In this dystopian tale set in a very present reality, Charmaine and her husband Stan have lost their jobs and their home and are living in their car, sleeping in scary parking lots, continually threatened by low-lifers who threaten to steal their few possessions, gang-rape Charmaine and murder Stan. So they sign up, for life, to join an enclosed model community in which every resident spends alternate months in (a comfortable) prison and in their own home. For the first few months they enjoy this lifestyle. In jail Stan looks after chickens and Charmaine works in Medical Administration although one of her duties includes giving injections. But then Charmaine starts an affair with another resident. And things start going pear-shaped.
I adored the first section of the book when S & C are sleeping in their car; it was horribly real. I bought into the premise of the community (something between a cult and a monastery with homage to the present US penal system of slave industry) and Charmaine's affair and Stan's reactions. At the dead centre of the book Charmaine has to make a critical decision: I was extremely excited and wanted to know what she would choose because it could really have been played out in several ways. This was the high moment of the book when I was turning the pages as fast as I could. It was difficult to see how anything could match that. And the book then became less real, even whimsical, as the narrative seemed to be sidetracked into satire.
A book therefore of two halves with the first half exploring crucifyingly real human dilemmas and the second half trying to resolve the irresolvable.
Nevertheless, there are some brilliant moments. Atwood is magic when it comes to debunking the magic and romance of our sexual behaviour:
- “Charmaine required nothing more than a closed door and a bare floor to release her inner sidewalk whore.” (p 136)
- “Holding this thought keeps Stan going during his sexual command performances with Jocelyn, which are a good deal more like tenderising a steak than anything he finds purely pleasurable.” (p 137)
- “Will she tire of treating him like an indentured studmuffin, of hotwiring his mind and watching him jerk around like a galvanized frog.” (p 138 - 139)
- “She's been a distraction for him, but not a necessity of life. More like a super-strong mint: intense while it lasted but quickly finished.” (p 196)
- “You can peer right down their fronts, which is what Stan is doing, but you can't blame him, because what's a shelf display for except to be looked at?” (p 401)
There are some profound insights:
- “Most people are good underneath if they have a chance to show their goodness.” (p 4)
- “Comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people's sadness.” (p 22)
- “She occupies her mind by painting her nails, which is a very soothing thing to do when you're anxious and keyed up. Some people like to throw objects, such as glasses of water or rocks, but nail painting is more positive. If more world leaders would take it up there would be less overall suffering, in her opinion.” (p 322)
- “Nail biting is calming: it's repetitive, it imitates meaningful activity, and it's violent.” (p 125)
- “Not that he gives much of a flying fuck about freedom and democracy, since they haven't performed that well for him personally.” (p 226)
- “Put two eyes on anything and basically it looks like a face.” (p 262)
And there are other moments when Atwood uses language in an original and touching way:
- “He can lean to the mean when he's irritated, but he is a good man underneath.” (p 4)
- “He'd heard the impact as she did a vertical face-plant onto the floor.” (p 214)
- “It's a memento, and memento means something that helps you remember. She'd rather have a forgetto.” (p 230)
- “Food has been appearing and disappearing out of that fridge like it has a bad case of gnomes.” (p 344)
- “I can see that the two of you had a playdate in the liquor cabinet.” (p 356)
Many enjoyable moments and a first half that is as good as anything Atwood has written. October 2018; 416 pages
Books by Margaret Atwood reviewed in this blog:
- The Heart Goes Last: a homeless couple enter a utopian community
- Bodily Harm: A wonderful Graham Greenesque excursion to a Caribbean island where no one is who they seem to be
- Oryx and Crake: adventures in a world post climate change
- Hag-Seed: a brilliant retelling of the Tempest, re enacted in a prison
- The Handmaid's Tale: the one that everyone raves about ... but not her best.