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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review of "The Heart Goes Last" by Margaret Atwood

   3 Stars

I purchased Atwood’s latest novel as soon as it was released, though I wasn’t able to read it for a few weeks.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find it as engrossing as I had hoped.

The novel is set in the near future when the world has suffered a catastrophic economic collapse leaving many people unemployed in a society verging on total chaos.  Stan and Charmaine are destitute and living in their car.  In desperation, they apply to be participants in a socioeconomic experiment promising full employment and a house.  One month they are inmates in a prison and the next month they work as civilians outside its walls to sustain it before repeating the cycle.  At first, Stan and Charmaine don’t dwell on the downsides of their lives in the oppressive, tightly-monitored community ruled by a Big Brother figure named Ed – a community which they cannot leave.  Eventually, however, their lives become less placid as they become involved in or aware of various activities:  extra-marital affairs, human-organ trafficking, bestiality, blackmail, identity theft, customizable sex-bot manufacturing, medically-induced neurological imprinting for sexual enslavement, Elvis  and Marilyn Munroe impersonations, Teddy Bear carnality.

The novel addresses several issues:  sexism, greed, economic and sexual exploitation, and the (im)morality of technological progress – themes explored in other of Atwood’s novels.  She also asks how much freedom to make choices people would be willing to sacrifice in return for stability and security and whether sexual desire can triumph over the desire for stability.  Stan and Charmaine stay together during very difficult times, but when their lives become stable, their relationship suffers.  At the very end, a character asks, “’Isn’t it better to do something because you’ve decided to?  Rather than because you have to’” (306)?  Another replies, “’No, it isn’t . . . Love isn’t like that.  With love, you can’t stop yourself’” (306).

As Stan and Charmaine’s lives spin out of control because they let their erotic impulses control them, I felt the novel spins out of control as well.  The betrayals and counter-betrayals and focus on lust turn the book into an absurdist sex romp.  The plot becomes just too bizarre and over-the-top, and there is a comic tone which distances the reader from the characters. 

It is not just the tone, however, that separates the reader and characters.  I found both Stan and Charmaine to be unlikeable.  Charmaine, for example, is so naïve.  She immediately falls for the sales pitch given by Ed and persuades Stan that they must apply to join the Positron Project.  And she barely thinks about the consequences of her duties as Chief Medications Administrator!  It is difficult to have sympathy for people who are so impulse-driven and whose relationship lacks honesty.  They each vacillate so frequently between loving and loathing their partner so the reader finds them just whiny and annoying.

Even the novel’s style is problematic.  A review in the British newspaper Independent noted the food similes:  “And for a writer justly celebrated for her precision, there is some loose stuff here.  In the space of a couple of paragraphs, Charmaine is “like a stepped-on blueberry muffin… like toffee in the sun… like a super-strong mint… like cinnamon” (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/the-heart-goes-last-by-margaret-atwood-book-review-a6667016.html).  I noticed the many references to teachers; one character has “a severe stare, like a gym teacher’s” (211), another character speaks “in the stern, slightly accusing voice of a high school teacher” (268), and a third refers to a sex-bot being made to resemble a “high school English teacher” (185). 

At one point in the novel, I was reminded strongly of A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Bell which I read recently – another example of speculative fiction set in the near future.  In Atwood’s book, a character says, “’Killing is harsh. . . It was positioned as the alleviation of excessive pain.  And happily there are now more ways than one of doing that!  Alleviating the excessive pain. . . . The thing is, people get lonely; they want someone to love them.  That can be arranged for anyone now . . . Why should anyone have to endure that kind of emotional damage’” (255)?  This is certainly similar to the injection given to people in A Cure for Suicide to help them with life’s difficulties.

The title refers to biological death but also to the human heart’s ability to love.  Unfortunately, I was not able to fall in love with this book.  It starts strongly with an interesting premise but then loses its focus.  Black humour does not appeal to me, and neither did the unlikeable characters and absurd plot.