Has this been done before – a dystopian novel in the form of a classic comedy? I’m sure it probably has – in film if not in fiction – but I can’t remember any titles offhand. I was a little skeptical about this novel at first, because its book jacket lays out the book’s dystopian premise without making clear (to me) that we are not expected to take it especially seriously. Once I connected these dots, I enjoyed this novel a great deal.
At the outset, protagonists Stan and Charmaine are living in an American city that has declined into frighteningly plausible chaos. Having lost their home, Stan and Charmaine live in their car. Charmaine still has a job – as a caregiver at a retirement home called Ruby Slippers – but Stan is unemployed. They use their meager income from Charmaine’s job to buy food and gas for the car, and they spend their nights fending off bands of roving criminals intent on stealing their car and their few possessions. Sometimes they have to drive around all night in order to stay safe.
Side note: lately I’ve been very interested in the way readers tend to place scenes in novels and stories into landscapes from their own lives. Even if the setting details provided by an author are extensive, readers almost always concoct their own image of the setting based on the places they’ve seen in their own lives. If you know San Francisco, you might be amused to know that for me these opening scenes of this novel were set on the park side of the corner of Haight and Stanyan, right across the street from the Scary McDonald’s. Even when Stan and Charmaine had to drive away in the middle of the night to get away from vandals, they always somehow managed to end up back at the Scary McDonald’s. Oh, and the Whole Foods that’s right across from the Scary McDonald’s (because gentrification)? That’s where the retirement home is.
Anyway, Stan and Charmaine soon learn about a planned community that promises its residents high-quality free housing and job security. They visit, and soon they sign their contracts and are given their very own house in a town called Consilience. They are trained for new jobs (Charmaine in a bakery, Stan in a shop that repairs the scooters that provide Consilience residents with their primary means of transportation). They sign an agreement not to communicate with anyone outside of Consilience. Their cell phones are confiscated. Ordinary people have no access to the internet, and in general the lifestyle cultivated there is that of a typical American suburb in the 1950’s.
Like all other residents of Consilience, Stan and Charmaine only live in their house six months out of the year. On alternate months, they move into Positron Prison, and another couple checks out of the prison and moves into their house. The rationale of why exactly everyone has to spend every other month is prison is clear at the end of the book, when we learn that the administration of Consilience and Positron are all basically sociopaths (don’t worry, I won’t tell you more). But at first no clear rationale is given, though of course people like Stan and Charmaine are plausibly drawn to the food and shelter at Positron. And Positron – let me tell you – is a nice prison. The food is fantastic, and everyone has a job (Charmaine is a Medications Administrator in the prison hospital, Stan cares for the chickens that the prison raises for food), and no one seems upset or nervous when the end of the month comes around and it’s time to go back to prison.
I’m not going to do too much more plot summary, even though I’ve really only given you the exposition. Things get weird – think Comedy of Errors coupled with Brave New World and some 17th-century French sex farces, with multiple Elvis impersonators and the Blue Man Group mixed in for character (and blue teddy bears – OMG the blue teddy bears). It turns out that the financial viability of Consilience and Positron relies on a series of transactions it makes with the outside world, all of which are one degree or another of creepy. The plot gets weird, and while I don’t think this novel will ever be a favorite of mine, I was extremely impressed by the way Atwood handled the ending. The novel ends just like a Shakespeare comedy – all disguises off, order restored, society’s values upheld, multiple last-minute marriages – and this kind of ending is very difficult to pull off. Even Shakespeare didn’t write these kinds of endings especially well. But Atwood’s ending here is fantastic. She maintains the plot’s suspense up until the very end, managing multiple sets of disguises, endless minor characters who may or may not be who they say they are, yet the ending strikes perfectly on all chords: plot, character, and theme. I’ll admit that there were moments while I was reading this novel when I did not feel that I was in the hands of the master I know Atwood to be, but the ending changed all that – and I do recommend the novel for that reason.