The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of an economic and social collapse. Job loss has forced them to live in their car, leaving them vulnerable to roving gangs. They desperately need to turn their situation around—and fast. The Positron Project in the town of Consilience seems to be the answer to their prayers. No one is unemployed and everyone gets a comfortable, clean house to live in . . . for six months out of the year. On alternating months, residents of Consilience must leave their homes and function as inmates in the Positron prison system. Once their month of service in the prison is completed, they can return to their “civilian” homes.
At first, this doesn’t seem like too much of a sacrifice to make in order to have a roof over one’s head and food to eat. But when Charmaine becomes romantically involved with the man who lives in their house during the months when she and Stan are in the prison, a series of troubling events unfolds, putting Stan’s life in danger. With each passing day, Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.
The Heart Goes Last began as an ebook serial with 2012’s “I’m Starved For You” and continuing in installments through 2013. These original releases are no longer available now that the novelization has come out. The story has been rewritten and expanded including introductory chapters.
That seems to have been scrubbed from the marketing and I think it’s a shame. Knowing that story of Stan and Charmaine and Positron was originally episodic contextualizes some of the eccentricities of the narrative. While one expects Atwood to be devilishly clever and darkly humorous, we tend to expect strong threads throughout her novels.
The Heart Goes Last lacks the latter. It’s a fast, fun read, but it rather distinctly fades to black and returns again in medias res like a stage drama or a television show. It’s neither abrupt nor disjointed, but it is episodic. So, I guess, know that going in. Don’t expect slow elaborate reveals and great mysteries. Expect pulp excess and jump cuts.
But is it good? Yes. Atwood has been imagining the end of the world for decades and she’s incredibly good at it. The financial collapse is as old as Marx and Engels. That it became tangible in the early years of yet another century has made it a staple of contemporary science, sorry, speculative fiction. Here an enterprising organization subverts another New Deal by dialing the for profit prison up to eleven.
Citizens in dire straights are enticed by advertising to essentially volunteer for permanent incarceration. The month in prison, month in postwar nostalgia town conceit makes a point about the formal freedom and practical compulsion of labor under capitalism. It’s a ridiculous plot device that is nonetheless somewhat easier to swallow than existing in a militarized police state or being rounded up en masse into work camps. The American Dream bought with madatory labor at the company store.
This would read as heavy handed if Stan and Charmaine weren’t despicable people. They don’t have it coming, of course. No one deserves this. But they are difficult to route for. Luckily for them, they’re out point of view characters, so we can’t help it. Their disobedience and rebellion exemplifies and reflects the corruption of the system and becomes part of it. Their collapse perfectly presages the inevitable breakdown of a sinister conspiracy and their attempts to escape mirror a concurrent cover up.
The Heart Goes Last could read as a precursor to the MaddAddam Trilogy or an update of The Handmaid’s Tale. Both previous stories are more intricate and better realized, but this one is more nihilistic. Some of the truths of Atwood’s fiction come out more starkly. The system tends toward misogyny, objectification, and compulsion. The body is commodified and free will is subverted via force.
Atwood takes privatization to its logical conclusions, explodes the wealth gap, and perhaps even implicates the consumer of fiction. And yet it reads like a science fiction paperback, full of action and amusement. If you’ve found some of her other work impenetrable or are just looking for a place to start, The Heart Goes Last might be for you.
Recommended for fans of Michel Foucault, The Truman Show, and Charles Dickens.