Review of The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
The Heart Goes Last
by Margaret Atwood
Shall we have a discussion about how, at this point, no one, not even Atwood herself, is pretending she is not writing science fiction, yet libraries and bookstores are still going to shelve these books in the “literary” or “general” sections because genres are bullshit marketing labels?
What, you just want me to skip all that noise and go to the review? Fine, fine. Don’t say I never listen to you, reader.
Also, you’re looking nice today. Hats suit you.
I don’t know how to summarize The Heart Goes Last in a way that sounds original, because it isn’t. It’s dystopian, obviously, from the description. The United States sinks ever deeper into economic recession, with some areas becoming ghost-towns of anarchy where people like Stan and Charmaine live in their cars and avoid gangs or individuals who would steal their vehicle and rape them. Fun times, eh? Atwood does a good job illustrating the extent of their hopeless existence before throwing them into the Positron Project, Consilience, where they spend alternating months living lives out of the 1950s (but with 1950s with robots, not the 1950s with mounting McCarthyism) and living in a prison while another couple lives in their house and benefits from the fruit of their labour. Billed as a new model for sustainable, viable communities, all but the most brain-dead readers will recognize the sinister capitalism-in-overdrive tones of the Positron Project as soon as flabby moustache-twirling Ed shows up on the page. Stan and Charmaine’s marriage is not in the best of states—over a year of living in a vehicle together does that to people, probably. They continue to drift apart within Consilience, and for reasons that are never fully justified, become drawn into a conspiracy or kind-of-coup against Ed by his former partner.
Majorly, my problem with The Heart Goes Last is the tone Atwood strikes in depicting the evils hidden behind the Positron Project’s brochure-glazed exterior. It’s just so obviously a bad proposition from the start; there is no attempt at subtlety, ever. From the creepy surveillance tactics to the restrictions on freedom of expression and consumption of media, the Project has “Big Brother” written all over it. Oh, and Charmaine blithely acts as benign executioner for the Project, injecting anyone who shows up in the little chamber with a lethal cocktail. I am not really sure to make of that, except possibly that Charmaine must have skipped the Civics lesson where you learn that private companies can’t go around killing people for minor infractions; there are these things called trials first. And of course, we later learn that the fates of these people are much Worse Than Death, because there are creepy things happening Behind the Scenes of the Project with sexbots and neuro-reprogramming and oh-my-god-we-didn’t-just-cross-the-line-we-obliterated-it. But then, when the “good guys” (?) win, suddenly all these things that were objectively bad become OK or justifiable, at least in certain circumstances.
“Moral clarity” is not really in evidence here. That alone is not a bad thing, per se. I don’t think this book would have won me over it if it just went around preaching that “killing is wrong” and “turning ordinary citizens into prisoners is wrong,” because, of course, that’s not all that interesting. I’m just confused, though, about what I’m supposed to take away from this.
Am I supposed to see this as a farce, a kind of mockery both of dystopian literature (oooh, how post-post-modernist!) and of the late stage capitalism that seems to be rocketing us towards such a future? The characters are certainly flat enough for this—but if this is the case, what’s with the attempts at pathos for Stan and Charmaine?
Am I supposed to see this as a serious indictment of the way governments are abdicating their responsibilities towards the welfare of their citizens to private corporations? On the surface, this is a very plausible reading: the Positron Project itself might seem a little incredible, but one could see elements of it easily becoming reality; and, in general, the way that corporations continue to wrest more rights and privileges from government—at the expense of our personhood and dignity—is troubling. None of what Atwood is suggesting, in terms of the economic climate of this book, seems far-fetched.
However, I have some issues with the whole “body harvesting” aspect of the Positron Project, because I’m not really sure why you’d go to the lengths one would go to here just to get some meat-suits for your mad scientist projects. It seems like it would be more cost-effective and a lot less risky, media-wise, just to kidnap people off the streets instead of shepherding them into fake cities first. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if some companies aren’t doing that already—the poor and marginalized parts of our society lack so many basic protections that someone like me takes for granted. The Heart Goes Last’s whole “what if we made prison good but it’s secretly still bad” strikes me as such a white, middle class horror fantasy. Stan and Charmaine are the most whitebread couple. While Atwood lampshades this in Stan’s observations of his helplessness compared to his criminal brother, that doesn’t really change the fact that the Positron Project is a bogeyman of the formerly middle class. And there have been so many more interesting, more realistic, more passionate books written about people who are struggling with these problems from a position of much less privilege.
There is also a certain level of dismissiveness and cynicism to so much of the narration. As the evils of the Positron Project are exposed to the wider world, Atwood almost casually remarks about “the bloggers” having field days, taking up their torches and pitchforks to scream about civil liberties, etc. This is very good shorthand for the frenzied nature of our distributed media landscape—but it also felt really lazy, as if Atwood was unwilling or uninterested in interrogating the substantive ways in which digital media has altered the tenor of our discussions. It’s true that might have been outside the scope of the book. Nevertheless, the offhanded way Atwood talks about these things further contributes to the shallow feeling of the book.
I’ve previously remarked that I tend to like Atwood’s ideas but that her style doesn’t always work for me. This seems to be the case once again, although arguably there are more fundamental problems with this book that could restrict its appeal. The Heart Goes Last has sparks of Atwood’s brilliance, but as a work of dystopian fiction, it strikes me as very tired, very tapped out. There is nothing here that feels transgressive or like it is adding something new to the intertextual conversation: even the things that are supposed to be shocking, like the purpose of the knit blue teddy-bears, just seem banal. Atwood has covered a lot of this ground before in much better ways. I’d be disappointed in this book coming from any author, I think; coming from Atwood, this is that much more bitter a pill.