Review: Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Heart Goes Last’ Conjures a Kinky Dystopia

30 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Heart Goes Last’ offers a struggling young couple a Faustian bargain.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happens. Is it the moment Stan disguises himself as a sex robot, escapes from the prison-cum-organ-trafficking-center where he’s spent much of the novel and becomes an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas?

There’s been some sort of severe economic crash; public works are battered and run-down, and violent gangs roam the streets after dark, looking for easy looting. Or the one when Jocelyn, having engineered a devastating affair between her husband and Stan’s wife, undercuts chapters of wrenching emotion by exclaiming: “Never mind whose wife is whose. Gas still pumps at gas stations, power stations still generate electricity, roads still connect distant cities, cell phone towers still emit their signals, and the lights of Las Vegas still shine, but there are constant oblique references to a recent social collapse that’s left what used to be normal life a bit adrift in bleak savagery.

There is something frolicsome and gleeful about this, an author giving what my fellow reviewer Allan Massie wisely compares to Sir Thomas Beecham’s “lollipops” at the Proms. It is a novel that seems to be about austerity and turns out to be about adultery; a dystopia with a strangely sour-sweet happy ending; a bagatelle with anger. At work, Charmaine even winces at daytime sitcoms “that aren’t funny and anyway comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness.” A ray of hope offers itself: in the town of Consilience, the Positron Project runs a social engineering exercise where selected participants spend every other month in clean, ideal homes with well-paying jobs and fellow Positron participants as neighbors. It’s an extreme vision of the insecurity facing the 30ish set today—a world in which the manual for everyday life has been torched and its inhabitants are desperately seeking guidance.

The catch: on the alternate months, those participants become jump-suited prisoners in Positron’s prison – monitored, taking prison jobs, while strangers live in their house for the month. In rapid succession, they lost their jobs and their home; they’re left living in their car, moving from parking lot to parking lot in the night in an effort to stay clear of the hordes of roaming miscreants that fill the darkness.

For Stan and Charmaine – she’s an idiot, and he’s a venal, self-pitying idiot – the positives of the arrangement far outweigh the negatives, and they decide to try it, even though Stan’s bad-seed brother Conor tries to warn him off the idea. But then a narrative that has been taut, dread-inducing and psychologically tense careers off the road, skids into the woods, hits its head, loses its memory and emerges as a strange quasi-sex romp concerned almost exclusively with erotic power, kinky impulses and the perversity of desire. The couple make their way to Consilience (“the bus trip goes on for hours, in a steady drizzle,” we’re told, “through open countryside, past strip malls with plywood over most of the windows, derelict burger joints. The occupants of the prison will then replace you – they are “Alternates” – and your graciousness will make them less criminally inclined. “Do time now, buy time for the future” is the catchphrase. For Charmaine it’s ideal – she gets to chintz things up – and Stan is resigned to it, despite his wayward brother’s warnings against the whole scheme.

Atwood, who has produced so much extraordinary work over her long and distinguished career, shouldn’t be allowed to explore them, as she has in different ways before. A convoluted connection of events leads to Stan’s apparent death and subsequent assumption of a new identity, “Waldo,” working in Positron’s division making “a Dutch-designed line of exact-replica female sex aids … for home and export” while smarmy Consilience grief counselors try to help Charmaine get on with her life. The other six months are spent behind the bars of the Positron Prison while their homes are occupied by other people – known colloquially as Alternates. Just as you think this is a set of variations of the Stanford Experiment, Stan finds a note hidden beneath the fridge, which he presumes is from Charmaine’s “Alternate” – a note which entrances him erotically.

But “The Heart Goes Last,” her 15th novel, inevitably suffers in comparison with previous books, including the remarkable, recently concluded MaddAddam trilogy, with its sheer inventive beauty and stunning emotional resonance. At the same time, we learn, Charmaine is actually having an affair with Stan’s “Alternate”, and the note was left by her, using their pseudonyms. The dark premise is one of many in Atwood’s stable of speculative fiction, which has its roots in the 1985 feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale but launched in earnest with the 2003 release of Oryx and Crake, a grotesquely imaginative post-apocalyptic novel. But when Charmaine finds herself swept up in an illicit affair with her husband’s Alternate, she sets in motion a chain of events that puts her and Stan’s lives in danger.

Without spoiling the plot, we will encounter organ-harvesting and sexbots, Elvis impersonators and living headless chickens, Las Vegas dance routines and a woman in love with a blue teddy bear. The last part needs some explication: the villainous Ed who runs Consilience is working on a new technology which zaps bits of your brain to make you love, and energetically copulate with, the first person you see when the anaesthetic wears off. But the skill to mold a coherent novel out of periodical installments was a Victorian speciality that has faded almost out of existence today, and Atwood and her editors certainly aren’t doing much to revive it; almost every part of “The Heart Goes Last” feels opportunistically and sometimes sloppily contrived.

Atwood writes, “the whole card castle, the whole system, fell to pieces, trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheet like fog off a window.” No one really understands what caused it — “someone had lied, someone had cheated, someone had shorted the market, someone had inflated the currency” — but jobs disappear, markets dry up, and large sections of America slide into chaos and anarchy. Our paycheques have stagnated, and occupations that would have once supported a family have slowly evaporated, leaving people to buy their middle-of-the-road lifestyles on credit. Atwood writes wonderfully about the poverty of Charmaine and Stan’s existence before they sign up to Consilience, and it gives a grounding to the manner by which their goodness is nibbled away at when they suddenly have a degree of certainty in their lives.

They’ve lost a succession of jobs, and they see no viable future until they hear about an enticing new community where there is full employment and they can live at no expense, and which is taking new applicants. Like something that basks, anyway.” These and dozens of other banalities combine with the novel’s lazy pop culture references (you just know that Stan’s new name was chosen solely so we could be given a “Where’s Waldo” reference, and sure enough, we’re given one) and phoned-in raunchiness to produce one of the weakest Atwood novels in years. The hypothetical at the center of the book – in tough economic times, would you sacrifice your freedom for security? – is treated so shoddily and whimsically that it dissipates almost completely, leaving only morons and sexbots. But Atwood’s no fool – she uses her remarkable prose stylings and Technicolor imagination to bring us a story that, while certainly different, remains intricately interconnected. First, their new home, the dual community of Positron and Consilience, is essentially a penal colony ruled by a Big Brotherish leader named Ed whose residents take turns being prisoners — one month inside the prison, one month in the Levittown-like suburbia that surrounds it. (Jobs for everyone!

Atwood gives herself space to deal with some of the technological changes we are witnessing, while writing a novel about the unchanging nature of the human heart. If you’re not a prisoner, you’re helping to sustain the prison.) Also, it’s like the Roach Motel — you can check in, but you can’t check out. There’s almost a throwaway quality to, for example, her discussion about the ethics of creating artificial beings for sex – what would be wrong about creating an artificial child for paedophiles?

Not only does she offer an in-depth exploration of the potential ramifications of our current economic model, but she also offers up thoughts on love and free will. Other novelists might have spent an entire book exploring that dilemma, but Atwood is a consummate juggler, and this problem must vie with panopticon prisons, rehabilitation, genetic manipulation, neuroscience and a culture comprised of pastiche for her laser-like attention. Charmaine enjoys her job, dispensing medication to prisoners, even when she discovers the nasty truth about the medicine, and as the reader learns the disturbing reason for the book’s title.

There are points where the reader is left to make up her or his own mind: when Stan genuinely regrets not appreciating Charmaine’s “quasi-virgin like restraint”, are we to sympathise or condemn? Stan, too, likes his position — tending chickens — although he’d like it better if he weren’t forced to pimp them out to the resident poultry-sex fetishists. Atwood’s spins out her plot as busily as a spider, constructing an intricate web that ensnares Charmaine and Stan in a dizzying game of betrayal and counterbetrayal involving extramarital affairs, human-organ trafficking, blackmail, espionage, identity theft and sex-bot manufacturing.

It has the same mixture of realism and fantasy, a naïve and gullible young couple, sexy villains and parodies of the 1950s throughout – Consilience is cut off from the world, and pipes Doris Day into every home (Stan wonders if her career would be different if she were called Doris Night). Consilience offers them a solution to their problems: a throwback ’50s idyll that fetishizes a time when people identified as happy and everyone knew their place. As a musical, the whole glorious silliness of Elvis impersonators, men whose only sexual outlet is chickens and the espionage plot would be positive advantages, and it is almost structured already as a series of solos, duets and ensembles. Doris Day and Bing Crosby tunes play over loudspeakers, vintage Marilyn Monroe movies loop on the TVs, and the town’s official theme song is the barn-raising music from the 1954 musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which a family of virile woodsmen kidnap women and seduce them into becoming their wives.

Atwood’s great strengths as a novelist, along with her deep understanding of psychology and her ability to reflect our worst fears and anxieties back to us, is her way of leavening even the grimmest scenarios with dark, impish humor. Consilience’s technicolour motif feels eerily familiar: Hollywood is rebooting old movies faster than it makes new ones, menus read like inflated diner specials from the ’50s, and fashion is largely an ongoing ode to decades past.

In the sex-bot facility, Stan learns that customers can ask for an A+B model, meaning Angry and Belligerent (“not too much demand for that, you might think, but you’d be wrong”); that bearded “lumbersexual” male prostibots are a trend; and that accidents can occur when the robots malfunction. (“Bits can come off,” a co-worker warns. “I mean bits of you.”) Ms. Atwood loses me, though, when she shifts away from the urgent questions she’s raised about liberty and self-determination, totalitarian excess and how mankind will cope with the disasters that surely await.

You get the sense that Atwood is having a great time, gallivanting between genres as she tries to get her young marrieds out of their apocalyptic bind.

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