Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Fans of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and other jailhouse dramas know that no one really wants to be imprisoned. Margaret Atwood challenges that assumption in The Heart Goes Last (Nan A Talese, September 29), a dystopian tale in which the protagonists can’t wait to play dress up in their orange prison boiler suits.

Margaret Atwood _Heart Goes Last_Color cropped
Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s first standalone novel since the publication of 2000’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin continues her set-in-the-not-so-distant-future Positron e-book only series, the last of which was published in 2013.

At its core, The Heart Goes Last asks a provocative question: Would you trade your freedom for job security, a nice home and three solid meals a day? It’s an easy choice for Charmaine and Stan who when the novel opens are living in “the moist, stinky darkness” of their car, surviving on stale donuts and whatever else they can ferret from already picked over dumpsters.

When Charmaine sees a television ad for The Positron Project she thinks its promise of a home and jobs is the solution to their financial problems. They’re two of thousands of people whose lives have been disrupted by the grim economic realities of modern life. All they need to do is sign up and move to the town of Consilience where they will spend every other month living in a comfortable home and spend the other months in a sex-segregated prison.

Residents of Consilience share their homes with a pair of “alternates” who will also split their months between home and prison. The plan seems simple yet brilliant and the experimental Positron Project’s premise makes sense: “If every citizen is either a guard or a prisoner, the result would be full employment: half would be prisoners, the other half would be engaged in tending the prisoners in some way or other. Or tending those who tended them.”

Giving up all contact with the outside world including pop culture, friends, family and the internet seems a fair trade off—until it doesn’t. Charmaine accidentally meets and falls in love with Max, one of the alternates with whom she and Stan share their home. She and Max are forced to limit their assignations to the one day a month when they make the switch between home and prison. Stan, though he’s never met Max’s wife Jasmine, convinces himself that sex with her would be so much better than it is with Charmaine. He makes it his mission to meet her. All this sexual intrigue is darkly comedic and Atwood uses it to set the stage for an underground plot that could expose the truth about what’s really going on in Consilience and the prison.

Heart Goes Last_AtwoodAtwood is the doyenne of dystopian fiction and can’t resist employing her trademark cynicism in tales that examine the seamy underbelly of post-apocalyptic worlds. The novel’s supposition – like the one in her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale – that any society that limits personal liberties will spawn rebels is hardly unique. But Atwood’s gift for mixing rebellion with campy satire refreshes what could be a timeworn trope.
The idea that greed will eventually corrupt any profit-driven endeavor also plays a key role in the fast-paced The Heart Goes Last. When the state prison in Orange is the New Black is privatized the lust for boosting the bottom line transforms the prison into a sweatshop where prisoners manufacture lingerie. In the Positron Project, the road to profits is paved with more unsavory activities including organ harvesting, the manufacture of sex robots and chemical procedures that turn men and women into sex slaves.

But not all the action takes place inside Consilience and its prison. A cavalcade of craziness runs through the second half of this novel and it’s peopled with a plethora of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe impersonators, both human and robotic, and groups mimicking Blue Man Group that come in every color of the rainbow.

Much of this kaleidoscopic mash up of jumpsuit-wearing lounge lizards and pouty-lipped blonde bombshells takes place in Las Vegas, a city that Atwood seems to paint as its own special kind of horror show. Through complicated plot machinations, Atwood stitches together the goings on in Consilience and Las Vegas. It’s no surprise then that Stan, in his attempt to bring the truth about Consilience to the outside world, must hide his true self by working as an Elvis impersonator.

But let’s not forget that the title of Atwood’s novel is concerned with the human heart. So if some of the wackier plot threads seem disconnected from the novel’s message about individualism and freedom, readers need look no further than the love between Charmaine and Stan. Charmaine gets the shock of her life at novel’s end. It’s all the proof she needs that whenever our liberties are threatened or stolen, what we feel in our hearts can’t be crushed.

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