“If prison isn’t prison, the outside world has no meaning!” So says Aurora to Charmaine in Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Heart Goes Last.
It dates back, the CanLit icon’s interest in imprisonment, a preoccupation with the idea of lives which are lived inside and lives which are lived outside.
In The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Offred observes: “As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire.” She, like many women in that novel, has private ceremonies which sustain her while she is “inside”, longing to be “outside”.
Grace Marks, too, in Alias Grace (1996) is imprisoned: “Outside, the seasons changed, but all I knew of it was the difference in the light that shone through the small barred window, which was too high on the wall for me to see out of it; and the air that would come in, bringing the scents and odours of all I was missing.”
But inside and outside are not necessarily distinct. Simon Jordan comes to the prison to listen to Grace Marks speak of the events which led to her conviction for the murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in 1843 Upper Canada.
Simon has his freedom in a sense which Grace does not, and yet he feels confined in other ways: “Does his mother really believe that he can be charmed by such a vision of himself – married to Faith Cartwright and imprisoned in an armchair by the fire, frozen in a kind of paralyzed stupor, with his dear wife winding him up gradually in coloured silk threads like a cocoon, or like a fly snarled in the web of a spider?”
This is true, too, for the characters in Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last.
Charmaine and Stan are living in their car, when they hear about a program which requires that they live in a prison for one month and have freedom for another, alternating mechanically between inside and outside and offering a stability that they lack in their current daily life.
It is a novel about prison. Yes.
“The main deal is the prison. Prisons used to be about punishment, and then reform and penitence, and then keeping dangerous offenders inside. Then, for quite a few decades, they were about crowd control – penning up the young, aggressive, marginalized guys to keep them off the streets. And then, when they started to be run as private businesses, they were about the profit margins for the prepackaged jail-meal suppliers, and the hired guards and so forth.”
But it’s not necessarily about prisons built with bricks and mortar.
Just as Simon (in Alias Grace) believed himself at risk with his mother’s expectations and demands, Charmaine and Stan face unexpected (undefined) risks too.
For instance, what happens when one person lies so often and so substantially to another person that the truth is no longer recognizable.
What if someone has been “[l]eading her astray for motives different from the ones you’re supposed to have when you lead someone astray.”
What does it mean when a deception has another layer like this, when one person expects a certain kind of deception but then learns that there are new depths to the fabrication.
And what does it mean when the deception to directly related to matters of desire?
What if you can’t trust the inside or the outside, and what if you can no longer recognize the boundaries?
What if the distinctions are all in your own mind, in your own self?
“Charmaine, Charmaine, whispers the small voice in her head. You are such a fraud.
So are you, she tells it.”
See, it gets complicated. Quickly and surprisingly.
To the point where one character wonders: “How bad are things when you can get nostalgic about living in your car?”
The main character in Claudine Dumont’s Captive (2013; Translated by David Scott Hamilton 2015) is also confined.
And she could probably relate to that last Atwood quote, because there is a point at which she seems nostalgic for being in an alcholic haze, head pounding and consciousness flickering.
In the novel’s first four pages, sudden violence leads to her imprisonment. At first, readers wonder whether perhaps she is simply confined in a burst of alcoholism, a symptom of the “empty box” of her life.
Right away, she shares her dreams of an elevator failing, a mechanism giving way to a plunging crash. Even she wonders if she is hallucinating or dreaming, when she hears a noise in the hall and two men are in her room, the events which lead to her captivity. “Fragility is too dangerous. It doesn’t take much before others start testing their talent for causing pain.”
Ironically, reading Captive leaves one feeling simultaneously as though there is not even time to take a single breath AND as though there is nothing but time and that breathing is the only thing that matters anymore.
Having previously translated Nelly Arcan’s final novel, Paradis, clef en main, David Scott Hamilton has experience with bold and raw prose; the pacing of Captive is relentless, breathless, fragmented and piercing.
“A fog of fragments of ice soaked in alcohol. I’m not dreaming. There are two men in my room. Dressed in black. Wearing masks. Armed. The one behind me is still holding my wrists.”
First impressions: one is overwhelmed by the sense of heavily punctuated prose, which seems to puncture the pages of this sleek Arachnide volume (one of the recent titles in House of Anansi’s translation series). Captive is all about story, told in the present-tense: insistent and brutal. One does not even have time to take a drink.
But, later, one is struck by the idea that nothing is as it seems; it is not simple and it is not direct. Captive is rooted in ideas, designed to make readers’ minds spin on the question of the varied vulnerabilities in our lives, and the risk of a philosophical collision between authenticity and fabrication. One has all the time in the world to sit and discuss, opening bottles of wine to lazily fuel the debates.
The lines between outside and inside are blurred in Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and Claudine Dumont’s Captive. (And it’s not all because of the alcohol!)
And the question of what we desire? That is the blurriest bit of all. Oh, how we get caught in that web. Every one of us.