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Atwood probes society’s absolutist assumptions

ByHelen Elston

Sep 30, 2015
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Atwood’s genre of writing is difficult to define. Dystopian? Feminist? Sci-fi? Or some kind of hybrid that includes all of the above? Such versatility and adaptability was apparent in her talk to Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms this Thursday. Her opening joke regarding her fear of ‘agitating Scots’ – who had taken to Twitter to demand a visit from Atwood – was clearly effective as she had chosen to coincide the release of her new novel, The Heart Goes Last, on the same day as this event.

Atwood began with a brief description of her novel and her literary form.What appears bizarre is that The Heart Goes Last was at first intended to be an ebook serial. Atwood comically compared her novel to a kind of ‘Pinocchio with women and sex’, as her piece grew to become a novel with what she described as a ‘snazzy cover’. Moreover, she also stated how she has never intended on writing comedy; rather her works just adopt a comedic element.

It was these minor anecdotes that demonstrated Atwood’s charm: indeed, it encouraged an aura of familiarity. She is just a normal human being, people, do not worry.

As usual, it was apparent that her novel intended to probe social norms and concepts regarding sexuality, gender and the state and war. Indeed, her attitude towards human desire was delightfully epitomised in her statement, ‘human desire is infinitely stretchy’. Hopefully that ‘stretchiness’ suggests that evolution will result in societal improvement. However, Atwood stated that she believed such desire to be driven purely by eroticism and war. It was apparent that this theme was meant to be pervasive throughout her new novel. Her intent was to create a dystopian society, dichotomised into a working environment and an inmate setting under the socioeconomic experiment labelled as ‘Positron’.

Her two protagonists, Charmaine and Stan, switch between these two lives, and their lives are mirrored by their ‘alternates’.

However, these ‘alternates’ remain distinct and unreachable, with any meeting being strictly prohibited. What results is a kind of mystic erotic fascination by Charmaine and Stan on their ‘alternates’ – an event Atwood argued reflected current society’s fixation with technology and pornography, where the unobtainable becomes an obsession.

Such a plot produces the conundrum: has Atwood merely produced yet another pessimistic dystopia that shows no hope for the future of society? Well, it seems that yes is the answer, but this is the beauty of Atwood’s work.

Indeed, Atwood has created a dystopia that takes social norms to their logical extreme. She creates a society fuelled by eroticism and war where everyone is guilty of an unknown crime. And indeed, I do not believe that such a concept could be less relevant.

Her production of a dystopia that reveals societal truths, just like those of  her predecessors including Huxley and Orwell, forces the question of  whether we should just accept our surrounding society as a justified absolute.

Indeed, with recent events such as Snowden’s leaked material revealing the mass surveillance of governments attempting to balance national security and information privacy, Atwood’s discussion of the purpose of her novel seem alarmingly relevant. Perhaps we, like those in ‘Positron’, are charged with this universal guilt: a kind of guilt that threatens to justify all kinds of abuses of individual freedoms and rights.

What The Hear Goes Last promises to be is a novel that questions society by producing a disturbingly familiar dystopia: a society that shocks and encourages reflection on similarities between Atwood’s fiction and our reality.

By Helen Elston

Helen Elston is The Student’s Literature Editor and was a Comedy Editor for the Fringe Festival Edition 2015

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