Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Book Review | The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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.


You can buy a bunch of stuff with money. You can buy board games, boxed sets, hot hatchbacks and huge houses—an assortment of objects and accessories and investments likely to lift your spirits for a few minutes and, if you're lucky, a whole lot longer. But, The Heart Goes Last asks, does that mean you can buy happiness? Its answer: hah!

Stan and Charmaine wouldn't have had any need to, till recently. When they were first married, their futures were bright; their futures were right. "They were so happy then. It was just like an ad." (p.276) The newlyweds were even considering kids when the bottom went out from under the economy and civilised society practically collapsed.
They were so sweet then, so hopeful; so young, not like the way [they are] now. And then it hadn't worked out, because of circumstances. And it was a strain, so many tensions, what with the car and everything, but they'd stayed together because they had each other and they loved each other. (p.153)
At the start of Margaret Atwood's first standalone work of full-length fiction for fifteen years, Stan and Charmaine have almost nothing but their love for one another—and even that bond has been stronger. Then they hear about something called the Positron project, an experimental private enterprise which promises a new way today and, if it works, a new world for the future:
Rather than festering in some deserted condo crawling with black mould or crouching in a stench-filled trailer where you'd spend the nights beating off dead-eyed teenagers armed with broken bottles and ready to murder you for a handful of cigarette butts, you'd have gainful employment, three wholesome meals a day, a lawn to tend, a hedge to trim, the assurance that you were contributing to the general good, and a toilet that flushed. In a word, or rather three words: A MEANINGFUL LIFE. (p.42)
The only trade-off is that participants must spend every other month in a prison—and while they're away, their so-called "alternates" come out to play...

For Stan and Charmaine—and hundreds of others in similarly shitty circumstances—the Positron project is irresistible in spite of the sacrifice it requires, so they sign on the dotted line and move unconditionally into Consilience.

It goes well, for a while—except, perhaps, for the fact that the test subjects are completely cut off from the world outwith the facility:
The whole town is under a bell jar: communications can be exchanged inside it, but no words get in or out except through approved gateways. No whines, no complains, no tattling, no whistle-blowing. The overall message must be tightly controlled: the outside world must be assured that the Consilience/Positron twin city project is working. 
And it is working, because look: safe streets, no homelessness, jobs for all! (p.51)
What's not to want?

Well, wonderful as its ideals may be, achieving them ain't easy. You might even say there are "some bumps along the way." (p.51) Quite aside from the individual liberties Stan and Charmaine have lost, there's the complete lack of privacy, the variously depraved practices of the people in power and the question of the alternates' agendas. This last—and this least—is the foremost focus of The Heart Goes Last's unfortunately straightforward first act, but as Stan and Charmaine's awareness of their situation escalates, Atwood is unleashed to address these other ideas.

Now they're not new notions, no—not even in Atwood's own oeuvre—but in The Heart Goes Last she has at them head on. The subtlety of, say, The Handmaid's Tale is rarely to be seen here; Atwood's mode of approach is disarmingly frank, in fact, thus there will be those readers who outright reject her directness. For my part, I found the experience of appreciating her thoughts and themes without first having to penetrate the layers of obfuscation they were historically hidden within rather... refreshing.

That said, the net effect of Atwood's no-nonsense voice on the narrative's central characters is not positive. Though they had my sympathy at the beginning of the book, the minute the action shifts to Consilience—too soon, to be sure—they turn into twits: pets of the Positron project who swallow whatever they're fed, not least the breast meat of chickens bred without heads. They're a frustrating pair, and furthermore, appallingly passive, in that they only actually act when external forces act upon them.

Largely because of the apathetic nature of Stan and Charmaine, I wouldn't go so far as to call The Heart Goes Last classic Margaret Atwood—it's more in line with the likes of MaddAddam than Oryx and Crake, which is to say it's as silly as it is sinister—but hey, even on an off day, how many authors can hold a candle to the great Canadian?


The Heart Goes Last
by Margaret Atwood

UK Publication: September 2015, Bloomsbury
US Publication: September 2015, Nan A. Talese

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