Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dystopian Playground: Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last

Author Margaret Atwood. (Photo credit: IBL/REX Shutterstock)

Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, opens with spouses Stan and Charmaine living in squalor in their car following an economic collapse in the not-so-distant future. Charmaine waits tables for tips while Stan ruminates on his state of unemployment. He used to work in robotics, she used to work in a nursing home, and they used to be happy before things went horribly awry. Longing still for the illusory (North) American dream (let’s remember Atwood is Canadian), Stan and Charmaine are all too pleased to hear about the “Positron Project,” a utopian scheme where civilians spend one month living in Leave It To Beaver-style domestic bliss and the next in a neighbouring prison, alternating every 30 days for the rest of their lives. The twin cities of Positron and Consilience seem to be the answer to Stan and Charmaine’s prayers but anyone who’s ever read an Atwood novel will recognize from the get go that some things really are too good to be true.

The Heart Goes Last is officially classified as “dystopian fiction,” but the end product is much more an exploration of lust, desire, and human nature with a hefty dose of Atwood’s satirical wit thrown in for flavour. Once inside the walls of Positron/Consilience, Stan and Charmaine are quickly embroiled in a series of complicated romantic entanglements. The dystopian elements are relegated mainly to background noise, providing a framework for a series of affairs (real and imaginary) reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In short, Charmaine, ever the chipper prudish homemaker, pulls the wool over her husband’s eyes and begins a steamy extramarital affair with Max, the alternate husband who lives in their home while Charmaine and Stan are locked away in prison. Stan finds a note from Charmaine to her lover and becomes obsessed, unknowingly lusting after his wife’s alias. Just when you think things are weird enough already, Max’s wife turns up and complicates matters further, separating Stan and Charmaine and keeping Stan as a (mostly) unwilling sex slave. The love triangle (love square?) is entertaining in a twisted kind of way and comprises the bulk of the novel. Somewhere near the end, Atwood turns up the dystopia dial and introduces a sub-plot about turning unruly Positron residents into sex slaves. While entertaining, this development reads as more of an afterthought, a deus ex machina inserted to resolve the novel’s romantic conflicts.

I love Margaret Atwood. I love so many of her works. I like her as a public figure. I like her as a guest lecturer. If given the opportunity, I would probably elect her Prime Minister, no questions asked, so I hate myself for saying it but The Heart Goes Last is not her best work. The novel appears to be Atwood blowing off steam, having some fun, making an uncharacteristically flippant contribution to her body of work. It’s darkly funny. It’s clever. The plot twist at the end, where Positron’s dirty laundry is finally revealed to Stan and the reader, is not what frequent readers of dystopias are bound to expect and that’s great! Nonetheless, I really struggled to get into it and to relate to the wooden characters that are so unlike Atwood’s usual creations. Stan and Charmaine are two-dimensional; even Charmaine’s lusty affair reads as unsurprising and uninteresting, likely because Charmaine struck me as a (deliberately) unremarkable person. The villains lack humanity, the story is rife with plot holes, and the sex lacks punch. Ultimately, the weirdest thing about The Heart Goes Last is that it is a novel that is obsessed with asking questions about sex, with dancing around it, discussing its merits and its worth relevant to “safety” and “comfort” and platonic love for one’s partner, but the novel has not a single actual sex scene in it. The Heart Goes Last is, effectively, your neutered dog that can’t stop humping the furniture.

While The Heart Goes Last is certainly not a novel you can sink your teeth into, it’s still a great read for fans of Atwood’s work and/or warped sense of humour. Instead of the political overtones usually found in dystopian fare, Atwood addresses the human spirit more directly, mulling over questions about love and lust. The darkest feature of the novel is neither the human trafficking nor the widespread poverty but Atwood’s desire to present love and lust and oppositional forces. Which do we spend our life pursuing? And which were we designed for as human beings? While Charmaine may be too dumb to answer for herself in the novel’s closing lines, the reader is left to ponder these issues for herself. It’s an anxiety-inducing question that’s driven countless mad throughout human history, but just when the dichotomy is about to swallow you whole, I urge you to flip to Atwood’s acknowledgements. There she thanks her partner, Graeme Gibson, for inspiring her all the time without inspiring a single one of the novel’s characters and, by doing so, reminds us that maybe life is not as black and white as The Heart Goes Last leaves us feeling.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. Which is to say, of course, that I agree with it. "... your neutered dog that can’t stop humping the furniture" is excellent.