The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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The Heart Goes Last
Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury, £18.99

Reworked from an e-serial, Atwood’s latest novel is as captivating and humorous as her previous work. The America inhabited by her focal characters, Stan and Charmaine, is steeped in the twenty-first century equivalent of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate in the hardest hit East Coast area has soared up to 40%, almost twice the rate that America reached in the wake of the Wall Street Crash.

The Heart Goes Last provides a less blatantly post-apocalyptic scenario than Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy but it opens with an atmosphere that is at least as threatening, if not more so. The couple end up having to live and sleep in their car. Stan has to keep the key in the ignition at all times so that they can flee at a moment’s notice as soon as marauding gangs approach. Their coupling is furtive and joyless and their prospects more than bleak.

When they come across an advertisement for Consilience, a social experiment that offers unhoped for comfort, Charmaine and Stan apply immediately, knowing that the rules of this completely isolated company town involve a month spent in a well-tended, suburban paradise followed by a month in an almost-attractive, brand new, ergonomic prison. The economic logic of the system is that while they are in captivity, another couple is able to avail themselves of their home in alternation. Although far more affluent than nineteenth-century poor houses, the Consilience compound turns out to be rotten at the core. This contextual plot is complicated by the fact that both Charmaine and Stan begin to develop a secret obsession for their Alternates, the people who occupy their house while they are in prison.

A number of reviewers have found the strain on credibility in this novel too high and it’s true that at first you don’t see how the concept can be viable. Because the economic forces that sustain Consilience and its Positron Prison are explained to us piecemeal, rather than all at once from the outset, you need to be willing to suspend a certain amount of disbelief in the opening chapters. Literary whistleblowers are often too quick to ring the alarm bells of verisimilitude, while at the same time always ready to grant Shakespeare all kinds of improbabilities.

We later learn that the Consilience/Positron project sustains itself through various industries, most notably through the production of soft toys and sexually streamlined robots. As time passes, corruption and gross moral turpitude set in and the experiment turns into a gold mine with infinite financial potential.

The alluring story is also kept buoyant throughout thanks to Atwood’s expert pacing, her remorseless ability to generate suspense and her shrewd manipulation of the tell-tale detail that reveals character and motivation. Much of the novel’s humour relies on Atwood’s amusement at the workings of the masculine mind. When discussing the testing of the sex robots they produce, the secondary male characters sound perfectly true to life. Atwood’s satirical glance can be truly hilarious. Here is a sample that describes a TV self-help show for channelling the positive energy rays of the universe: “You do it through the nostrils: close the right nostril with the index finger, breathe in, open, close the left nostril, breathe out. It gives a whole new dimension to nose-picking. The star of the show is a young light-haired woman in a skintight pink leotard. She looks familiar, but then such generic women do. Nice tits – especially when she does the right nostril – despite the air bubble chatter coming out of her mouth. So, something for everyone: self-help and nostrils for the women, tits for the men.”

As always, Atwood’s felicitous linguistic findings are a delight to encounter. Here are a few of my favourites. Veronica, the sex-kitten, has “a precious-metal laugh”; she gives Stan “an LED smile: light, but no heat”. Charmaine later gives Stan a final kiss that is like “a boiling-hot octopus”. When Stan, disguised as an Elvis sexbot, is locked up in a cramped packaging case, he is forced to eat an energy bar “which tastes like coconut-flavoured sawdust”. In an equally evocative way, Ed, the patriarchal plutocrat grown filthy rich from corruption, is said to have lips that are “glossy with fat” as he eats in front of a secretly disgusted Charmaine.

Although Atwood knows how to rev up suspense to sometimes barely tolerable levels, the last part of the novel departs from the model of the climactic finish by dabbling in black-hearted comedy. It’s a risky wager but leaves the reader with a sense of uplift as the novel is released from the tensions of dystopia into its quasi-utopian resolution.

In the 1960s, Kingsley Amis published a survey of science fiction called Maps of Hell. One of the categories he identified was the ‘comic inferno’. The Heart Goes Last ultimately navigates well between these contradictory poles, passing from nightmare situations to farce, sometimes blending the two.
Speculative fiction as a genre has a strong tendency to show how the best worlds inexorably slide into producing their opposite. Atwood’s originality here is that the utopian world she unfurls is from the outset an interesting combination of dystopia (the month spent in prison) and utopia (the alternating month spent in the perfect home). The gambit stands as the perfect symbol of what Atwood has previously theorized as ‘ustopia’, the notion that every utopian ideal contains dystopian potential.

Erik Martiny