Margaret Atwood was guest host of #LitChat on November 30, 2015. Read the complete chatscript here.
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese (September 29, 2015)
Reviewed by Carolyn Burns Bass
The meaning of life and love is central to Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last. Now before you think Atwood has gone soft and written a romance, stop right there. The Heart Goes Last is a brilliant satirical look into modern society with emphasis on the breaking economy, its opportunities for corporate greed, and its impact on the middle class. How far would you go to sleep in a bed every night? Would you kill your husband to preserve your comfort?
In a not-too-distant future the American economy has collapsed to the extent that cars have become real estate, rolling from place to place to protect the inhabitants who live inside from those on the outside who would commandeer the vehicle and abuse the residents in every unthinkable way. Here we meet Stan and Charmaine, a young married couple who once had cushy jobs, a beautiful home and enough money to splurge on the niceties of life. We meet them when they’re living in their aging Honda, Charmaine is making tip money as a bartender at a seedy bar, and Stan is off begging his shady brother for some cash so they can buy gas to keep moving around. In light of what happened to America in 2008 this scenario isn’t too far off.
At the bar one night Charmaine learns of a new master-planned community offering homes for the homeless and jobs for the jobless. She’s grown so weary of sleeping crunched up in the car, afraid of the window-bashing gangs and tired of roaming from place to place, so she pushes the idea hard to Stan. Stan loves Charmaine and feels that he’s let her down and though he is skeptical of the “too good to be true” nature of the offer, he hasn’t the heart to say no to Charmaine. Once they’ve heard the pitch and spent a night in a comfy hotel with hot showers and fluffy towels, Stan and Charmaine are ready to seal the deal, despite the caveat: Those entering the utopian community must spend every other month in the nearby Positron prison. Even more alarming to Stan is the sudden appearance of his gangster brother with a dire warning to turn away. Any one of us could say they would have fled at the idea of this kind of life. But then, not all of us have lived in our car, dumpster dived for dinner, or faced rape gangs.
Once inside the sparkling community of Consilience, Stan and Charmaine slip into their new life as if they’d never left their old life. Stan is a scooter mechanic and Charmaine works in the town bakery. After the first month they’re separated for their time at Positron Prison. Stan, formerly a robotics tech, is stuck tending chickens where he is inexplicably passive about the demotion. Charmaine, however, is selected to be a medications dispenser at the prison hospital and puts her heart into her work. As he senses the futility of his life, his brother’s warning becomes clear to Stan. The 1950-esque utopian life is a “Hotel California,” where you can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.
When Stan and Charmaine are not living in their posh pad in Consilience, another couple occupies it. We know them at first as “Max” and “Jasmine.” These are what Atwood calls their “alternates.” Consilience laws forbid any contact with one’s alternate. What then happens when two people become bored with their lives, when they have no challenges to share, when their lovemaking becomes an act of due diligence, rather than passion and pleasure? You can see it coming with Stan and Charmaine, and the obsessions they form over their alternates isn’t pretty.
As with any Atwood novel, The Heart Goes Last, is heavy, but humorous; gritty, but glimmering. Positron Prison doubles as a factory which outputs Elvis and Marilyn Monroe sex robots and some of the wittiest and insightful scenes happen in this flow. One of Charmaine’s evening activities in the prison is her knitting circle where the women knit nothing but blue teddy bears. The teddy bear steals the spotlight when one of the neurological experiments goes awry and an uber-sexy woman intended for a high roller wakes up from a procedure to “imprint” and fall instantly in love with one of the hokey blue bears.
The summary above explains the story plot, but with every Atwood novel, there is much going on between the lines. Atwood is a writer who doesn’t have to explain everything to the reader. Her laser-sharp observations about human nature and social constructs forecast futures that could happen—even in our lifetimes. In The Heart Goes Last we’re looking at how desperation fuels deceit and complacency nulls the conscience. While the Consilience/Positron model looks efficient from the outside, Atwood reveals a society so comfortable with their “Happy Valley” lifestyle they swallow the company propaganda without question and participate organ harvesting, neurological experimentation, production of kiddie sex robots, and other heinous acts. It’s not hard to imagine a future where prisons are big business and the profits fund private pockets.
Atwood is a master of writing about societies just like ours, but with futuristic technology and alternate ideology in place. Her novels are the scariest of fiction because her scenarios begin with a modern problem. She tweaks that problem with a “what if” component that sounds to some like absurd proportions. In the case of The Heart Goes Last, the very real potential of failed economies mixed with corporate greed spawning a captive working class doesn’t sound that far off.
CAROLYN BURNS BASS is the founder and editor of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.