Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Margaret Atwood's New Novel, 'The Heart Goes Last,' Had Genesis as Online Serial

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Margaret Atwood's New Novel, 'The Heart Goes Last,' Had Genesis as Online Serial

Article excerpt

Atwood's new novel homage to Elvis, Monroe

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TORONTO - When Margaret Atwood was growing up in the 1940s and '50s, science fiction was all the rage, from "Flash Gordon" comic books to novels like Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" and George Orwell's "1984."

A voracious reader, the aspiring writer was so drawn to the genre that she later made it her subject of study in graduate school.

So it's no surprise that some of her best-known novels -- "The Handmaid's Tale" and the trilogy "Oryx and Crake," "The Year of the Flood" and "MaddAddam" -- have what some call a sci-fi flavour, though Atwood eschews that label, calling these dystopian works "speculative fiction."

At first glance, her latest novel "The Heart Goes Last" (Penguin Random House) might also be classified as equally fantastical and part of a future not yet glimpsed, but the author disagrees.

This one is set "only very slightly" in the future," says the First Lady of CanLit.

"In fact, it could be today."

"The Heart Goes Last," on sale Tuesday, is the story of spouses Stan and Charmaine, who have been living in their beat-up car after losing their jobs and home following an economic and societal meltdown.

Terrified by roving gangs, the couple enrols in the Positron Project in the locked-down town of Consilience, where they spend one month living in a comfortable house, working at set jobs, then the next month as inmates of the local prison.

When Charmaine becomes romantically involved with the man who lives in the house with his wife on alternate months while she and Stan are in prison, a series of events reveals how Positron's scheme for ensuring full employment using incarceration really works -- putting Stan's life in jeopardy.

Despite its underlying theme of how the profit motive can bring out the darker side of human nature, "Heart" is marked by Atwood's hilariously wry and wicked sense of humour: the novel features Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas, Marilyn Monroe robots and a Teddy bear as a love/lust object.

The genesis of the book was a little unusual, though in keeping with Atwood's comfort with -- and some would say mastery of -- social media and other forms of electronic communication.

"Heart" actually began as a serialized story on the website Byliner, with the author publishing roughly 50-page instalments in the same way Charles Dickens put out weekly or monthly episodes of his major novels in popular magazines more than 100 years ago.

"In order to write the novel you see before you," Atwood confides in a recent interview, "I had to pull it all apart and put it back together in a different way, and throw out all the repetitions you have to put in when you're writing in serial form to remind people of what just happened.

"It's a lot bigger," with a beginning and ending, she said. The Byliner version had ended with the fourth instalment, in which -- spoiler alert -- "Stan was in a box waiting to be shipped to Las Vegas disguised as an Elvis robot."

Where on Earth does she get this stuff?

"It's all around us," she says with a laugh, recalling that in the mid-'50s, when she was about 15, a young, hip-swivelling Elvis Presley made his debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show," much to the horror of parents everywhere. …

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