Review | The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood

atwoodIn a dystopian world, humans are offered a chance at escape: join a social experiment and live in a self-contained community where you alternate months between a suburban lifestyle and a prison. The goal for the experiment is a solution to overcrowding in prisons, as one character terms it, timeshare taken to the extreme.

For couple Stan and Charmaine, it beats the hell out of their current existence sleeping in their car and fighting off hoodlums every night. Stan is somewhat suspicious, but the lure of clean towels and a fresh bed proves too much temptation, and they both apply.

The Heart Goes Last is an Atwood novel, and as anyone familiar with the Oryx and Crake trilogy or The Handmaid’s Tale can attest, ay time a society is presented as utopian, you can pretty much guarantee that it’s not. In this case, the corporation that runs the experiment has its eye on profits — familiar Atwood tropes like headless chickens bred for meat make an appearance, and the question of what happens to residents after they pass away raises a chill, given the community’s devotion to waste reduction.

The title refers to the process of dying, the last vestige of humanity right before the moment of death. And as the story progresses, the title takes on much more resonance, and the struggle to hold on to one’s humanity becomes ever more problematized.

The novel begins as with a fairly slick sci-fi tone — we have the seemingly perfect world, the heightened technology and a philosophy taken to the extreme. Throughout, we get hints that the world isn’t quite so perfect — e.g. the chilling reality of Charmaine’s job, prisoners having sex with chickens — but the core conflict is fairly typical sci-fi. It begins with Charmaine having a secret affair with the man who lives in their house while she and Stan are in prison, and launches off into Stan being utterly enmeshed in the reality behind the system’s shiny veneer.

My main concern with this novel is that Atwood appears to squish so many of her ideas in, yet their impact rarely goes beyond a brief appearance. One example is the aforementioned headless chickens which were literally a passing reference. Another is the development of sex droids, which played a key role in the plot, but barely dealt with the problematic nature of their development.

Rather, the sex droids seemed a mere stepping stone toward what I found a truly chilling development (I’ll avoid spoilers here) — and again, this further development did play a part in the plot, but Atwood barely grazes the surface of how problematic this is. There is a great snippet of a conversation where one character challenges the idea that “nobody is exploited,” and another corrects him, “I said nobody feels exploited. Different thing.” There’s so much to unpack within that statement, vis a vis some of the things happening within this world, but then it’s barely touched upon till the very end. Unlike, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale, where there are a couple of key driving forces behind the plot, the story in The Heart Goes Last seems to want to go off into multiple directions, without quite settling on one.

The most powerful section of the book for me comes at the very end. Without giving too much away, it involves a procedure and the happiness of a couple of characters. The final pages in particular call into question what happiness entails, and what love really means. It brings up contemporary notions of romantic love, and contrasts it with the sedateness of a long-term relationship, and calls into question under what circumstances we can find happiness within both. These themes were discussed in various ways throughout the novel, but I felt a lot of it got lost underneath the discussions around the prison system and sex droids. There were certainly moments of potency (a revelation about the knitted blue teddy bears is particularly discomfiting), but not quite enough cohesion among them all.

Still, the book made me think, and the ending in particular was problematic in a good way and made me long for more. It’s not my favourite Atwood, but it’s a highly readable tale with Atwood’s trademark wit and quite a few tidbits for thought.

+

Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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