Margaret Atwood's latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, can be described in many ways: It's a book about prisons, a book about capitalism, a book about sex robots, a book about free will. But at its core, it's a book about a couple, Stan and Charmaine, who are forced by an economic crisis to live in their car, trying to avoid gangs and other threats, until, one day, a remarkable opportunity presents itself: to join a communal initiative called The Positron Project, and live in the town of Consilience, where people spend half their time as free citizens and half their time in prison. Needless to say, this complicates things for Stan and Charmaine. The Globe and Mail spoke with Atwood last month about the book, and the two very ordinary characters at the centre of it.
This book started as a serialized set of single issues on Byliner. Why did you do it that way?
Because I knew this person named Amy Grace Loyd who was my editor at, of all places, Playboy. Why would I be publishing in Playboy? Because women made a big hoo and hah about how, in the seventies and eighties, Playboy, which was one of the premier venues for fiction, didn't publish fiction by women. So when they did start publishing stories by women, you kind of had to shut up or put up your hand. Amy is a very picky editor and very smart. She had gone over to Byliner because Playboy had decided that they weren't going to do any more fiction or any more interesting journalistic articles or anything but T and A. She said, 'Let's give it a whirl.'
What was it like to go back to working in a less-detailed universe than the MaddAddam trilogy?
Not as many Post-it notes were involved.
I was struck by the opening of this book. In the MaddAddam trilogy, the reader could at least imagine or hope that what was depicted was a ways off. But this is so much more collapsed, time-wise, and feels so immediate.
In some ways it's already happened, because it was the 2008 meltdown hitting the rust belt and hitting, in particular, Detroit, that is what happened to people – there were people living in their cars, there were roving gangs.
For me, there was a real urgency that you couldn't ignore.
I was talking to someone today, and she said, 'Do you approve of their choices?' It's a completely different thing. Stan and Charmaine are in a situation of extreme danger that they want to get out of. And if you're in a position of extreme danger that you want to get out of and somebody offers you safety, that's your only choice. You're going to be very tempted to take it.
I thought about that a lot, too, because the book again and again reminds you of the danger of acquiescing to things.
Yeah, but on the other hand, if your other danger is going to be killed by a gang … they don't have a lot of choice. These people aren't stupid. But they have limited choices.
Stan and Charmaine both felt like ciphers a bit to me – a kind of obliviousness that allowed me to project into them in a way I might not otherwise be able to.
I don't think that's cipherhood. I think that's a kind of willed ignorance. Do you know what cognitive dissonance is?
You can't face this alternative, so let's pretend it's not there. You can't face global warming, so let's pretend it's not there. We know that Santa Claus is really our parents, but we don't want to look at that too closely. People do that all the time. We know Stephen Harper is a dictator in the making, but he's convinced some people that they're going to be financially better off under him, which is untrue.
Have you met Stephen Harper?
Once, before he was prime minister.
Not a huggy-bear type of guy.
Back to Stan and Charmaine – their kind of profound normalcy. There's something about them that I couldn't quite put my finger on.
That's because you're being self-righteous about them.
Yes! They have a right to be like that. You're not living in your car. Neither of them are philosophers. What do you expect? Plato?
They're taking life as it comes, day by day, and struggling onward. And they continue to do that.
That makes them psychologically interesting to me as literary characters.
Have you seen Mother Courage and Her Children? Bertolt Brecht play? One goddamned thing after another, but she keeps pedalling onward, because really what choice does she have? That moment in Beckett: You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on. That's where most people are, when they are in a state of desperation.
I guess what I mean is …
Have you read the Book of Job?
Yes, when I was younger.
Time to read it again!
I guess what I mean is: There's a baseline simplicity to that dilemma that somehow comes alive here …
Because you're exactly right. It's a baseline simplicity, and when all of these other choices, like which pearls to wear with the little black dress, are taken away from you, the number of choices you can make is very much reduced.
But I'm talking about how you make a novel out of that. That's what's interesting to me. By denying yourself those choices, you give yourself less and less to work with as an artist.
When I grew up during the war, dear, we played with pieces of wood. It was very minimalist. How many things can you make with these three pieces of wood?
Depends on their shape, I guess. Stan has this sort of oblivious narcissism that reminded me of many men I know …
Oh, no! You said that! I didn't!
At one point he gets very mad when he realizes the man his wife has been cheating on him with wasn't having sex with her out of lust, but to get this sort of scheme going. And he gets very mad …
It's an insult!
I was sort of wonderfully appalled by that. It really seemed to capture something.
Well, you know. I read fiction by men. It's all in there.
This interview has been condensed and edited.