“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here.’ Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” (Margaret Atwood)

This is my contribution to Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Marcie at Buried in Print. Do join in with #MARM!

As a teenager I fell in love with Atwood and read all her novels and short stories, most of her poetry and a collection of interviews. Then I’m not sure what happened, the MaddAddam trilogy didn’t appeal to me as much and I probably hadn’t read any Atwood since The Blind Assassin in 2000. In this year of my book-buying ban, I found I had two Atwoods in the TBR, so here they are.

(image from Wikimedia Commons)

Firstly, The Heart Goes Last (2015), my first Atwood in about 18 years, and from the first page I realised I needed her back in my life. She is such an accomplished writer that you know you’re in safe hands. She knows what she’s doing: the characters will be believable, the plot will carry you through, she has something important to say. What more could you want? This being Atwood, the story is terrifying, funny, and horribly believable.

Charmaine and Stan are living in their car. Time and place are unspecified, but there’s every reason to assume it’s now, in the United States. The recession has bitten and they have lost their jobs and their homes, along with many others. Poverty and deprivation have led to rising crime and they are at risk of violent attack. Unsurprisingly, their marriage is under strain:

“Charmaine says why don’t they go jogging? They used to do that when they had their house: get up early, jog before breakfast, then a shower. It made you feel so full of energy, so clean. But Stan looks at her like she’s out of her mind, and she sees that yes, it would be silly, leaving the car unattended with everything in it…and putting themselves at risk because who knows what might be hiding in the bushes? Anyway where would they jog? Along the streets with the boarded-up houses?”

Then one day, when Charmaine is working in a bar, she sees aa television advert for Positron. Positron offers a place to live and full employment.

“She can feel the griminess of her body, she can smell the stale odour coming from her clothes, from her hair, from the rancid fat smell of the chicken-wings place next door. All of that can be shed, it can peel off her like an onion skin, and she can step out of that skin and be a different person.”

Living in Positron means alternating one month in the town, one month in the prison called Consilience. Stan is from a tough background and his brother Con is a criminal. This means Stan is far from naïve, but he is also desperate:

“They’re like the early pioneers, blazing a trail, clearing a way to the future: a future that will be more secure, more prosperous, and just all-round better because of them! Posterity will revere them. That’s the spiel. Stan has never heard so much bullshit in his life. On the other hand, he sort of wants to believe it.”

Charmaine and Stan sign away their lives to the project – there’s no leaving once you’re in – and settle into their new lives. The aesthetic is an idealised 1950s Doris Day film, with surveillance. Gradually they both, in very different ways, begin to understand the dark side of the Positron project, and of each other.

“He hadn’t recognised it when they’d been living together – he’d underestimated her shadow side, which was mistake number one, because everyone has a shadow side, even fluffpots like her.”

The plot that develops is darkly comic, and deeply sinister. Needless to say, the uses of technology in Positron are not ethical, and the question is, where do you draw the line? The answers to this question become more and more murky as the novel progresses.

Charmaine and Stan are not always sympathetic but they are believable, including why they would sign their lives away. The rise of the far right in today’s politics can seem bewildering at best and terrifying most of time, but Atwood has Stan address the reason people support their freewill being circumscribed, in no uncertain terms:

“Not that he gives much of a flying fuck about freedom and democracy, since they haven’t performed that well for him personally.”

There’s also a great deal about gender politics in The Heart Goes Last. I can’t say too much about it for fear of plot spoilers, but I greatly enjoyed this pithy observation by Charmaine when she’s taken out for dinner by a powerful man who wants to seduce her:

“She blots the corner of her eye, folding the trace of black mascara up in the serviette. Men don’t like to think about makeup, they like to think everything about you is genuine. Unless of course they want to think you’re a slut and everything about you is fake.”

The ending is perfect: a twist that shows in miniature the broader themes of the novel, ending with an unresolved question for a character and the reader. It doesn’t allow a comfortable feeling of being in a better, wiser position than the characters but instead asks: when faced with a moral dilemma, do you really know what you would do?

Secondly, The Penelopiad (2005), a novella (hooray!) in which Atwood retells the story of Penelope, faithful wife of Odysseus (part of Canongate’s Myth Series). Penelope narrates the story from Hades. She was the faithful wife of Homer’s myth, but also had her eyes wide open with regard to her warrior husband:

“Of course I had inklings, about his slipperiness, his wiliness, his foxiness, his – how can I put this? – his unscrupulousness, but I turned a blind eye. I kept my mouth shut; or, if I opened it, I sang his praises. I didn’t contradict, I didn’t ask awkward questions, I didn’t dig deep. I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages.”

This captures much of the themes of The Penelopiad, that is, that Penelope’s feelings for her warrior husband are not straightforward, and also, that the story of events depends on who is doing the telling, what they leave in and what they miss out. The Odyssey is a cornerstone of Western civilisation, but it is not the only version. Penelope’s Odysseus is a wily cheat, far from heroic. Helen is a vain bitch:

“Of course, she was very beautiful. It was claimed she’d come out of an egg, being the daughter of Zeus who’d raped her mother in the form of a swan. She was quite stuck up about it, was Helen.”

When Odysseus is away fighting the Trojan War, Penelope runs his estates extremely well and keeps her suitors at bay. Her son Telemachus is a brat and Penelope feels more kinship with her 12 maids, many of whom she has known since they were babies. The maids form a Greek chorus throughout the story, speaking in verse between chapters. We know that Telemachus will kill them all on his father’s return, and Atwood is intrigued as to why these powerless (poor, female) people are treated so brutally:

“Let them dangle, let them strangle –

Blame it on the slaves!”

Penelope is shown as having to carefully navigate a position that sees her wealthy but powerless, having to pick her way through a minefield of social constraints that could see her branded a whore in her husband’s absence. Her faithfulness is not out of loyalty to Odysseus but self-preservation in a patriarchal society.

There are massive themes in this novella and they are as relevant as ever when the most powerful man in the world has a constant refrain of ‘fake news!’. By the end of The Penelopiad Penelope is shown to possibly not be a reliable narrator, but then, is anyone? Don’t we all have our own versions? Atwood reminds us that for each story told, it is worth considering what gain is to be made. And she does so with irreverent glee:

“Who is to say that the prayers have any effect? On the other hand, who is to say they don’t? I picture the gods, diddling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands.”

Taking part in #MARM has made me check Atwood’s bibliography to see what I’ve missed: I’ve still got her three most recent short story collections, Hag-Seed and the MaddAddam trilogy to catch up on. I’m really grateful to #MARM for reminding me just how much I love her writing and giving me my Atwood impetus back again!

To end, when Margaret Atwood appeared on Desert Island Discs, she chose this song by a much-missed troubadour: