Margaret Atwood puts the human heart to the ultimate test in an utterly brilliant new novel that is as visionary as The Handmaid’s Tale and as richly imagined as The Blind Assassin.
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.
About the Author
MARGARET ATWOOD, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize; The Year of the Flood; and her most recent, MaddAddam.She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award, and lives in Toronto with the writer Graeme Gibson.
Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is a strange beast, but not one that I can recommend.
Conceptually, the book is terrific – Atwood presents us with an economically wreaked near-future America and the married couple of Charmaine and Stan. They live in their car, after deserting the home they could no longer afford, while she works at a bar making enough money to keep their vehicle in gas. When the opportunity arrives to apply to the Positron Project, she leaps at it, and soon enough she and Stan are enrolled. Those admitted into the program alternate months between the town of Consilience and the Poistron project, living as inmates. While they’re in prison, an alternate couple lives in their home, the two flip-flopping in and out of the residence in accordance with the project’s guidelines.
There’s an edgy darkness to the story that I liked, particularly as the couple grow more deeply aware of the corporate surveillance state they find themselves living in. After Charmaine is caught having an affair with another Consilience citizen, both she and her husband are wrapped up in a spider’s web of secrets that soon boils over into conspiracy and manipulation.
However, I never really bought into the very abrupt affair between Charmaine and her alternate Max, which begins with nary a prompt. After Stan discovers a note left for Max, sticking out from under the refrigerator, signed by “Jasmine” and sealed with a kiss, he begins to unravel, intent on winning Jasmine’s love, thinking that Jasmine is Max’s wife. He goes into full-blown psycho-stalker mode, which leads me to my next problem.
Neither of the leads are the least bit sympathetic, and they are only marginally interesting in their contradictions. It’s not long before you realize just how broken and artificial their marriage is. Much like the Poistron Project itself, both have a certain superficial veneer, but each is rotten to the core. Stan is a sex obsessed creep with anger management issues and a number of rapey impulses who wants to bang anything with a pulse, including the chickens he oversees during his time in prison, and the sexbots introduced in the book’s last third, programmed to give the appearance of a pulse.
Most of the novel’s first-half feels a bit soggy from the rinse-and-repeat narrative in which Stan lusts for sex with Charmaine, Charmaine has sex with Max, Stan lusts for sex with Jasmine and plots ways to track her down before they alternate their lives between the city and prison. This first half, though, feels long and plodding and I spent most of the book wishing I could move onto some other title rather than continuing to engage in a progressively growing number of pointlessly mundane exercises that make up these chapters. It’s not until the last half of the book, or perhaps even later, when things finally pick up and take on the bent of a paranoid conspiracy thriller. Unfortunately, this devolves into sheer absurdity with a finale involving a handful of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe impersonators.
Ultimately, I feel largely ambivalent about The Heart Goes Last, falling somewhere between “didn’t like it” and “meh.” I’d recommend skipping this one.
[This review is based on an advanced copy received from the publisher via NetGalley.]