Part satire, part cautionary tale, Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Heart Goes Last, is an exploration of our worst cultural tendencies as North Americans: a desire for safety and comfort over freedom, a willingness to ignore the violence inherent in capitalism, and a blindness to how our fetishes exploit the poor and less fortunate. Like in her MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood uses a dystopian setting to comic effect, while at the same time using the humor to send a powerful message. While not as epic in scope as the trilogy, Atwood’s new novel has the same unique settings, outlandish situations, and memorable characters that attract fans to her work.
The Heart Goes Last begins with our protagonists, a middle-aged married couple named Stan and Charmaine. In the recent past, they were gainfully employed middle-class home-owners. They had careers they enjoyed, but when the US economy failed, Stan lost his job as a robotics engineer, and Charmaine was fired from the nursing home were she acted as “entertainment and events” coordinator. When the novel opens, they are living in their car in an unnamed city in the eastern US, fighting off bands of rapists and the mentally ill. Charmaine bartends at the shady “Pixel Dust,” a bar filled with hookers and drug-dealers, where vandals have broken the fluorescent sign so it now, ironically, reads only… “Dust.” No matter how dangerous and seedy her new job, Charmaine must keep it. The couple needs the money to buy not only food, but gas for their car, so that each night they can flee when the gangs swarm.
When Charmaine sees a television ad for an experimental community, she jumps at the chance to improve their lives. She convinces Stan, and the couple joins the town of Consilience. There, everyone is provided with a home, an allowance, and a job, but in return they must spend every other month as inmates in Positron prison, while another couple, their mysterious “Alternates,” live in their house. Despite the fact that Consilience residents only have access to nostalgic, puritanical television shows and pop music from the 50s, Stan and Charmaine’s new life seems safe and secure. It soon becomes clear, however, that residents of Consilience / Positron are disappearing, and that the private company which runs the town is using its occupants, body and mind, in order to turn a profit. When Stan and Charmaine cross paths with their Alternates, something that is strictly forbidden, the lies that bolster Consilience unravel, and the couple learns what the town leaders are hiding: invasive surveillance, sexbots, mind control, and secret, involuntary medical procedures.
Perhaps what is most interesting about The Heart Goes Last is its tone, sometimes biting, sometimes ridiculous, and what that tone reveals about the characters. As we move back and forth between the perspectives of the two protagonists, we see that Stan and Charmaine respond to their environment in very different ways. Stan, always pessimistic, vacillates between resigning himself to his situation, and calculating how best to survive and win Charmaine’s love, respect, and lust. Charmaine, in contrast, is an optimist who comes off as the true prisoner of the project. She must repress her passion, her sense of injustice, and even her ethics. In order to survive Consilience / Positron, she continually acts against her own conscience and desires, and through her, we see just how damaging Atwood’s dystopia is.
Originally released as a series of ebooks through Amazon’s Kindle Singles, the full novel came out in hardcover on September 29th. This is a must-read for any Atwood fan, and because the plot is more straight-forward than her trilogy, and the themes clearer, The Heart Goes Last would be a good entry point for readers unfamiliar with her newer speculative work.