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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Atwood's The Heart Goes Last and Falling In

My family has camped together for every year of my life. They may have been doing it before I was born but honestly I’m pretty iffy about whether that period really existed or is actually just elaborate back story to the universe that began on July 23, 1979. I am not fully convinced that any time before isn't basically a series of ret-conned prequels that didn't quite live up to the main event.

Anyway, whether or not said camping took place before that date aside, it has certainly happened since. I’ve missed but three of these outings. Two because I was off in Mexico eating fish heads and one because I was on a wildfire fighting crew and was duty-bound to be within one hour of my station.

Oh guys, don’t think I’m cool because I was a wildfire fighter, because I was not. That year there were no fires. Zero. I spent the summer installing sprinkler systems while waiting for a phone call to ring that would promise adventure and some measure of financial security that never came. Also I missed out on the family camping trip.

When I was young, a major part of these trips was hunting for minnows with my cousin in whatever stream was closest to camp. We would catch said minnows in Dixie cups and we got pretty good at it. We figured out where they hung out, one of us would sweep our cup under an overhang while the other waited on the other side. Some fish, scared by the one cup, would swim in to the other and vice versa. I’m told that coyotes and badgers hunt prairie dogs and burrowing rodents in a similar manner.

In my memories I feel like we left in the morning and came back at dinnertime, which is something that if my kids were doing the same thing would terrify me. If my kids were just gone in nature for more than an hour I think there would be helicopters looking for them. Maybe we were gone for just a couple of hours. I was drinking a lot of heroin back then so my memories are fragile.

Here’s what I’m getting at, though, and it only took four paragraphs to find the point. The point is that I became somewhat legendary for my inability to stay dry on these ventures. While my older cousin hopped nimbly from rock to rock, I always found the slick one, or the wobbly one, or just missed the one altogether. I always fell in.

If you were to track my movements, Billy from Family Circus style, across the various streams in which we adventured, you’d see lots of splashes. And I often returned to camp a muddy mess. If asked, I imagine I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I fell in a lot.”

Now, if you could track the progression of my life as if it were a mountain stream in the high uintas, you might see the same thing. A dotted line traveling in a not-so-straight line through a variety of obstacles, with plenty of splashes. Hey Howie, you ask, how did you travel through this life and come out such a muddy mess? Answer? I fell in a lot.

In my mind, at least, I don’t compare favorably with my peers. When it comes to things like career progression, home ownership, level of karate mastery, cleanliness of household, cleanliness of clothing, and hair ownership and placement, I constantly feel like I’m behind. While I look around and see people who have figured things out I still have no idea what I’m doing. I look back on my life and see lots of spots where I missed the rock, or it budged under my foot, or it was slippery and I didn’t have the balance.

And listen, you guys, I’m good. I know that when I fell in I got wet, maybe skinned my knee, got some mud on me that’s hard to scrub off, but I was not swept downstream. There’s something to be said for getting back up and catching more minnows, and I get that. This is not Howie’s pity party. I have a life that is enviable to the vast majority of humans both living now and who have lived all of the way up until this point. I have a wonderful wife and three great kids and we’re warm and comfortable and rarely hungry. We’re safe and have access to high-quality health care and a steady paycheck. All I’m saying that when I read a book about someone who seems to make as many poor decisions as good ones I see a little of myself in there.

The good stories, to me, are the ones where the main character isn’t a hero or a villain, though they could be easily painted as either depending on their narrator. The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood, is not one of those good stories. It may be the worst book I've read since starting this venture. Not that I read all of it. Oh no. I stopped when one of the main characters was being smuggled out of a totalitarian prison community while dressed as an Elvis impersonator, his companion a beautiful brain-washed woman who was supposed to be a slave but instead fell in love with a teddy bear that she carried in her purse.

I didn't make any of that up.

I know that not two posts ago I was praising Atwood, though I have had trouble with her books in the past. I've found that her speculative future universes tend to fall apart upon later reflection. Like the old-west towns in amusement parks. They look great if you stroll right down the middle, but you start to poke in the corners and you see through the slats of old-timey wood a bunch of roller coasters and children vomiting funnel cake. In the past, though, the stories have been compelling enough that I have at least a pretty good time, and sometimes a great one.

The Heart Goes Last starts well. It's about a married couple living in their car after a major financial collapse has left their city in near ruins. The reasons are vague, but it all sounds familiar. Housing crises, unregulated banking, a run on Beanie Boo brand plush toys (this blog is sponsored today by Beanie Boo. Beanie Boo, their eyes are big what do you want me to do), whatever. The point is things are bad and looking worse. Stan is tempted to join in to his brother's apparently criminal enterprise, and Charmaine works at a bar and is increasingly tempted by the local prostitutes' invitation for her to join the practice.

Then they see an ad on the TV for a new kind of community. Where there are jobs and food and safety. Like suckers, and because Atwood needs an excuse to get them there and we're supposed to think that in such a crisis the TV set wouldn't be constantly flooded with easy fixes and that our protagonists would be numb to it by now, they join.

It seems great at first, but there are hidden secrets, blah, blah, blah. Fine. I've been on board with flimsy future worlds as an excuse to deal with day-to-day domestic situations before. I mean I wrote one. But give me the benefit of the doubt here. To further the old-west town metaphor, this is less like the professional shootout-at-noon Main Street and more like some cardboard boxes my 7-year-old arranged and labeled in sharpie "Jel" and "Sharif" and "Horehous." It's like a J.J. Abrams Star Trek universe.

And even, after all of this, if the story between Charmaine and Stan were interesting against this flimsy backdrop, even then I would be fine. And yet it's not. Charmaine is supposed to be sweet and innocent with a dark side, but instead comes across as dumb and easily manipulated. Stan, I guess, is supposed to be resourceful, but instead we're forced to read his childish fantasies about rescuing women and having them show their gratitude in a way a 13-year old may expect. There is almost an interesting part where gender roles seem sort of reversed, but then it's abandoned. Neither character is, at any point, an agent in their own story. Instead they are constantly manipulated and moved around by others like little pegs in the Game of Life.

To return to my original point, these two fall in a lot, and I'm not sure I was rooting for them to get back up.

In the past I've felt conflicted in criticizing someone else's art. I know it's hard to write and publish a book. It's awful hard to make it work, and be entertaining, and tell us something. But man, you guys. I hated this book so bad.