The Heart Goes Last
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
I feel like I should make a new tag called “Books I’m Glad I Didn’t Spend Money On.” The first two spots on that list go to The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and Daughters of the Wild. The third goes to The Heart Goes Last. And, yes, that really does make me so very sad. If you’ve been here a while, you probably know that Margaret Atwood has been my favorite author since I was sixteen, which means that at this point in my life I’ve read all of her novels and a lot of her short stories. It also means I have an unshakable grasp of her general style, themes, and favorite character archetypes, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that she really likes writing about assholes.
The Heart Goes Last is a dystopian sci-fi set in an extremely gloomy America, where employment has plummeted to the point where living out of your car is considered prudent and normal. There are, of course, roving gangs, and these comb the desolate landscape in search of people to rape and cars to pillage. In the middle of these unpromising settings are Stan and Charmaine, a young couple who recently ran out of mortgage money and escaped in their car before it could be repossessed. Stan has had no luck finding a new job, and they’ve been sleeping in their car, occasionally visiting the mall laundromat and living on fast food, which they buy with the money Charmaine makes as a waitress at a bar that mostly caters to drug dealers. (The drug dealers are doing just fine, in case anybody was wondering.) This is a perilous way to live, but rescue arrives in the form of the Positron Project, a social experiment held in a walled town named Consilience. Under the terms of the Project, Stan and Charmaine are given jobs and a house, with the caveat that every other month they have to move out of their house and become inmates in the Positron prison. While they’re in prison, another couple leaves the prison and moves into the house, and at the end of the month they switch places again. They and their assigned housemates all have their own color-coded storage lockers, where they can leave personal belongings when they’re out of the house, and color-coded scooters that they use to run around town during their house months. The arrangement is rather odd, but the prison is perfectly civilized, and, aside from the inevitable monotony, it isn’t a bad place to live.
It should be an idyllic existence, but Stan torpedoes his own chance at inner peace when he becomes obsessed with Jasmine, the woman in the alternating couple. His steamy fantasies lead him to stick a tracker in her scooter, which backfires spectacularly when he learns that Jasmine is actually Charmaine. Charmaine was seduced some time ago by Max (the man in the alternating couple) in a scene that would most accurately be described as sexual assault, and has since become quite well acquainted with her Inner Goddess. The Inner Goddess is a bit of a bimbo, but she’s nothing compared to Max’s real wife, Jocelyn, who is quite a bit different from what Stan was imagining. She is also one of the top brass in Consilience and she knows all about the scooter bug, which she uses to blackmail Stan into participating in her plot to shut down the Positron Project. The Project was originally intended to create a better society, but it’s gone way off the rails and is currently known – off the record, of course – for its ability to reprogram people. The process involves wiping all memories and forcing the person to imprint on the first thing they see, which can be used in all sorts of nasty ways by nasty people with way too much money. The imprinting thing was not Jocelyn’s idea, and, though she was in on the Project from its inception, she is now doing everything she can to destroy this monster she helped create.
In theory Jocelyn’s intentions sound noble, but in practice her plan involves forcing Stan to fulfill some very strange sexual fantasies, then smuggling him out of Consilience in an Elvis robot box and making him join a group of Elvis impersonators in Vegas. Meanwhile, Charmaine is pressured into cozying up to the Project’s founder, Ed, who wants to reprogram her as his mistress. Following a ridiculous, torturously predictable escapade, Stan and Charmaine manage to carry out their missions and are then (also predictably) rescued from the Project’s clutches by Conor, Stan’s semi-estranged criminal brother, who was hired by Jocelyn to bust them out. In the aftermath of the Project’s downfall, Jocelyn disposes of Max and Ed, who are quietly reprogrammed and forced to imprint on a pair of lonely women. As a reward for his loyal – if extremely unwilling – service, Stan is told that Charmaine’s memories have been wiped, and that she will imprint on him the minute she sees him. The procedure seems to work, and he and Charmaine settle into a neat little house and quickly have a baby. They seem like they’re all set up for a happily ever after, but at the very end Jocelyn drops by (very, very predictably) and tells Charmaine that she was not actually reprogrammed, that her free will is still very much intact, and that now that she’s no longer useful to Jocelyn she is free to leave Stan if she chooses. FYI, Jocelyn, waiting until after Charmaine had had a baby was a shitty move.
The Heart Goes Last is a fair example of Atwood’s writing at its not-quite-finest. Like the rest of her bibliography, it’s jam-packed with sex, toxic relationships, and men and women who just can’t understand each other (though admittedly they don’t try very hard). Sometimes she carries it off; other times, not so much. As I say, she really likes writing about assholes, and Stan is just the latest entry in a very long line of whiny, entitled Atwood men. These got particularly bad in The Robber Bride, which inflicted both Mitch and Billy on us in the space of one book, and also in Lady Oracle, which produced Paul the Polish Count, Arthur, and the Royal Porcupine (for the record, I have no idea what Joan saw in any of them because they were all garbage). Stan isn’t quite on the same level, being somewhat less memorable, but that doesn’t make him any more tolerable as he verbally abuses Charmaine, attempts to stalk another woman, and unquestioningly accepts the gift of a seemingly brainwashed wife. He’s generally either bored or angry, and, though he doesn’t quite trip my kill wire the way Billy does, I found him even more forgettable and regrettable than Nate Schoenhof (Life Before Man). There’s no nuance to him; he is, quite simply, A Man.
Then there’s Charmaine, who looks like a cinnamon roll but apparently is capable of murder, or at least state-sponsored execution. Normally I’m a fan of the Sweet Murder Girl trope, but it didn’t really work in this case because Charmaine is extremely annoying. Atwood has a habit of inserting exclamation marks into her narration when she’s writing a bubblier character, and this, combined with Charmaine’s naturally irritating qualities, killed any interest I had in her as a character. To be perfectly fair, my interest was questionable pretty much from the get-go because Charmaine is not interesting. She’s a bubblehead with a robust mental consitution that allows her to kill people at the drop of a hat, and she has no greater ambition in life than to live in a nice house and be a good wife to Stan. She’s literally that modern woman who wants to be a 1950s housewife.
I accept that such women exist. I support their right to live that way if they want to, as long as they’re doing no harm. But none of that adds up to an engaging protagonist, no matter how many exclamation marks are sprinkled throughout the prose.
Charmaine can’t get over it; she’s so happy she’s warbling. She wants to open all the closet doors, turn on all the appliances. She can hardly wait to see what sorts of jobs they’ll be given, and she’s signed herself up for scooter lessons. It will all be so terrific!
(Murder, Charmaine. They’re assigning you to the Murder Department.)
If Stan and Charmaine had been minor characters in separate books, I might not have minded them as much. Presented together, they’re a lot to take. I also think Atwood is somewhat out of touch with the current generation, because these people don’t talk like they’re in their twenties. They sound like they’re about forty and at least twenty years into a bad marriage. Stan swears so much, both in dialogue and in his own internal narration, that one would almost be forgiven for thinking profanity is Atwood’s idea of youthful dialogue. Charmaine talks like a really optimistic, reality-averse grandmother, though given that she was raised by her grandmother I suppose this is understandable. Still, the overall effect is jarring because they’re supposed to be in our future but they seem like they came straight out of the fifties, which – for a book that was published in 2015 – is bizarre.
In the end, though, it wasn’t really the characters or the dialogue or even the toxic relationships that got to me so much as the sheer dullness of the story. This book was just boring. It didn’t strike me as particularly revolutionary or thought-provoking, especially compared to Atwood’s earlier works. The synopsis claims it is “as visionary as The Handmaid’s Tale and as richly imagined as The Blind Assassin,” but it is neither of these things. The Handmaid’s Tale was visionary because it described something that could easily happen. I don’t really see anything in The Heart Goes Last coming to pass, barring of course the ever-present possibility of complete economic collapse. I can’t imagine something like the Positron Project actually working out. It seems less like a logical extension of our current socioeconomic climate and more like a very strange dream that somehow got committed to paper.
This isn’t to suggest that the rest of Atwood’s oeuvre is perfect. It isn’t. I am, as I’ve said, extremely well acquainted with her novels and short stories, and over time I’ve noticed patterns and habits that tend to show up fairly frequently in her work. Yet even acknowledging these issues, I have no trouble pointing to my favorite novels, though if you asked me to pick between them I’d be seriously screwed. Her earlier works were poignant, superbly written, richly detailed. This one just felt like an afterthought. I wouldn’t say it’s my very least favorite, but, if you’re looking for an entry point into the Atwood canon, you might want to start with Cat’s Eye.