Books: Going back to the future with the great Atwood
Fiction: The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood, Bloomsbury, hdbk, 306 pages, €24.99
Margaret Atwood is highly unusual among literary novelists in that her books are funny. Not funny in a theoretical "oh, yes, I see what you're doing there, how clever", way. They're actually funny, peppered with laugh-out-loud observations, dialogue and one-liners, even within what is often very grim subject matter.
The Heart Goes Last, her 15th novel (there have been several collections of poetry, essays and short fiction too) is Atwood's funniest book of all. It's also her silliest and most ridiculous, the closest thing to pure genre entertainment she's written.
Set in a near-future where North America has slid into social and economic disintegration - Atwood prefers the term "speculative fiction" to "science fiction" - the book centres on Stan and Charmaine. A young married couple, they live in their car, barely subsist on her tips from bartending and worry desperately about how they're going to survive.
Salvation appears to come in the intriguing form of the Consilience/Positron twin-cities project. The former is a renovated town, the latter a prison within it - and they're looking for inhabitants.
You get to spend one month living in the town, working whatever job best suits your talents and aptitudes. Every other month you're a prisoner, doing prison work, dwelling in a cell, wearing a jail-issue jumpsuit, the whole bit.
The project will provide jobs, security, social calm and meaning to individual and collective lives. In exchange for your time and labour, you get food, a nice house, pocket-money and peace of mind: what could go wrong?
This being a story - this being Atwood - the answer, of course, is "just about everything". Sweet-natured Charmaine gets swept up by a steamy sexual relationship with another inhabitant/prisoner; cynical Stan becomes obsessed with a woman he's never seen; and both are soon embroiled in a much larger life-and-death conspiracy, as the dark heart of Consilience is slowly revealed and a chink of rebellious hope is lit by an unexpected ally.
From about the halfway point, The Heart Goes Last shifts up through several gears. Until then it's been a zippy blend of social commentary and cautionary prophecy; within a few chapters it's transformed into a full-on black comedy mixed with "industrial espionage" thriller mixed with breezy caper movie.
Much of the book, as I say, is ridiculous and very silly - robot prostitutes, Elvis-impersonator gigolos, memory-manipulating neurosurgery and a staggeringly beautiful woman who falls in love with a teddy-bear are among the whirlwind of high-camp ideas and characters that Atwood throws at us.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing. The author is clearly having a lot of fun here, playing around with expectations and conventions, cranking up the absurdity, riffing on comic themes, enjoying herself.
It's nice to see a veteran writer still keen to switch tracks and try new things. Atwood is a veritable grande dame of letters: 76 next month, she's laden down with honours and awards, and has nothing to prove in artistic terms. But unlike most of her peers, she's not content to churn out the same book, over and over, however beautifully crafted it may be.
The Heart Goes Last isn't Atwood's finest novel, and it won't be studied in universities like The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye or several others. But so what? The novel is tremendously good fun, packed with action, drama and, yep, humour. And a flawed work of originality is always better than a perfectly realised, but stale, reworking of something previous.
Darragh McManus' Young Adult novel, Shiver the Whole Night Through, is out now