Literary Review

Welcome to dystopia

The Heart Goes Last; Margaret Atwood, Bloomsbury, £12.99  

“The whole card castle, the whole system fell to pieces, trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheets like fog off a window.” Margaret Atwood’s statement is about the end of civil society. In a deprived, impoverished world with soaring unemployment, Stan and Charmaine live in utter destitution with no shelter except a rundown car, subsisting on stale doughnuts and instant coffee, fearing an impending attack by vagrant gangs of drug addicts. Then one day, when Charmaine is on the verge of taking up the job of a sex-worker, she comes across a TV advertisement for recruitment into the gated community of Consilience. A resident here would get free furnished accommodation and a surfeit of creature comforts.

However, this benefit would depend upon an incredible exchange of services: alternate months of incarceration at Positron, a prison where inmates perform labour to keep the economy from flagging. Atwood makes a case for people driven to poverty, who are ready to forego freedom in exchange for a life of plenty. A daily feast is an attractive temptation for a hungry citizen. The corporate world has finally stepped in to take charge of the state: “We offer not only full employment but also protection from the dangerous elements that afflict so many at this time. Work with like-minded others! Help solve the nation’s problems of joblessness and crime while solving your own.”

But this arrangement brings with it the self-created strife and paranoia of a non-descript dreary life of control. While in prison, Charmaine falls in love with the man who, along with his wife, now occupies their house, but who she is not allowed to see. Though Stan and Charmaine still love each other, there is the lingering taste of loathing to the extent of wanting to kill the other. The monotony of a long-term pairing reflects the inevitability of the emotions of selfishness, desperation, hypocrisy and temptation.

In a dystopian vein, Atwood’s novel spoofs capitalism and its predatory nature, creating the surreal picture of human perversion, of having sex with chickens, of societal hunger and human exploitation. She touches the raw nerve endings of human existence and pain, of complicated truths of gender relationship and the various sexualities that affect our social set-up. Though in her previous novels, like Cat’s Eye or Alice Grace, we find characters strong and three dimensional, ready to retrospect on their past and come to grips with their emotional drawbacks, here the main characters stand out flat and hollow. Even though they face reversals of fortune, they remain inadequate to deal with a bleak world of their own making.

Living literally in isolation from the outside world, the luxury of Consilience exists poles apart from the loneliness of Positron Prison that symbolises a world where there is no escape from the uncertainty of an economically fluctuating and insecure world. Are we not prisoners of our system that survives by enslaving each individual, an Oceania of Orwell’s 1984 in the face of an overbearing machinery whose intrusion into the affairs of its people, through restrictions on debate and free speech, leave everyone in a state of enslavement? It is a world of anti-heroes, a world where we find echoes of our insufficiencies as human beings.

Any interrogation of Consilience policy becomes treason. The utopia promised by Consilience unmistakably brings one face to face with the machine-like consistency of an over-organised system representing the elimination of history and the onward march of controlled human thought, managed paradoxically by both the prisoners and the guards. As Hannah Arendt has argued, the state ensures not just the transformation of the outside world but also the very dysfunctionality of the unpredictable nature of human creativity and its spontaneity.

Such an abysmal picture, visualised ironically by Atwood, envisages material progress at the cost of danger to human imagination. It is a parody of the oppressive state of “Big Brother”, where free thought and debate are anathema, and surveillance a means to force the individual to love or to hate, where even thinking about loving the wrong person is referred to as “thoughtcrime”. In this world, no prodigies or rebels can ever be born. Consilience is the betrayal of the promise of utopia turning dystopian with a faceless and subterranean leadership that manipulates its citizens through surveillance and propaganda, a kind of ‘thoughtpolice’ that is the replica of the brain-programming that Stan and Charmaine have to confront.

In the constraints of such circumstances, Charmaine can finally have only one regretful thought: “How bad are things when you can get nostalgic about living in your car?” For the first time she is not a wretched onlooker lacking the initiative to challenge the system. However, she and her husband represent a pessimistic picture of a future where humans remain greedy in their pursuit of comfort not realising how dreadfully they destroy the world.

Shelley Walia is Professor and Fellow, Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University.

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