As a student of Can Lit I am always going to get the new Margaret Atwood novel. It was in the contract I signed when I chose my field. Or did I not read the fine print? Or bother to inquire? If I had I might not have so readily signed on because at a certain point (as in The Heart Goes Last) reading the new Atwood is an obligation and chore, rather than pleasure and delight.
I jest about contract signing because this novel-that-ought-to-have-been-a-short-story-but-who-is-going-to-tell-that-to-Atwood focuses on the ways people ‘freely’ choose their subjugation and constraint. Yawn hegemony. Made more complex, perhaps, by the setting of a post-depression era North America where 50% unemployment means the collapse of society as we know it. You could read other reviews that will praise the way this question of choice is taken up in relation to technology. You won’t read that here because I read this as – at best – an obvious consideration of the reach of technology in regulating individual life and desire. You don’t have to look far – *cough* The Circle – for similar, if far better executed, allegories and literary prophesies.
*spoiler alert* Though it’s not much of a spoiler as so much of this plot is either predictable or uninspired: Stan and Charmaine, out of work, sign on to live in Consilience, a town that provides employment and safety. The trade off is the town is selling body parts and making people into sex slaves. The bit about working for a month in a prison and a month in the town is neither necessary to know nor interesting in the plot, it seems to be there just for shock value.
Had this been an interesting novel (or a compressed and worthy short story) I might have been taken with the ideas explored around individual choice. The tone of the novel blames Stan and Charmaine for their choice to sign on to Consilience, as if they ought to have read the fine print or been brave enough to choose ‘freedom over security’ (that familiar binary). One of the unitarian principles I appreciate is the idea that individuals have choice, but choice within constraints. That what we can do for a more just society is to create conditions under which individuals have the maximum range of choice and are equipped and supported in choosing. (This push to create ‘choice conditions’ is part of the reason the church has such an aggressive (if you can call unitarians aggressive about anything) social justice mandate as part of their non-doctrine-doctrine.) So sure, you can make an argument that the two ought to have chosen violence over the promises of the town, they ought to have known such a thing was (in every way the adage) too good to be true. But you could also make an argument they – like we – made a choice inasmuch as they could choose anything within their constraints. It bears repeating, however, that the novel doesn’t do much – at all – to further this line of questioning or explore this nuance. It simply blames them – and us – for being dupes and moves on.
So don’t be a dupe. Give this one a pass. You can choose how to spend your reading time, even if I can’t.