If only I had access to the brain-altering technology from Margaret Atwood’s newest dystopian novel, The Heart Goes Last! With the zap of a laser beam, I’d fall head-over-heels in love with this book. I did so want to love it. I adore Margaret Atwood as an author; I’ve cherished a great many of her books. What went off-course?
The novel is a reworking of Atwood’s Positron series, previously published online as a series of novellas. I’m Starved For You (Positron #1) kicked off the series in 2012, followed by Choke Collar and Erase Me. The last installment, also titled The Heart Goes Last (Positron #4), came out in 2013. Fans of the Positron series will want to get their hands on the complete novel, if only to find out how everything wraps up.
The Heart Goes Last opens sometime in the near future, shortly after a total economic breakdown. Stan and Charmaine, once a middle class couple with jobs and a comfortable house, have been living in their car, subsisting on stale pastries and fending off rapists and thieves. If they leave their car even for an hour or two, someone will surely steal it. Without their car, they have nothing left.
Just when she doesn’t think she can take much more, Charmaine learns of a new kind of place that just might be their ticket to a better life. The Positron Project offers the two things Stan and Charmaine need most: steady jobs and a safe place to live. The only catch is that they’ll have to spend every other month locked up as prisoners. On their free months, they’ll settle into their appointed house in the town of Consilience. “CONSILIENCE = CONS+RESILIENCE. DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE!", the slogan goes.
Prison isn’t so terrible, with great food and plenty of knitting time. Consilience is one of those creepy, too-perfect towns that offers safety and comfort at the expense of privacy and freedom. Trouble starts brewing when Stan discovers a note from their alternates — the couple who lives in the house while Stan and Charmaine are in prison. Stan and Charmaine’s lives soon get wrapped up in the lives of their alternates, and they both unwittingly find themselves involved in a plot to expose the dirty secrets of the Positon Project. (“How bad are things when you get nostalgic about living in your car?” Charmaine thinks at one point.)
Sex with chickens, true love with stuffed animals, and Elvis sex robots?
The most enduring dystopian classics — some written by Atwood herself! — exist as chilling reminders that the way we’re living now is hurling us toward a bleak, uncertain future. This is who we really are, these books warn us. This is what we’re becoming. The Heart Goes Last is never truly chilling because it quickly becomes too absurd. Sex with chickens, true love with stuffed animals, and Elvis sex robots? If this is the future, it’s more ludicrous than disturbing.
Charmaine and Stan are difficult to root for, as a couple and as individuals. At best, Charmaine might serve as a kind of Phoebe Buffay character — the lovable ditz. Charmaine’s over-the-top naïveté starts out as endearing, but quickly grows almost unbelievable. She’s no Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale, questioning and resisting authority. Charmaine does what she’s told. Charmaine lets things happen.
Expectations can play a huge role in how a reader enjoys a book. Although some of Atwood’s novels are intricate and challenging, The Heart Goes Last is different. Rather than taking itself too seriously or promoting a political agenda (as some critics have complained about Atwood's earlier works), her latest effort is darkly funny and very readable — which is good news if you're an Atwood diehard who's going to reach for the book no matter what. Told in a succession of short chapters, it’s a fast-paced ride through dystopian terrain that's sometimes familiar, other times just plain bizarre. Ease into it with an open mind, letting go of your expectations of what makes the perfect Atwood novel, and you'll be better equipped to delight in the story’s wacky plot twists and turns.