Bartender Charmaine and unemployed Stan are a married couple living in their car following America’s economic collapse in Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited stand alone novel, The Heart Goes Last. They eke out a fitful existence marked by dumpster dives and fending off vagrants and would-be rapists. Their intermarital dealings are shot through with tension and irritability. But who wouldn’t be stressed and irritable when everywhere they look, the country is crumbling into ruin and falling victim to crime, disorder and desperation?
Charmaine spots a solution in a commercial for the close-gated community called Positron / Concilience. It’s a chance at a new life — complete with square meals, shelter, middle-class comfort and flushing toilets. The only catch is that Charmaine and Stan have to alternate suburban life for prison life every other month. That means sharing house with “alternates” – an unseen couple who occupies the home in their stead.
When the couple’s vanilla existence grows wearisome, they each become erotically enamored with their “alternate,” and the story soon spirals into dystopian territory. Prison inmates disappear under sinister circumstances and the less-than-idyllic, disturbing details of their new life becomes apparent to both Charmaine and Stan as they take turns narrating their story.
I’m a pretty big Atwood fan. One of my most hallowed book experiences was reading the celebrated Canadian author’s novel Cat’s Eye as a young woman. I followed her lead into the dystopian genre by binge-reading the MaddAddam trilogy, a series that I pined for from the moment I finished it and sent it sadly down the conveyor belt of the book return drop. I was rabid for her new release. So, why did I have such a hard time slogging through it?
The Heart Goes Last was, admittedly, entertaining. It’s zany. It’s unpredictable. It’s … kinda gross. Characters do things I wish they wouldn’t. They have bizarre and painstakingly-described sex. They eat questionable food. They dress up like Elvis and “Green Man Group” characters, pop pills, fall in love with waxy-eyed teddy bears and the list goes on.
I know, in retrospect, that Atwood was trying to be funny and satirical with her way-out plot, but, for me, it didn’t quite hit the funny bone so much as the gag reflex. I heard that this book started out as a serial, and I wonder if, in the process of shaping it into a novel, Atwood lost some of that original umph. To be fair, the story is complex in at least one way, which redeems the novel slightly. Atwood sets the story in a plausible scenario. What if — the reader often wonders — the economic devastation we see in the novel isn’t that far off from reality (pssst, anyone remember 2008)?
And Atwood’s commentary on the unquenchable greed of corporations, while obviously hyperbolic, does sort of smack of the truth. The corporate greedies of the novel aren’t above selling baby blood for a profit. That’s a bit over the top, right? But the corporations of reality make the news daily for environmental and human rights violations. Atwood’s version of that reality is just a touch more hysterical. Atwood warns, Yes, indeed, this could be us if we’re not careful. The raunchy humor doesn’t serve the purpose of that message in the least.
The characters aren’t terribly likeable (consider the human resources employee with a botched face job who resorts to brain mutilation to win over the object of her affection). Perhaps I would’ve found the book more palatable if the following two things had been revealed to me beforehand: 1) Don’t expect an Atwood masterpiece like MaddAddam and 2) The Heart Goes Last is silliness. Leave your intellect at the door and you might just enjoy yourself.