When life takes you down, as it sometimes does, the two things that have brought me back to the light are classical music and knowing I live in the age of Margaret Atwood. Music, because well, there is this glorious instrument called the piano and Atwood because she is like a sorcerer with words, breathing life into things that have passed or not happened – each reader rebirthing it again. She says that a word after a word is power but you can know for her this power of writing transcendent stories is effortless. That is what makes it feel like you are in space staring at an insignificant you back on earth. This is why many How to be a Novelist books caution you about writing about the weather, “unless you are Margret Atwood.”
Perhaps this is also the reason many can feel intimidated by her craft. The trick to get over that crippling awe which I discovered when I first read her classic, The Handmaiden’s Tale in college, is to forget that you are reading Atwood, just as you have to forget you are listening to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, otherwise there is no listening and there is no reading. Between the first book and her latest, The Heart Goes Last (that makes about 20 books in between and several awards), one moves surely and securely away from the dark corners of life into a world of feminism, tyranny and dystopias. Then your personal fights find that the devil can be named and you root for the hero and want wrath on the villain who often starts as a nice enough guy with an untamed ambition.
The Heart Goes Last is Atwood’s best because it draws you in like you’re eating pine nuts – opening shells is half the fun. Before you know it there is a pile of shells your mind has unlearned and your palette is on fire with new flavours that are both familiar and strange. The language is very modern, fully loaded with the swear words that make characters real. They do remind us that the future will be replete with these. Kudos to Atwood for not creating characters that act her age instead of their own. Ditto for the sexual exploration, not swinging is seemingly a vice if not the most obvious thing to do, especially if it serves the anarchists to beat down a corrupt system. The sex also extends to other creatures both living and non-living but that’s just a footnote. Atwood is always classy never crass.
Charmaine who is a co-protagonist steps into the book with big blue eyes, blond hair and a predisposition to please her husband. Led by the voice of her Grandma Win, she lives by her words that what cannot be cured must be endured. So Charmaine endures Stan her husband right from the point they took a honeymoon picture to the point that poverty and economic turmoil led them to live in a car perpetually.
One of the saddest things about falling through the cracks is not the discomfort of rummaging through bins for food, the foul breath or the lack of showers, it is what inevitably follows in the form of exploitation. Positron and Consilience are a rotation prison networks that promise showers, lots of white meat, clean sheets and even the occasional desert. So they sign up into this den of secrecy where they are sure that the only way out is through death, but that seemed far away then. To Stan and Charmaine it seemed like a good idea at the time. The rules could be learned. Every month Charmaine and Stan lived their prison jobs and the other month they lived in their home. Also, their home was shared by Alternates when they were away.
In almost all Atwood books, it is through strict regiments that rule-breakers emerge. Almost always under the shadow of excessive surveillance. Almost always even the threat of severest punishments does not deter a woman who has only known to be a good girl to undo the limits on her societal sexuality. It never ends well when good girls have a grievance. Charmaine has perhaps the most observed love affair with her male Alternate. Love triangles are so boring, Atwood weaves this intricate love quadrangle between the couple and their Alternates where three people are willing and one unwilling. Most often, it is the unwilling ones that are the first to be eliminated.
The thing with the institution of traditional marriage is that it works only to extract the purest of emotions of longing and devotion when one spouse goes missing. So Charmaine misses Stan, especially because she has so much to do with the business of him going missing. To Stan’s credit, he doesn’t deserve to die. He is like any husband anywhere, he tracks his wife’s movements; takes her for granted and snaps at her often and much; hates her positive toned voice; fantasizes about other women’s lipsticks and is a great hedge trimmer.
Often when a woman eludes sexual energy, others notice even when it is not directed towards them. Positron and Consilience’s chief, Ed takes an interest in Charmaine. Why else would he make a sex bot in her image? Or work on a love portion. Charmaine’s challenge is to find a way out of Ed’s power grip right underneath his nose at the office where he has given her a new job, a more humane one at least. It would be herculean to escape that hell, except that Charmaine is being helped by the anarchist incarnate, Jocelyn of the sexy-calves fame.
Underneath this tech-induced, bio-engineered, despotic world lies a very simple lesson that we would all do well to learn – take care of the ones you love. This too will bring us to the light on our darkest days.