The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood (Galley)
Release Date: September 29, 2015
Genre: Fiction, dystopia, science fiction, speculative fiction, biting social commentary with a side of absurdity
Rating: 3.68 out of 5 stars
Summary: Charmaine and Stan will do anything for a better life, including entering the Positron Project, a lifelong program where every other month they must serve time in prison. The trade-off? On their off months, they get to live inside a home given to them by the people who run the project, a free home which they must share with their Alternates. Is the program as altruistic as it seems or — as you’ve already surmised — is something darker looking beneath the surface of the Positron Project?
Margaret Atwood has once again returned to the world of dystopias, combining it with speculative fiction to create a future that is as bleak and horrifying as it is absurd.
The Heart Goes Last was originally written as serial fiction in five parts (the fifth part was never released), and based on what I’ve gleaned from GoodReads ratings, readers preferred the short story format of the Positron series, which Atwood started writing in 2012.
Atwood’s story follows married couple Charmaine and Stan, who because of the country’s financial collapse, lose their respective jobs and home and are forced to live in their car and survive off Charmaine’s meager waitress tips, all while trying to avoid roving gangs of murderers, rapists and mosquitoes.
To escape what their lives have become, optimistic Charmaine and wet dishrag Stan sign up for the Positron Project, which is essentially a lifelong experiment. For one month they separate and serve time in the Positron prison, the following month they live in Consilience, the town surrounding Positron where they participate in an idealized 1950’s style community because American is nostalgic for the past.
As it’s pitched to them, “DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE. CONS + RESILIENCE = CONSILIENCE.”
While Charmaine and Stan are inside the prison, their home is occupied by their Alternates, who they are forbidden from meeting. Conversely, when Charmaine and Stan are in their perfect home, their Alternates are serving time in Positron.
Despite the rules, after finding a saucy note under their shared fridge, Stan can’t help but creepily plan to meet Charmaine’s Alternate on an upcoming switch-over day and attempt to seduce her. In fact, he spends his whole month in town plotting and fantasizing about this meeting like the creep he is.
No one in the story is particularly worthy of a better life as you will quickly learn, especially the men. To the male characters, even lady sex robots are referred to as “slut machines” and are created with a setting called “Lustful and Sluttish.”
These same men who deride “sluttish” behavior also find fault with their so-called prudish wives, wishing they came with an on button, prompting Stan to wonder, “Maybe all women should be robots … The flesh and blood ones are out of control.”
Slight spoilers in this paragraph, but it should be noted that Stan (who I mentioned has detailed plans to seduce his wife’s Alternate) is horrified to learn that Charmaine has been having an affair with his own, because that’s how patriarchal double standards work. Later in the novel, he gets inexplicably jealous when he meets a woman who will never want to sleep with him because she’s imprinted on a teddy bear. Fucking Stan.
Men aren’t the only unsympathetic characters in the novel, but they’re the only ones forcibly having sexual relations with chickens.
While I didn’t necessarily dislike the story — it’s definitely written with a wink and plenty of elbow nudging — I couldn’t help but wonder where the novel was going at the halfway point, aside from the obvious: life is a prison, marriage is a prison, work is a prison, our possessions are prisons, prison is a prison allegory.
I also found the ending (or rather the parts before the last chapter) to be a little too absurd, which had me wishing the horrifying aspects of the world and its absurd elements were more evenly balanced.
The Heart Goes Last wasn’t Atwood at her worst — not be any means — but I didn’t feel it was Atwood at her best either.
- Interesting premise
- Written with Atwood’s typical dark humor and biting commentary
- Can be horrifying despite the ridiculousness of it all
- Hard to see where the story and its terrible characters were heading
- Some of the absurd aspects were too absurd and took away from the narrative
For more speculative fiction from Atwood, check out Oryx and Crake, and if you’re a dystopia lover, I cannot recommend The Handmaid’s Tale enough. For newer Atwood works, her latest short story collection Stone Mattress is especially enjoyable.