That The Heart Goes Last is the first title I have read by Margaret Atwood places me, I suspect, at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to discussing the novel’s merits and faults. I cannot compare it to the fourteen Margaret Atwood novels that preceded it so I do not know with any certainty just how different it may be from her usual fare. I do know that Atwood is no stranger to dystopian related plotlines, so The Heart Goes Last probably comes as no big shock to her more experienced readers. What makes this one a bit different from the usual novel is that it began life as a serialization project of Atwood’s that only later came together as the novel it is. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it may explain the somewhat tenuous connection between the tone of the book’s early chapters and the tone of its later ones.
The Heart Goes Last opens in a strange new United States, a country whose economic system has so completely collapsed that people consider themselves lucky to have even an old car to find shelter within. Stan and Charmaine, a married couple, are doing exactly that while Stan desperately searches for work and Charmaine brings home a few dollars every day from her dead end job. They are fast running out of money, though, and it is becoming more and more difficult to find a place safe enough to park their car for even a few hours rest because, as little as they have, others want to take it from them.
So when Stan and Charmaine hear that a neighboring town called Consilience is running something called The Positron Project, they eagerly apply for acceptance into the program. And why wouldn’t they? There is a comfortable, clean house for everyone in Consilience and, more importantly, the unemployment rate is zero. Everyone has a job, a warm place to sleep, and plenty of nourishing food. What could be the catch? Well hang on a second.
|Author Margaret Atwood|
But even when told that the home and jobs will be theirs only on alternating months of the year, and that when not living in the home they will be prisoners inside Positron Prison, Stan and Charmaine jump at the deal. After all, one month a prisoner, one month a prison administrator, really doesn’t sound that bad to two people in constant danger of being killed in their sleep.
This is the premise of The Heart Goes Last and, as the novel begins, Atwood presents it all in a very serious manner. But about midway through, her story is consumed by infidelity, rather kinky sex that includes lifelike robots to fulfill every sexual fantasy imaginable (think Elvis and Marilyn), and near farcical escapes from the prison. While it is all very amusing and entertaining (as I will be the first to admit), I find myself wishing that Atwood had maintained throughout the novel the more serious tone with which she began it. The result would, I think, have been a much more satisfying novel than the comic satire this one morphed into.