The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

heartgoeslastThere’s an uber-recession in the near future that devastates the US, especially the northeast. Everyone loses their jobs, their houses. Crime abounds. Night-time comes to resemble something between A Clockwork Orange and The Walking Dead. Only the very rich manage to flourish, more or less buying everyone else. But there’s a light amidst the darkness. Some well-funded entrepreneur has created Consilience. A dual-role town where residents spend half their time in vanilla, safe, picketed 1950s houses and then every month swap to becoming inmates in Positron Prison. The reason this is a stunning economic boon and the cure to all ills is murky and the narrative never gives a sufficient surface explanation and instantly we know there is something sinister behind the scenes.

But naturally, early 30s married couple Charmaine and Stan, living in their car, barely keeping ahead of the mob, and in desperate need of regular showers sign right up to become residents/inmates, because anything beats transience and fear.

The first half of this book is a bland and unconvincing relationship drama with dull, pitiful characters. The second half is a sci fi caper replete with a squad of gay Elvises and real-life sexbots. The whole thing is kind of weird and I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

The thing you gotta know about The Heart Goes Last is that it is about sex. But, at least in my opinion, it’s not really the sex and lust and whatnot people experience in the real world but more like some tempestuous primordial force that sweeps inside like a malevolent shade and jerks you about, the puppet to its master.

Early in the novel, Stan finds a letter under his fridge. You see, the conceit of Consilience is that when one couple is spending time in the prison, their house isn’t empty — it’s occupied by the couple that is in prison when the first group is in the house. So anyway, Stan finds a lustful note from the Alternate woman to the Alternate man. ‘I starve for you.’ Punctuated by the imprint of a purple lipstick kiss.

This is all it takes for Stan. Soon he’s concocting elaborate fantasies about this woman, Jasmine. He creates a whole backstory for her and her love life with her husband, Max. It consumes him completely and he begins ignoring Charmaine. He plans on hiding in the house when it’s his turn to go to the prison and basically leaping out and forcing himself on a surely willing Jasmine.The obsession takes a leap to the nonsensical when he finds release at his prison job. What’s he do? Tend the chickens. Yeah. Stan violates chickens to sate his overwhelming, all consuming sexual madness. Triggered by a single note.

But, wait, hold a second. Turns out, Charmaine has been engaging in an affair with Max, the Alternate man. She wrote the note with the purple lipstick. There’s a flashback to how this affair began. She was about to leave her house for Positron Prison when Max saunters in. He says about 3 words and then he’s kissing her. 3 seconds later and her skirts being pushed up. And she loves it. She instantly checks out on Stan and is stealing time with Max (this guy she slept with after knowing for all of 30 seconds) any second she can get, regardless of any danger this poses.

It’s baffling. The characters of this novel are knowing slaves to their super powered hormones and have no expectation of maintaining control. They’re also just petty, unlikeable people. You can’t get behind them even when they’re put up against even scummier people and they’re not quite bad enough to be trainwreck interesting. Atwood is a great writer so I wasn’t exactly bored, but I was close.

That ‘close’ nearly morphed into ‘certain bordeom’ when stuff happened that had me almost ready to put down the book — and this review will get a little spoilery here because I’m going to discuss events in the middle. It’s revealed Charmaine has been acting as an executioner of Positron malcontents who couldn’t fit in the system and thus must be removed. She’s been doing this from day one. A series of events occurs where it turns out Stan is the one on the table ready for her needle. And I’m thinking Wow, if Charmaine knowingly murders her husband, then Atwood has lost me… how could I even read about this character I didn’t like in the first place? And then of course, Charmaine does it. Kills her husband. Or thinks she does. Instead of losing me, it actually proves my previous paragraph true. The characters suddenly do become trainwreck interesting.

It also helps that the plot kicks into overdrive and rockets ahead, a true antagonist is revealed, the sci-fi becomes relevant instead of window dressing and we spend less time pondering the characters’ mystifying love life. It belatedly attains page-turner status.

The sex never quites meshes though. By the end, the message seems to be that the ideal sexual partner for a straight man (Stan) is a woman fully under his control who has sex whenever he wants and the ideal sexual partner for a straight woman (Charmaine) is someone who removes all difficult choice from her life and tells her what to do so she never has to take initiative or responsibility beyond what bed sheets to buy. It’s perplexing.

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