black humor is a delicate balance: a writer’s gotta be bleak and funny at the same time, and be super-focused on what she’s satirizing. the target also has to be worth the ink.
in this book Atwood’s satirizing for-profit prisons and the effects of the economic meltdown, with a lot of forays into sexual politics. there’s some serious grist for a good satire there. but in my opinion the book doesn’t do a very good job of any of them.
the setup: Stan and Charmaine, casualties of the meltdown, volunteer for an experimental community in which they’ll spend half their time as prison workers and half their time as prisoners in exchange for guaranteed room and board. a shady megacorp runs both community and prison, and naturally an excess of power leads to eViL.
Atwood’s satire of prisons as profit-making ventures leaps right over the economics of it, however, and gets right into the nefarious. the depiction of prison life is also really threadbare and cliched (even satire has to have some nuance). so that aspect of the book is really weak.
Stan and Charmaine’s devolution from citizens to widgets is also summarily treated–there’s really very little on the hows and whys of their decision to volunteer. so the opportunity to make hay with the economic meltdown is also lost.
and Stan and Charmaine themselves are problematic–Stan is a very stereotypical man of bluster and bubbling violence and an overwrought sex drive. Charmaine is a rather stupid bright-sider who cares more about cushion covers than–well, almost anything else. satire gets a pass on building realistic characters because one can’t write satire with real humans, of course, but these two are pretty uninteresting as straw men.
one exception to that: both of them have watched waaaaay too much tv, and their projections and fantasies are all thoroughly overblown in a tv-land way. this aspect of the book is understated but pretty reliably funny.
last, the sexual politics: i think this aspect of the book is really rather dated. it’s all about force and submitting to force as an aphrodisiac, and how much men would like women to be stepford wives. i actually don’t believe that’s true these days, if it ever was. i may be a bit rose-tinted here, but i do think the feminist movement has altered that equation. anyway the sexual sniping goes on waaaaay too long in the book and isn’t all that interesting.
the book wraps up in Las Vegas in an excess of Elvises and Marilyns and that too is just not worthy of a writer of Atwood’s caliber–the lousiest satirist can poke fun at Vegas, and it’s been done to death anyway.
the book does work in its asides, though–for example, the tv-saturated minds. Atwood has corporate-speak down to a high art. Charmaine’s extreme deftness at deluding herself is a pleasure to read. and how could one not like a line that includes “chicken pimp”?
Atwood apparently wrote this book as an experiment in serial publishing. i applaud her willingness to experiment. but i hope she does the next book in the usual way.
and just an observation: Atwood’s had a career of exposing some of the dark truths of american life and culture, and we’ve been the fruitful object of her gimlet eye. recently i was in Vancouver, though, and have never in any american city been so importuned by homeless people. maybe Atwood should turn her gaze a little closer to home next time?