Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Future Shock Margaret Atwood Parodies the Genre She Helped Popularize in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Future Shock Margaret Atwood Parodies the Genre She Helped Popularize in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

Article excerpt

"THE HEART GOES LAST"

By Margaret Atwood

Doubleday ($26.95).

Margaret Atwood has been writing serious post-apocalyptic fiction since 1985's "The Handmaid's Tale," which makes her the perfect person to parody the genre now. Her latest opens with the usual description of a fallen, anarchic society - this time caused by a financial crash rather than a worldwide viral epidemic - and Stan and Charmaine, her hapless protagonists, have been reduced to living in their old Honda.

Every night they sleep in it with the windows rolled up, and when marauders arrive with rape and theft on their minds, Stan revs them away to another unsafe parking spot. It's no kind of life for chirpy Charmaine or dour Stan, so when they attend the equivalent of a time-share sales pitch for a community called Consilience, they're eager to sign up.

Let the litany of pop cultural references begin: "Soylent Green," "Orange Is the New Black" and "Ex Machina" as well as many other science news stories of the past decade (face transplants, clones, illegally harvested organs) saturate the narrative. Ms. Atwood even resurrects ChickieNobs from her own masterpiece, "Oryx and Crake," as the community's scientists try to genetically engineer headless chickens (all the protein, none of the guilt!).

The real target of her parody is doubtless American culture. Consilience, which stands for "cons plus resilience," asks its members to spend half the year incarcerated in its central prison, Positron, and the other half working on the outside. Couples alternate months inside, and so two families are able to share one house.

Stan takes care of the prison's chickens (very popular for non- eating purposes among the male prisoners), and Charmaine, who once entertained the residents of a nursing home, becomes a Medical Administrator, in charge of the Special Procedure. Stan thinks she dispenses pills to patients, but readers know better. Her patients arrive drugged and strapped to a gurney. "She strokes [a patient's] head, smiles with her deceptive teeth. She hopes she appears to him like an angel, an angel of mercy. …

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