Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s most recent foray into dystopian literature, a familiar genre for Ms. Atwood, The Heart Goes Last is an examination not only of the bleak prospects of economic collapse, but of the desperation with which humans will conform to arbitrary social norms for comfort. By the same measure, Atwood lifts the veil on conformity and shows how it stifles both individual and collective identities and in the worst possible scenarios may even conceal nefarious dealings.
In Atwood’s latest envisioning of our social demise, economic downturns have left large swathes of America destitute, forcing our protagonists, married couple Stan and Charmaine to live in their car, desperately seeking work wherever they can find it. Barely scraping by, they are forced to fend off street gangs and deranged loners who may creep up on them while they sleep. Until that is, they have the chance to participate in a social experiment: the twin towns project of Consilience/Positron. Positron Prison, nestled inside the newly developed town Consilience, is the lifeblood, or rather the heartbeat that will fuel economic growth within this confined community. Residents take shifts living within the town and then swapping their civilian clothes for boiler suits to sit in as prisoners every other month.
Stan and Charmaine are only too willing to apply, and lucky enough (in their eyes) to be selected to participate. They have finally regained the simple comforts of modern life they’ve been missing and dreaming of from their car. Likewise, their new life in Consilience/Positron seems picture-perfect, that is until it becomes suffocating. Pushed in different directions by unfulfilled and newly discovered lust, Stan and Charmaine begin inwardly cracking under social expectations to conform and in the process find themselves unwittingly on the verge of unleashing the dark secrets hidden within Consilience/Positron.
It’s an interesting read, but despite the promise of a harrowing storyline, I found myself unusually disengaged from and uninterested in the lives of the characters, less than halfway through the book. I admired Ms. Atwood’s analysis of society’s gendered notions of sexuality and sexual desire, she has the special ability to explore these concepts with subtlety and nuance, shining a light on the double-standards for women and men without coming across as sanctimonious. In fact I am a devoted fan of Atwood’s and first fell in love with her writing when I read The Handmaid’s Tale, a beautifully crafted and dark tale that examines many of the same themes present in The Heart Goes Last, albeit with more tact and solemnity. However, I think, this book fell short in the lack of character development.
Charmaine and Stan I found to be one-dimensional stereotypes in equal measure. Charmaine is the bubbly blonde, pretty and perky, who always looks on the bright side and always aims to please Stan. In fact, not only Stan, but anyone she sees as a superior. This persona gradually diminishes throughout the book as Charmaine’s frustrations begin mounting, but it never fully disappears and even resurfaces later on. Stan on the other hand is short-tempered, likes things in order, and expects his wife to follow his lead. He wholly embodies every notion I have of white male fragility, and seems especially insecure when it comes to his wife, seeing her as the single most defining feature of his masculinity. Neither seems to hold much of a sense of individual identity, beyond what they believe men and women are expected to embody, and perhaps that’s why it was so easy for them to blindly join the Consilience community. I think this was intentional, at least partly, on Atwood’s part, to hold a mirror to conventional and rigid standards of womanhood and manhood. However she emulates the stereotypes almost too well and in the process creates completely flat characters to the point where I couldn’t muster even an iota of sympathy for any of them, including the secondary characters.
I may have been able to rouse a stronger emotional connection had Atwood supplied more snippets of Stan and Charmaine’s histories, a narrative device Atwood typically includes to help readers understand the quirks and cracks in her protagonists. However in this novel Stan and Charmaine offer only the most minuscule of hints as to their backgrounds, which are never fully disclosed. I was especially interested to learn more about Charmaine’s Grandma Win who is mentioned many times throughout the book and seems to have raised Charmaine and ingrained her with her never-ending positivity.
The Heart Goes Last is a mildly interesting read with some worthwhile extrapolations on the social roles men, but particularly women are often forced into playing. However, these same themes can be found across Atwood’s writing, so if you’re a newcomer to her oeuvre, you may be more interested in starting with something more fulfilling, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, particularly if you’re interested in dystopian fiction, and if not then perhaps The Edible Woman, The Blind Assassin, or Alias Grace. And if you’re a long-time reader already, I’d say I don’t want to discourage you from reading this book, but by the same measure I don’t think you should go in with high expectations, like I did.
This was definitely not my favorite book of Atwood’s, but it certainly hasn’t turned me off the prospect of reading her future publications and I happily remain an Atwood devotee.