Review: The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

It’s hard to believe that only two years ago, I’d never read a Margaret Atwood novel. Somewhere between then and now, I’ve fallen hopelessly in love. It’s no longer possible for me to have a conversation about science fiction (or literature in general) without invoking her name. Atwood has an incredible knack of taking shopworn genre tropes – genetic modification, dystopian societies, the apocalypse, and others – and presenting them in an entirely original way, one that engages with our deepest cultural anxieties. Yet her fiction is not a mere vehicle for her ideas; it is always firmly anchored in believable characters. Very few authors have had such a profound influence on my thinking in such a short amount of time. I was delighted to hear that her latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, is in the same speculative dystopian vein as The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy.

the heart goes last

I’ll start with the blurb:

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of economic and social collapse. Living in their car, surviving on tips from Charmaine’s job at a dive bar, they’re increasingly vulnerable to roving gangs, and in a rather desperate state. So when they see an advertisement for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience – a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own – they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for this suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month, swapping their home for a prison cell.

At first, all is well. But slowly, unknown to the other, Stan and Charmaine develop a passionate obsession with their counterparts, the couple that occupy their home when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire take over, and Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.

It’s a clever premise. The economic collapse has effectively wiped out the middle-class, reducing areas of the United States to lawless slums. The residents of Consilience are granted comfortable middle-class lifestyles, but they must spend every second month doing penal labour. When they’re not in Positron (the prison), many of them take the role of guards, supervising those who will take the same role next month. The rotating cycle encourages each resident to take responsibility for their own behavior – it’s like a twisted version of panopticism. It also ensures that the labour force in Consilience is constantly churning out cheap products. Atwood’s vision becomes increasingly sinister as the characters discover the true nature of those products. It isn’t long before we realize that the entire town is a prison. Underlying the story is a simple question: would you sacrifice your freedoms and liberties to feel safe?

There were numerous things I loved about this novel. Stan and Charmaine fluctuate from naïve to pathetic to resilient as they find themselves manipulated by forces outside their control. The leader of Consilience, Ed, is a wonderful Big Brother analogue whose authority over other characters is gradually diminished by his sexual kinks. There’s plenty of political posturing, with the figures behind Consilience abusing their power to warp their creation. There’s also a healthy dose of absurdity. Atwood grants herself more room for comedy than her previous works of speculative fiction (it would be hard to find humour in the bleak reality of The Handmaid’s Tale), and this comedic tone takes centre stage in the second half of the novel. Atwood’s prose is as sharp as ever. However, the novel does feel unfocused towards the end, as if Atwood doesn’t quite know how to get out of the dystopian world she’s created. And it’s the relationships of the characters – previously one of Atwood’s strengths – that is the weak link. What starts out as a contemplation of totalitarianism ends up as a flippant sex comedy. The best part, for me, remains the concept of the town itself.

Consilience is designed with a 1950’s aesthetic: everything from the architecture to the social events feels like it is lifted straight from Pleasantville. Residents in the town are even limited to the 1950’s in their selection of fashion, music, and film. There’s comfort to be found in this decade: nostalgia for a simplistic domestic existence coupled with unbridled optimism for the future ahead. Atwood takes great delight in reflecting this balance between nostalgia and optimism in her narrative, with some of the characters so thoroughly brainwashed by the Positron Project that they sprout mindless 1950’s platitudes as they commit the most despicable crimes. Of course, this leads to some scathing satire, proving once again that Atwood is more than capable of holding a mirror to the chaos of our world.

There’s a rough formula to classic dystopian narratives. An oppressive government has restricted the liberties of its citizens. The protagonist becomes involved in a resistance movement, which is met with varying degrees of success. The Heart Goes Last follows this formula, but with one crucial distinction: the oppressors are not the government, but the company that owns and operates Consilience. The US government is conspicuously absent throughout the text. The world outside Consilience is a lawless shamble, with citizens left to fend for themselves. It is a dystopian realisation of a post-Katrina America, one in which the government is not necessarily evil – it is simply absent.

Some of the darker dystopian elements are reserved for later in the novel. It’s also where the novel starts to lose focus. Stan becomes a worker in a sex-bot factory, allowing Atwood to contemplate our fetishisation of material products. A further part of the racket at Consilience involves modifying the brains of women (and occasionally men) through neurosurgery to make them utterly devoted and compliant to their partners. It raises a lot of questions about free will, but Atwood doesn’t give the idea the time it needs to really make a statement. By this stage, Atwood’s social commentary is secondary to the sexual antics of her characters.

The core question – would you trade freedom for security? – extends beyond the society of the novel to the relationships of the characters. It’s also a question that haunts the novel to the very last page. Unfortunately, Atwood is so focused on the characters by this stage – their betrayals, their desires, and the erotic power plays – that the wider social implications are lost. Too much time is spent on the frustration and fulfillment of desire. The flippant tone of the last few chapters undermines the bleak dystopian vision of the first few chapters. I wanted the novel to return to its contemplations of totalitarianism and the price of security.

Dystopian narratives traditionally achieve their power by reflecting the dominant cultural anxieties of the era in which they were written. The Heart Goes Last, written as the US economy slowly recovers from a recession, is a cautionary tale about our desire for security. Although it does lose its focus, the questions that it asks are the sort of questions that our society will need to answer in the coming decades.

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