The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is a rambling wastelands-and-corporations dystopian novel that catatonically strips into a fragmented, forced story about sexuality and 21st-century kink. When we first meet our protagonists, the young married couple Charmaine and Stan are feeling the wrath of a collapsed economy after “the whole system fell to pieces” with “trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheets.” They live in their car, scrounging for food and money while trying to defend themselves from the rapists and thieves that wander the streets. Stan and Charmaine learn of a facility called Positron that invites them to live in their gated compound, Consilience: all guests are offered food, lodging, and 1950s comforts in exchange for working and living, in monthly shifts, at the community’s prison. Each inhabitant of Consilience has an “alternate” that they should technically never meet, and their harmonious alternating would result in a community that can cater to twice as many residents with twice as much productivity per household.
Although this is a very thin premise, Atwood’s harrowing and heartfelt rendering of life before Consilience makes this prison-swapping conceit somewhat more palatable. She’s an imaginative writer and her initial confidence will sway readers to stick around to see what she has in mind instead of discounting her premise as stupid. Troublingly, Atwood quickly shifts her direction: instead of investigating how the gated community may be more prison-like than the actual prison, she brazenly turns The Heart Goes Last into a novel about sexual independence and self-discovery as Charmaine spirals into an illicit affair with her husband’s alternate.
Charmaine and Stan are tired stereotypes of their genders and lack any semblance of human spirit. Charmaine is a blushing, virginal doll who painstakingly speaks in G-rated hecks and goshes, but will melt “like toffee” if a man talks dirty to her, the more aggressive the better. Stan is a mouth-breathing mongoloid who, although dutiful and committed to his relationship with Charmaine feels undersexed and underappreciated. She has as much depth as a sultry Skinemax schoolteacher, and he’s the sort of goon to be, like, totally into that stuff.
Watching their relationship fall apart is exhausting and with such cliché character tropes The Heart Goes Last reads like a softcore template, kinked around with wife-swapping and the occasional voyeurism via Big Brother-style CC TV. Their tension shifts over-dramatically towards violence, with Stan daydreaming casually about trying the “hedge-trimmer move” and Charmaine wondering, as she works in the prison administering lethal injections, if she could ever do the same to Stan. “If she pocketed one of the needles instead of depositing it for recycling – would anyone notice?” she wonders, and “has [a] wild thought of stashing [him] in her pink locker…although she might have to cut part of him off to make him fit…”
It gets worse. In the words of Jocelyn, Charmaine’s alternate, “Never mind which wife is whose…we can’t waste time on the sexual spaghetti. I need you to listen very carefully…many lives will depend on it.” This home-wrecking affair, of course, is all orchestrated (somehow) as a plot to take down Positron. Atwood reveals that, in addition to organ harvesting, the production of sex robots is one of the company’s many evils, and devotes the second half of the book to a plot to expose these corporate secrets.
In a remarkably strange continuity glitch, much of the action shifts to the financially sound Las Vegas where performers play to audiences full of people, and bloggers are at the ready to run with whatever data-leak our heroes might be able to deliver. For a book that began in a world so collapsed that the desperate would steal a cellphone just to run its battery down checking job listings online (only to find that there were no jobs), why are there suddenly sold-out shows of “The Green Man Group,” robo-costumed escort services, and hotels? Why couldn’t Charmaine and Stan just go to Las Vegas in the beginning of the novel and spare us the mess?
If the heart goes last, it seems common sense, empathy, and logic are first to go. This a novel that unfolds by convenience, assuming that its lascivious subject matter might forgive its many narrative flaws by flushing a few cheeks. The story reads like a bad TV show that’s limped along for four seasons too many: it is a series of abandoned story arcs and exceptionally disappointing as a whole. There is a moment where the clouds of frustration seem to clear, and perhaps Atwood’s written a remarkably layered satire of our society’s lust for E.L. James and Hunger Games-style porn and wreckage, but Atwood seems too gleefully indulgent in the genres for this suspicion to ring true. In the book’s back matter, Atwood reveals that the story was originally serialized online, but instead of prompting readers to marvel at her versatility, this lands as an excuse for why The Heart Goes Last is such meandering failure.