The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

25th Sep 2015

The Heart Goes Last Margaret Atwood
The doyenne of speculative fiction is back. Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last is her first standalone novel since her Man Booker prize winner The Blind Assassin in 2000.

The novel is based on the Positron e-book series which she started in 2012, and set in a consumerist, near-future ustopia. (Atwood’s coining which combines dystopia and utopia because, in her view, ‘each contains a latent version of the other.’)

It centres on Stan and Charmaine, a young married couple who’ve lost almost everything following a job market-decimating financial crash. They’ve been reduced to surviving on Charmaine’s meagre wages from her shifts at an insalubrious bar, sleeping in their car and living in fear of being attacked by gangs of unhinged scavengers.

So when they hear about the Consilience/Positron twin town social experiment, they’re eager to take part. But, as you’d expect, there’s a catch. In return for food, a home, a steady job and a life of comfort, they have to spend every other month in prison. And it soon becomes clear that this is just one of their gated community’s minus points, (and that something sinister lies beneath its veneer of safety and stability).

The narrative switches between Charmaine and Stan’s point of view. We’re privy to their often bizarre motivations and given insights into their childhoods, and lives before the market meltdown. Each chapter’s divided into several sections so, along with Atwood’s lean prose, the story zips along nicely. But plot-wise there’s a heavy reliance on coincidence, and it’s disappointingly easy to anticipate the twists. This means there’s a lack of tension.

Atwood's commentary is as savage as it's tongue in cheek. But, considering that she's not shining a light on anything that we don't already know, or find disturbing, her approach to these issues is unnecessarily heavy-handedLike Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam before it, the novel’s concerned with a selection of our current social ills. These ambitiously include: consumer sex, the erosion of human rights, concerns about privacy and surveillance, unemployment, homelessness and the rising prison population. And, as if that’s not enough, sexual obsession’s explored too.

Atwood’s commentary is as savage as it’s tongue in cheek. But, considering that she’s not shining a light on anything that we don’t already know, or find disturbing, her approach to these issues is unnecessarily heavy-handed. Yes, corporations are exploitative and put profit above all else, the commodification of sex is Not A Good Thing, and we’re aware that the haves and the have nots in our society exist in parallel universes.

Also, short-tempered Stan and Pollyannaish Charmaine aren’t fully realised and are unsympathetic. In fact all the book’s characters are duplicitous and rabidly self-serving, which doesn’t work in a survival tale. Because, on some level, you need to find enough to like in the protagonists to root for them. Or, at the very least, for the story. But  it’s hard to summon the will to do either.

On the plus side there’s plenty of Atwood’s mordant humour. She compares the ‘langorous and melting’ sex in movies of yesteryear with its contemporary counterpart, and dismisses the latter as, ‘bouncy athletics.’ There’s an unconventional love interest, and although there’s no porn, rock or hip hop allowed in either city, there’s all the Doris Day, Bing Crosby and show tunes you could wish for.

Despite its promising premise, The Heart Goes Last isn’t as unsettling, or gripping, as it could be, and lacks the inventiveness of its predecessors. But in a time when refugees are left to drown, human genetic modification may well become a reality in the UK, and terrorists share their brutal slaughters on social media, maybe it’s getting increasingly hard for Atwood to up the ante.