The Heart Goes Last is one of the newest books published by a prolific Canadian author, Margaret Atwood. She had already secured a place among the classics with The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian story from 1985, currently viewed by some as a prophetic account of the US under Trump and/or alt right. The Handmaid’s Tale is once again in vogue due to a new and currently airing TV series by Hulu, which has garnered glowing critical reviews and very positive audience responses. It won the 2015 Red Tentacle Award (British Kitschies) for the best novel, leaving behind such acclaimed works as Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight (sequel to Europe in Autumn) or The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, whose earlier book, The Killing Moon, is reviewed here.
Atwood’s credentials are known. She has written dozens of books, all one way or another touching upon contemporary social issues, exploring the themes of security and freedom, equality, violence, sexual exploitation, human liberties, etc. She has a following, and even if her prose is only rarely categorized as a fantasy or science-fiction, many of the themes and ideas are similar in vein to our blog’s main interest. There’s usually a typical s-f, or at least near future, element, be it a social change or innovation, or a biological/medical one.
That’s also the case with The Heart Goes Last. Atwood’s novel depicts near future, where the existing capitalist system broke, causing in its wake a sudden employment crisis, bankruptcy and major social changes. The majority of the inhabitants of East Coast found themselves not only workless, but homeless as well. The main protagonists, Charmaine and Stan, are a young married couple affected by the economical collapse. After both of them lost their jobs and the house they took on credit, they started living in an old, battered car. Their only income comes from Charmaine’s work as a waitress in a run-down local pub. They are getting more desperate by the moment – not only because of their worsening living conditions, but mostly because they vividly remember different times, with their own house, 8 to 5 work and plans reaching further than next few days. Angry, helpless and afraid of the future they decide to take part in an experimental program called Positron. Positron is one part prison, one parts small, perfectly clean town, whose inhabitants spend every other month in the prison as inmates, the rest of the time spending as civilians: working as staff and living in a regular town houses located within the larger compound. Positron guarantees full employment, a living without debts and, most importantly, safety, a rarity indeed in the post-collapse landscape of the U.S., littered with the ruins of lost affluence and scavenging bands of desperate people. Positron/Consilience is a socio-economical experiment aimed at balancing itself (apparently in Atwood’s world prison is a cheap way of living, especially if the prisoners grow Brussels sprouts and chickens and knit blue teddy bears for sale!), and even bringing a handsome profit to its owners.
The premise sounds intriguing: it promises a harsh, dystopian commentary on our current social and economical ailments, it creates a situation perfect for insightful analysis of the peculiar dilemma between security and freedom. Add to it the not-so-subtle criticism aimed at the wondrous 50’s and an exploration of basic human instincts… A book for our times, it seems. It even starts well, for Atwood is a proficient writer and her prose is fluent, emotionally gripping, well balanced. But that’s about all I can commend in The Heart Goes Last.
I won’t deal with the economic side of the book – the Positron idea is indefensible and its author clearly knows it. But I have much bigger problems with this novel than just its economically irrational foundations. Somewhere along the way, and not far at that, the grim tale changes into a silly exploration of human sexual perversities and kinks. And by silly I mean exactly that. The plot veers right off the road and into the first available tree almost right after we enter the Positron/Consilience facility.
As soon as Charmaine and Stan begin their stint as the inhabitants of the “tribute to 50’s” town we are regaled with a far-fetched story of completely ungrounded and unconvincing bouts of passion, kinky sex in all imaginable positions – at least those imaginable and guiltily, pleasurably shocking for a bourgeois middle class prudes, sexbots in the form of Elvises and Marilyns, and a groundbreaking brain surgery allowing people to sexually enslave the patients of such operation by creating an imprint in their minds… That’s exactly where a promising dystopia turns into a truly boring, unimaginative pseudo-farce. With each added factor – human-organ trafficking, blackmail, espionage, and forced euthanasia, Las Vegas as the center of sexual corruption and whatnot – the novel plummets ever deeper. The characters, at first so psychologically probable that almost every adult who had experienced the economical crisis of 2008 could see himself in their fears, later on turn into two-dimensional sex toys, driven only by their sexual needs and fantasies.
And the worst thing of all is that I couldn’t see any point to this tale. Beware of the dark side of your sexuality because it may enslave you as sure as a collar and chain? Don’t go to prison if you don’t have to? Don’t dress as fake Elvis or you’re bound to have problems with your pelvis? Brain surgery is dangerous? Ummm…
I had hoped for an accurate, even harsh diagnosis of the problems of our times and the societies we live in. Instead I got a list of sexual perversities – and yes, there are child-sized sexbots, a teddy bear included in the package – that was as predictable as boring. It’s still written in a perfectly balanced, tight and efficient prose – and Atwood’s strengths as a writer shine through the mediocrity of the novel. But that’s not enough for me.
All in all, one thing is certain. The Heart Goes Last is not The Handmaid’s Tale, not by a long shot, although it certainly tries – at times aspiring to be a grim dystopia, at times going for lighter, almost satirical tones. And almost always failing miserably, becoming something redundant, empty of meaning and simply boring. I cannot in good faith recommend this book to anyone. It’s readable, it has some strong scenes and a handful of insightful sentences, and if you’re looking for thin, tinny plot with lots of sexual imagery that leads exactly nowhere, you might like it. Otherwise, not so much. Read The Handmaid’s Tale instead.