Last month an unsolicited e-copy of The Heart Goes Last landed in my inbox: a random Thursday afternoon present for this Margaret Atwood fan. I was meant to review it for one of the websites I write for, but a misunderstanding meant the book was also assigned to someone else. So while I won’t be getting paid for my review (Boooooo!), I was still grateful for the opportunity to read the book early.
Atwood’s last project before this was the Maddaddam dystopian trilogy, and while there are still some dystopian elements here, she is blending speculative elements with realist social commentary in a way that makes me hope she is leaving some of the overt absurdity of her science-fiction scenarios behind.
I didn’t dislike the Maddaddam books per se, but nor did I feel that it was necessary to turn Oryx and Crake into a trilogy, especially when the two following novels only re-examined events from different perspectives, filling in backstory rather than adding new present action (see my Maddaddam review on For Books’ Sake). It felt like a fairly indulgent ten-year project distracting Atwood from producing potential gems along the lines of The Blind Assassin, one of my favorites.
The Heart Goes Last began as four Positron short stories that appeared on the Byliner website between 2012 and 2013. We’re in a vague post-financial crisis, post-environmental apocalypse world, a little like California or The Road but not quite as drastic. Stan and Charmaine are a married couple reduced to living in their car. Charmaine works in a bar, but Stan has lost his job and won’t quite stoop to his brother Conor’s level of moving money around offshore. (It’s no coincidence his brother’s nickname is “Con.”)
One day Charmaine sees an ad for the Positron Project and convinces Stan to sign them up. Participants spend every other month working in the model community of Consilience…and every other month in prison. “DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE!” one slogan reads. They share their home with another couple on an alternate schedule.
It’s a little like Pleasantville or The Truman Show: Consilience is stuck somewhere between the 1950s and a sustainable future. Doris Day and Bing Crosby play over the speakers (“The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened”), but everyone rides scooters and cheerfully goes about their jobs – Stan as a poultry inspector, and Charmaine in hospital procurement.
Yet Positron has some sordid and even sinister side-projects. With an echo of Animal Farm, Atwood emphasizes how seductive this ultimately oppressive community can seem:
“Hey. Everyone’s different.” / “But some are more different than others.”
Things get weird as foul-mouthed Stan becomes obsessed with the sex lives of their alternates, Max and Jasmine. He imagines their lovemaking to be so much more passionate than his with Charmaine. Yet Charmaine, so seemingly bland and innocent (her worst curse is “Darn it to heck”), is up to something. What is she doing sneaking around derelict houses, and what is her top-secret job within the prison?
Gradually both Stan and Charmaine, separately, get caught up in a conspiracy to take Positron down from the inside. The wacky plot involves “prostibot” sex dolls (tagline: “Better than real”), Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe impersonators, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream-esque procedure that reprograms people so they fall in love with the first creature they see after they wake up.
This is all reasonably good fun, but, as with the Maddaddam books, the technology and naming tip over into pure silliness, and here there’s an added layer of raunchiness I’m not accustomed to seeing from Atwood. In distinguishing the fake from the real, the novel goes deep into unpleasant themes of fetishism and voyeurism.
I’m not as down on the book as the Kirkus reviewer (their hatchet job is quite amusing), but I did find it problematic. Charmaine is whiny and annoying throughout, as well as implausibly naïve. All the characters are similarly one-dimensional, even those with secrets. Moreover, the plot takes plenty of unexpected turns with some Shakespearean comedy reversals, but it’s downright ludicrous at times. There’s even a situation straight out of Ted, one of the worst movies I’ve had the bad luck to sample.
In short, a somewhat disappointing one-off from Atwood. Almost the best thing about it is the title, which refers to both biological death and the difficulty of faking true love. I long for the doyenne of Canadian fiction to return to contemporary realism or even historical fiction. There’s just as much scope in those genres for serious social commentary as there is in speculative fiction. Or maybe I should just delve into her extensive back catalogue instead.
Have you read Atwood’s recent books? What’s your take?