The Heart Goes Last describes a society with no jobs, no hope, and no prospects. Desperation has driven a young couple from their home; at the beginning they are living a marginal life in their car. Extravagant promises of a prosperous and satisfying material life in a fenced-off and walled-in community attract the couple, appealing to their optimism as well as their desire for possessions such as beds with smooth clean sheets and bathrooms with luxuriant towels. The drawback is that once they sign on to this life behind the walls, they spend half their lives in a prison, changing places each month with another couple whom then never see. The husband works in a chicken-producing area, while the wife works in various jobs with an eerie suspiciousness about them.
Although the book as a whole is rather thin, and the ending is rather disappointing, Atwood is up to her usual fascinating way of using trivial details to highlight the characters' situation. They eat pretty ordinary food, but it says something about the twilight nature of their lives.
OK, what do they eat? One day as they work in the prison the meal is: "chicken stew, Brussels sprouts, tapioca pudding." (p. 121).
"The lunch is chicken salad. It’s made with chickens raised right here at Positron Prison, in healthy and considerate surroundings, over at the men’s wing; and the lettuce and arugula and radicchio and celery are grown here as well. Though not the celery, now that she thinks of it – that comes in from outside. But the parsley’s grown here. And the spring onions. And the Tiny Tim tomatoes. Despite her lack of appetite she picks away at the salad, because she doesn’t want to look ungrateful. Or, worse, unstable.
"Here comes the dessert. They’ve set it out on the table at the far end of the room; the women get up in order, row by row, and stand in line for it. Plum crumble... She can’t help thinking it looks like curdled blood, but she draws a marker across that thought, blacks it out. She should try to eat just a bit: it might steady her nerves." (pp. 138-139).And in a seduction scene with a very powerful and lecherous man, leading up to the final denouement:
"And here’s the steak in front of her, seared and brown, branded with a crisscross of black, running with hot blood. On the side, three mini-broccolis and two new potatoes. It smells delicious. She’s ravenous, but it would be folly to show it. Tiny, ladylike bites, if any." (p. 224).On the whole the book has quite a few Margaret Atwood moments, but doesn't leave me as entranced as did many of her earlier books. (I think I've read them all.) Needless to say, it has much much more than food, but that's what I like to inspect.
Again, we meet a couple coping with the altered situation. At first they are squatting in a mansion once owned by a Hollywood starlet. They then drift into a car and eventually, though they separate, live into an old school bus.
The first 110 pages of this novel (Book 1) seem to be a self-contained story, which ends when the couple lose their way in the great dune that is quickly enveloping the Southwest. The remaining 240 pages (Books 2 & 3) at times lose focus as the author describes climate change, the formation of the great dune, the philosophies of the various commune members and many other somewhat rambling events and interactions.
Watkins' food descriptions, among many things, highlight the terrible and constantly deteriorating situation. The most extended description of what was left to eat:
"For now, enough money could get you fresh produce and meat and dairy, even if what they called cheese was Day-Glo and came in a jar, and the fish was mostly poisoned and reeking, the beef gray, the apples blighted even in what used to be apple season, pears grimy even when you paid extra for Bartletts from Amish orchards. Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep." (p. 17).Life gets worse and worse, the couple are cheated at a terror-inducing fleamarket when they try to buy blueberries. They occasionally find old supermarkets and shopping malls full of former treats and eat them gluttonously. Eventually they flee and end up in a kind of desperation commune in the desert.
The vast number of novels being published about the uncertainties of our future as humans, as a society, and as rational beings is overwhelming. Indeed, I guess we all should wonder what we are going to eat when current life as we know it becomes less and less possible.