fiction by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is well known for her dystopian worlds and in this one the novelist peers owl-eyed at coupledom. There is much to recommend about The Heart Goes Last but it’s not one of her best works—and saying so makes me feel like some wrathful CanLit god might come hurling down from the sky and smite me upon my foolish head.
The narrative structure and plot are constrained within a hetero-binary and the story plods along between its lead characters, Stan and Charmaine; the result is a slow-footed one-two-him-her rhythm, back and forth, back and forth, until it feels less like a masterful hypnosis and more like the result of an insufficient editorial process.
Plot complications come in late and though they somewhat expand, complicate and provide levels of narrative, the complications are kept in service to the couple and their complicated, unrequited, imperiled love. Frankly, I just didn’t care about them. So there, I’ve said it, and my foolish head is still attached to my shoulders.
But let me say that I’ve been reading Atwood since forever — one day I’ll have to write a piece about how deeply I’m steeped in her oeuvre. For instance, I’ve read Blind Assassin at least ten times and believe that it’s a masterpiece. But back to this review.
Throughout The Heart Goes Last it’s a delight to read the voice that is so often a wry dance between present and future, health and insanity, because if she’s anything, Atwood is a visionary who keeps wagging a finger lest we stop paying attention.
“They’d had a small wedding—just friends, since there wasn’t much family left on either side, their parents being dead in one way or another.”
“Then everything went to ratshit […] There were hordes of two-bit experts on TV pretending to explain why it happened—demographics, loss of confidence, gigantic Ponzi schemes—but that was all guesswork bullshit.”
I can’t do this review without asking, what’s with Atwood and chickens? Readers familiar with her work will surmise that she follows the latest developments in agribusiness and Frankenfoods: shocking chickens are a recurring theme. In this novel the chickens are raised headless (for the suffering-free meat) and, before being harvested, men use them for sex.
As the narrative plods back and forth between Stan and Charmaine, it also plods between two locations in a place called Positron—prison and non-prison, which is a fraught, manufactured pseudo-freedom. “Real freedom” is outside and has become a danger zone of anarchy and criminals, from which Stan and Charmaine have fled to the “safety and comfort” of Positron.
But Positron has evolved along with capitalism and hostile science. There are Possibilibots and Prostibots. Capitalism has twisted darkly and because body parts have become so prized, people are being “repurposed”:
“…it was clear that after Management had gone through their stash of criminals and also realized what the going price was for livers and kidneys, they’d started in on the shoplifters and pot-smokers, and then they’d been snatching people off the street because money talks, and once it started talking at Positron it wouldn’t shut up.”
Anything sounding familiar?