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The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The epigraphs (3) are important so I will choose only one:

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.”
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I like the combo of lovers and madmen and the thought of their “seethingThe Heart Goes Last brains” as well as the idea that the fantasies of these brains understand intuitively much more than is understood through reason alone.

Having read this epigraph we walk right into the first sentence: “Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace to begin with. If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they’re lucky to have any kind of car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger.”

And what about the lovers and the madmen? Well, Charmaine gets the back seat and Stan takes the smaller front seat but that’s because he has to be prepared to drive away at any minute in case of an emergency such as an attempted robbery by “bat-shit crazy” vandals. Stan “feels so lonely and sometimes having Charmaine with him makes him feel lonelier. He’s let her d0wn.”

They both had good jobs not so long ago. Charmaine worked at the Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Clinics chain. She scheduled entertainment and special events. Stan had been a junior quality control person at Dimple Robotics, “testing the Empathy Module in the automated Customer Fulfillment models. People didn’t just want their groceries bagged, he used to explain to Charmaine: they wanted a total shopping experience, and that included a smile.” Smiles were hard but if you got it just right, Stan explained, “they’d spend extra”.

Then it happened. Charmaine was declared redundant at Ruby Slippers and Dimple Robotics closed its doors and moved west. They ran out of mortgage money and their credit cards were frozen. They walked out and drove away before the car was repossessed. Charmaine got a job in a bar and her savings kept them in gas and paid for a post office box so Stan could apply for jobs and they could wash their clothes at a laundromat occasionally. Stan decides to approach his brother for a loan.

At work in the PixelDust bar, Charmaine considers turning a few tricks to increase their savings but decides it is too dangerous and would destroy Stan.

Con gives Stan two hundred dollars and offers him a job which Stan turns down because it is probably criminal in nature.

Then Charmaine, watching television at work, sees an ad which is different from the others. She thinks the presenter must be reading her mind. “”Tired of living in your car?” he says to her….”You deserve better.”” The man encourages her to recall what her life used to be like and offers a solution.

“At the Positron Project in the town of Consilience it can be like that again. We offer not only full employment but also protection from the dangerous elements that afflict so many at this time. Work with like-minded others! Help solve the nation’s problems of joblessness and crime while solving your own! Accentuate the positive!”

“The Positron Project is accepting new members now,” says the man. “If you meet our needs, we’ll meet yours. We offer training in many professional areas. Be the person you’ve always wanted to be! Sign up now.”

Sandi and Veronica, Charmaine’s fellow workers who do turn tricks on the side, also listen to the ad. Veronica thinks they should try it but Sandi says there are no free lunches anywhere. All three are seriously weighing the options available to them in their present lives.

They all sign up and they all go on the promotional bus trip which takes them some distance into the countryside where “only the gas stations appear functional”.  Eventually they reach a gateway in a high black-glass wall. Solar generation, thinks Stan. Smart, building it in like that.”

“Their eyes are scanned and their fingerprints taken and a plastic passcard with a number on it and a barcode is issued to each of them.” Then they are driven through the town of Consilience which is like a town in a movie of several years ago before most of them were born. At the Harmony Hotel they have drinks and snacks in the ballroom. The crowd thins out during the evening which Stan observes and thinks is a “discreet weeding”. The remainder receive a room reservation and meal vouchers and a carafe of wine and a meal in a restaurant called Together.

Stan has decided that it is not real but doesn’t want to spoil things for Charmaine who reminds him how much better this is that the back seat of a car.

This is only the beginning of course and it is dystopian fiction. You can take it on a number of different levels. If you so choose, you can see it as an absolutely crazy, wild, highly imaginative romp though a world of Marilyn Monro and Elvis Presley clones who appear in groups to entertain the clients in Ruby Slippers retirement homes along with a subplot with people who live and work in Positron/Consilience spending alternate months as staff employees in the facility and prisoners in the same facility where possibilibots were manufactured. Or, you can take it much more seriously realizing that the best comedy is always very serious.

The logic behind the project: “it was time share taken to its logical conclusion.” “Think of the savings, with every dwelling serving two sets of residents!”

If you were living in your car with no hope what do you think would be your reaction to the television offer? Seriously…Could it happen? Heard of any folks losing their homes in recent history? Oh, you think it couldn’t happen here? Well, let’s hope not.

 

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