Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Stan, Stan, he tells himself. Cool the paranoia. Why would they be interested in watching you watch them?"

Oh, Stan, they’re watching, all right…

‘The Heart Goes Last’ is classic Atwoodian dystopia. (Yeah, I’m going to start using ‘Atwoodian’ as an adjective. Because she deserves it -- the worlds that Margaret Atwood creates are just too unique to compare them to any other writer, living or dead.)

In this tale, the end is not marked by a bang, but a whimper. This post-economic-crash America is not as drastic as the dystopian settings in some of her other work, but it works perfectly for the somewhat absurd story Atwood is telling. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the downfall is more-or-less political; in her ‘MadAddam’ trilogy, she goes full-on bio-terror apocalypse. Here, there is simple an unexplained market crash that erases the working middle class, which leads to an outburst of violent gangs and assaults, making most of America, specifically the East coast, a dangerous place to live for all but the already rich.

It is in this not-too-hard-to-imagine future where we meet Charmaine and Stan, a married couple living in their car after they both lose their jobs. They manage to get by on Charmaine’s tips as a hostess, but it is no kind of life for them. One day, at the bar she works at, Charmaine sees a message on TV:

"Tired of living in your car?...Of course you are! You didn't sign up for this. You had other dreams. You deserve better...Remember what your life used to be like?...Before the dependable world we used to know was disrupted? At the Positron Project in the town of Consilience, it can be like that again…”

It’s as if the man on the television is speaking directly to her, and it doesn’t take much for her to convince her miserable, unemployed husband to sign them into the Positron Project. But once you’re inside the heavily guarded walls…you’re in for life. And there’s a catch. Or, really, several.

We fast forward to the happy couple’s life in the 1950’s inspired town of Consilience. Doris Day is on repeat and everyone drives scooters to get from here to there. Stan and Charmaine have a house, and jobs they like well enough. But every other month, they must volunteer themselves to enter the town’s prison. There’s another couple, their Alternates, who switch with them every other month – the Alternates in the prison while Stan and Charmaine occupy the house, and vice versa. Why a prison? Because they are one of the few enterprises left that are still profitable. And if you can get people to volunteer their free labor for half of the year, even better.

The Positron Project demands that you do not make contact with, or even know the names of your Alternates, to avoid any kind of drama. This works, until Stan finds a spicy, lipstick-stained note from Jasmine, who he assumes is one of their Alternates.

Finding this note sends both Stan and Charmaine into a lustful spiral of curiosity and jealously, and they slowly begin to uncover secrets about the Positron Project. Suddenly, they both find themselves involved in a dangerous conspiracy, and somehow realize they are the keys to the puzzle of uncovering the truth about the Project that is far from as innocent as it seems.

"The whole point...[was] for things to run smoothly, with happy citizens, or are they inmates? Both, to be honest. Because citizens were always a bit like inmates and inmates were always a bit like citizens, so [they] have only made it official.”

This story is told in third person, switching back and forth from Stan and Charmaine’s POVs. Even if their names weren’t used, the writing is so sharply distinct between these two characters, that I’d be able to tell whose brain I’m in at any given point. For example, Stan curses. A fuck ton. Charmaine would never. (There are a lot of “darns” in her vocabulary.) Charmaine’s chapters are also a lot more detail-oriented; Stan’s, more humorous.

"A grip, Stan, he hells himself. Get two, they're cheap."

That quote very well explains why I loved Atwood’s writing so much. He could have easily said to himself: “Get a grip, Stan.” It’s these tiny nuances that make her writing so unique and intriguing. It isn’t full of bells and whistles, it isn’t flowery, but it isn’t what I would call “plain”, either. Her sense of humor can be incredibly dry – and therefore is just my cup of tea (which this book also made me crave).

As the story progresses, it gets more and more ridiculous -- there’s a whole part of the story where Stan is disguised as Elvis, among several other Elvises, living in the “Elvistorium” in Las Vegas. There’s also a victim of a brain operation gone wrong who is sexually attracted to a knitted teddy bear. If you don’t take it all too seriously, it’s a lot of fun, not to mention hilarious. While some of the outcomes of this dystopian world are very believable (sex robots are hardly a reach from our current technology), most of it is light science fiction at its pulpiest.

There’s a pretty big twist in the end, which I guessed before the big reveal, but there was still a huge reward in knowing I was right. It seems like Atwood kind of throws this in there at the end, in attempt to make it thought-provoking: "If you do bad things for reasons you've been told are good, does it make you a bad person?" we are asked. All dystopian tales don’t need to be deep. Some of them, can just be fun.

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