias Grace, which had all the weighty authority of a 19th-century novel. Was it possible that the young and quite lovely looking scullery maid, Grace Marks, really was a double murderess? The book evokes the Victorian mode, spiced with spooky plot twists and playfully devious teases of equally high Gothic, and leaves you pondering “did she do it?” well after the last page had been turned.
Margaret Atwood in conversation was the first author event I attended and I have to say it set a precedent, which is yet to be met by any other. For a writer who was then in her mid-60s (she is now 76), Margaret had almost a rock-star like following.
Of course, the audience didn’t look like the kind of people who attend rock concerts. This group was predominately made up of what appeared to be high brow intellectuals and those with avant-garde leanings. My friend and I good-naturedly noted that, being blonde and still dressed the clothes we had worn to the office that day, we stood out just as much as the one or two men, amongst the sea of women in their loose Japanese-inspired robe-like outfits complemented by their asymmetrical bobs, so sharp they could be deemed dangerous.
And in truth, Margaret didn’t really have to do all that much. She made a dramatic entrance swirling her cape fastened with what appeared to be a heavy silver brooch of Celtic design, her hair unapologetically wild and unruly, and took her rightful position centre stage as the high priestess of fiction.
Most of the audience were shocked that Alias Grace didn’t win that prestigious literary award – the Man Booker Prize in 1996. And, as so often happens with awards, candidates are often recognised retrospectively, and sometimes for less stellar work, which I think is the case for Margaret. Her tenth novel, The Blind Assassin, was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2000.
I so wanted to love this book, I adored its celery green cover jacket with a drawing of a languid depression-era beauty gazing longingly towards me (the reader), inviting me to turn the first page. And so I did, and was rewarded after a few pages with the beautiful phrase “it was a fingernail moon”. What genius and how apt it was to describe the waning moon as the shape of a well-manicured hand. I stored it in my memory bank, and often like to point out ‘a fingernail moon’ to friends when it graces the night skies.
The story starts out promisingly and is centred on the Chase sisters, Iris and Laura, granddaughters of the benevolent founder of a button factory in the Canadian town of Port Ticonderoga. The girls grow up in the 1920s in a large 19th-century house named Avilion after the ”island-valley” in ”Idylls of the King.” But as we know Margaret Atwood usually likes to tell more than one story in her novels, and for me the less said about the Planet Zycron the better.
I loathed this part of the book. I did not find the lengthy taxonomies about the city of Sakiel-Norn and its class-stratified inhabitants interesting – it bored me senseless, and I didn’t see the point of any of it. I could not understand why the story of an heiress living on the lam with a socialist and fugitive needed to be juxtaposed with science-fiction. And to make matters worse, the Planet Zycron had numerous moons – and never once was there a fingernail moon.
That was it – I had fallen out with Margaret Atwood – we no longer had anything in common. I tried on several occasions to read some of her later work, and while I acknowledge she was ahead of her time, addressing themes such as genetically modified food and environmental issues, I couldn’t muster any interest in her work. To me it was didactic, polemic, and downright boring – a ‘yawnfest’ to use a common vernacular.
Margaret still draws a crowd
Just as Margaret’s author event drew stadium-like numbers so too did Wednesday night’s book club, with a record number of attendees eager to discuss the merits (or otherwise) of The Heart Goes Last. And true to the essence of many of her books, a higher power was at work causing a little mischief in form of an intense downpour, which dampened the courtyard of Avid Reader, just before we were about to commence to let us know that we are many things are beyond our control.
Background information is always helpful, and Fiona filled us in with some biographical and general information. The story of The Heart Goes Last started out in serial form on the online website Byliner, and this helps to explain the ‘clunkiness’ some found in the novel’s structure.
It was a mixed group – long-time devotees of Margaret Atwood, some completely new to her work, and a surprising number of readers who, like me, had fallen out with her after reading a book they didn’t like. And what better way to gain a full appreciation of the book than to discuss it with such a group?
The Heart Goes Last tells of tale of what might easily happen when a catastrophic economic collapse (think circa 2008) occurs in a Detroit-like town where industries close and jobs disappear. It is in such a town that we meet our two main characters, Stan and his wife, Charmaine, two young people who have lost their jobs, their house and all the trappings of a middle-class life, and are reduced to living in their car: impoverished and desperate.
Charmaine manages find casual work in a bar but it is sporadic, and the dangers of a lawless and anarchic society are inescapable. This makes the appeal of the nearby ‘gated community’, which holds the promise of full employment and a home filled with fluffy towels and floral sheets even more enticing. But when things sound ‘too good to be true’ there is usually a catch, and the dual community of Positron and Consilience has a pretty big one.
Full employment is on the condition that residents must spend one month in the town’s prison and the alternative month working to maintain the town. This ‘dream’ community is essentially a penal colony ruled by a Big Brother-type leader named Ed. The values of the 1950s were promoted by the screening of black and white movies of that era and the music of Doris Day and Perry Como being piped into the residents’ homes. Oh, and there’s just one more catch, once you’ve checked in you can never leave.
I think history has shown that when people feel really frightened, they will choose options that provide safety…and they will give up some of their freedoms in return.” (Margaret Atwood)
But for a while Charmaine and Stan are happy. Charmaine takes solace in having her own home, even if it occupied by their alternatives when they are in prison. She is particularly pleased to have been assigned a responsible job dispensing medication to prisoners, and she even manages to put a positive spin on it when she realises the true implications of her role. Stan adapts to his dual responsibilities fixing motor scooters on the outside and tending chickens in prison but “can’t shake the feeling that this place is some sort of pyramid scheme.” And neither can the reader.
But Margaret Atwood wants to explore even more themes and the reader is asked to confront a myriad of issues, including betrayal involving extramarital affairs, human-organ trafficking, blackmail, espionage, identify theft, and sex-bot manufacturing. It is this topsy-turvy, almost madcap, approach where Atwood gains or loses the admiration of readers (be they newbies or seasoned).
The book club readers were divided with some eager to read further novels and others content for The Heart Goes Last to be last Atwood novel they read. I found the subject matter dark and uncomfortable (probably because parts of this dystopia could so easily become a reality), but was delighted to be once again entranced by Margaret Atwood’s writing. I loved her dark humour, imagination and playfulness, particularly when she engineers the plot for Stan to disguise himself as an Elvis sex robot in order to escape.
Margaret Atwood really has a pulse on the zeitgeist of the times, particularly in relation to her knowledge about the revolutionary developments of ‘prosibots’. For the uninitiated this Vanity Fair article provides a great overview. Some of the book club members (and I agree) felt she went a bit overboard with the descriptions of a medical procedure, which altered people’s brains to the extent that they became sexually enslaved to the first person (or teddy bear in one case) they see after the operation. But nothing, it seems is too arcane, technical or grotesque for Margaret Atwood – it all finds a way into her fiction!
How Margaret rated…
The general consensus from the book club was that this was a good read, with an average score of 7.5 to 8. There were highs with a perfect score of 10 from one of our male members, and lows with one member giving it a 3.
Even though I did think the novel did have some flaws, the writing was reminiscent of vintage Atwood at her best. I gave it a score of 9, and I may even try to re-read The Blind Assassin.
Orange is the new black…
Prisons appear to be a ‘hot topic’ in popular culture. Television shows such as Breaking Bad, Orange is the new black and even Australia’s own 70s tele-drama Prisoner all enjoy a cult-like status. The Heart Goes Last, as a work of contemporary literature, takes this voyeuristic approach deeper and makes the reader question the role of incarceration to control what are perceived to be deviant behaviours and, perhaps even more insidiously, as a profit-making venture. Electric Literature has an excellent interview with Margaret Atwood for those interested in exploring this theme in greater depth.
Other creatives have found inspiration from a Fingernail Moon, this heart-breakingly beautiful song was written by Annie Lennox in 2007. Enjoy!