As one might expect, given her recent MaddAddam trilogy – and, of course, The Handmaid’s Tale – the near-future as imagined by Margaret Atwood in The Heart Goes Last is bleak indeed. Following a “big financial-crash business-wrecking meltdown,” huge swaths of the U.S. have been reduced to crumbling, lawless wastelands populated by roving gangs and those they prey upon. Stan and Charmaine fall into the latter group. Having lost their jobs (the unemployment rate is approaching 50 per cent), they are forced to live in their car, constantly on guard, scavenging food and just barely forestalling disaster.
When they are offered a chance to participate in an experiment called the Positron Project, they sign up almost without second thought, despite the nature of the experiment and the restrictions it places upon them. They must split their time between two separate, controlled environments – one month in Consilience, an artificial, carefully monitored small city, and one month in Positron, the adjoining prison. One month spent as productive members of society, one month as prisoners. It’s shift work writ large: they’ll share their house and cells with their “alternates,” who will sleep in their bed while they’re imprisoned, and vice versa. It’s “an ultra, ultra important experiment,” with the potential to pull the U.S. out of its economic wreckage and do away with two pressing social problems – unemployment and crime – at one stroke. Oh, and one more thing: once the pair sign the contract, they can never back out or have any contact with the outside world.
It’s a patently ridiculous concept, and that’s the point. Or at least part of it.
The Heart Goes Last – which builds on the Positron series of e-shorts Atwood published on the now-defunct Byliner.com – walks a number of delicate lines, wavering occasionally, but always finding its balance.
As one might surmise from the description of the Positron experiment, the novel is a satire of dystopian imaginings, while at the same time serving as a cogent examination of our carefully moderated contemporary culture and questioning what privacies we are willing to surrender and what indignities we are willing to suffer to retain a place in that culture.
The novel isn’t just a conceptual piece, however. The Heart Goes Last comes to life when Stan and Charmaine start to bristle not just at the system they have signed on to, but the other social commitments they have made. When Stan finds an erotically charged note in his house, he becomes obsessed with Jasmine, whom he believes is the woman who occupies the house when he and Charmaine are in prison. He begins to stalk her (as best he can), planning to approach – if not outright attack – the woman during the few hours they are both in Consilience.
Meanwhile, Charmaine has begun spending those crossover hours in a torrid, seemingly out-of-character affair with Max, the man who occupies the house while she and Stan are imprisoned.
To say the story becomes much more complicated is a grave understatement. The erotic impulses driving the unknowingly estranged couple serve as the catalyst for events that shake up the entire social experiment they are involved in.
Or do they?
The further one reads, the less clear the novel becomes on a philosophical level. The narrative is riveting (if occasionally so ridiculous as to remind the reader that perhaps we’re not meant to take it entirely seriously), and the characters deepen as time goes on, moving from broad types to sympathetic (if not entirely likable) individuals. But throughout, there is a sense of larger purpose, a deeper motivation at work. Part of this is a function of the conspiracy in which Charmaine and Stan find themselves “linchpin” figures, but the overarching narrative control – layers within layers, manipulations within manipulations – comes to feel like the work of the writer herself. By the time the novel concludes, one is left with an image of Atwood holding all the puppet strings, orchestrating every event. And grinning widely.
As she should. Despite its seemingly ramshackle construction, the book’s over-the-top plotting and larger-than-life gestures (which include, but are far from limited to, bestiality with chickens, lethal injection, sexbots, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe impersonators, and a bastard, green-hued offshoot of the Blue Man Group), The Heart Goes Last is tightly modulated and carefully executed. In a novel that focuses on thematic elements of control and personal indignity, the largest developments, and the ultimate resolution, are rooted deeply in the human heart – emotions and impulses that cut through the systems we ourselves build, obliterating the manipulations and deceptions we ourselves create.
Or, is that just one final layer of fictional manipulation?
With Atwood, it’s impossible to be sure.