After they’d run the first TV ads, the number of online applications was overwhelming. And no wonder: there were so many advantages. Who wouldn’t rather eat well three times a day, and have a shower with more than a cupful of water, and wear clean clothes and sleep in a comfortable bed devoid of bed bugs. Not to mention the inspiring sense of purpose. Rather than festering in some deserted condo crawling with black mould or crouching in a stench-filled trailer where you’d spend the nights beating off dead-eyed teenagers armed with broken bottles and ready to murder you for a handful of cigarette butts you’d have gainful employment, three wholesome meals a day, a lawn to tend a hedge to trim, the assurance that you were contributing to the general good, and a toilet that flushed. In a word, or rather three words: A MEANINGFUL LIFE.
The world is collapsing, the economy falling apart and people are desperate. Stan and Charmaine are living in their car, trying to survive, getting by with what they can. But they are offered a chance: they sign up for a new social experiment, the Positron Project. They will be given stable jobs, a home of their own. In return they just have to swap their freedom every second month for a stay in a prison cell.
So, aside from the bewildering premise, I had a little bit of trouble with this book. It’s good, disturbing, darkly funny. The set up is dealt with in the first third, things start to go awry in the second third and the final section is like a race to the finish in which a carefully constructed and increasingly horrifying plot propelled me to the end. I defy anyone to try and put the book down in that last third, it’s impossible. However. I didn’t like any of the characters. At all. And I didn’t much care what happened to them. I think that’s what my problem boils down to.
Charmaine is a prissy thing who invests in floral blouses and actually says “darn it” as an expletive. Until she starts having an affair and then she discovers a wild side she didn’t know she had. Stan is a bit of a macho jerk, really, focused almost exclusively on the demands of his genitals. They get embroiled in a spot of corporate espionage with Jocelyn, who seems determined to play her corporate woman role as butch as possible and Aurora whose face was ripped off in a freak roller derby accident. Aside from the roller derby accident, I suppose I can’t complain that all this isn’t believable.
The story is dark and nods at a nightmare of corporate prison farming, human rights abuses in a utopia (almost) gone wrong. The slip from too good to too good to be true is gradual, though you know it’s coming, and once the drama starts to ramp up it becomes utterly ridiculous. I don’t know why I wasn’t in love with this, but I wanted to like it more than I did.
The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood: 3.5 stars.
Read it for: some dark humour over the saccharine holiday period.