It’s been quite some time since I’ve read a new Margaret Atwood – a little too much dystopia in her later novels for me – but the synopsis of The Heart Goes Last appealed: homeless couple in the nearish future signs on for a project where they alternate a month in prison with a month in a comfortable house then one of them becomes obsessed by their counterparts. What took me by surprise was how funny it is – almost to the point of being a caper – but lest you think this is dystopia-lite it has some very serious points to make.
Stan and Charmaine are living in their car. He’s lost his job in the Empathy section of a robotics company, she’s lost hers at the Ruby Slippers care home she loved so much. They’re part of the fallout from the financial meltdown. The streets are lawless, roamed by menacing gangs turned out from overcrowded prisons and not averse to a spot of rape. When Charmaine watches a promotional video offering an escape in the shape of a social experiment she jumps at it, persuading Stan to check out the induction programme by dangling the prospect of motel sex in front of him. She’s had enough of sex on the back seat, avoiding it whenever she can. The induction is slick and convincing. All they have to do is spend alternate months in prison while someone else lives in their house, then switch – and all for the greater good. Run by Positron, the town will be called Consilience: ‘Cons + Resilience. Do time now, buy time for our future!’ is its snappy, seemingly socially conscious slogan. Once they’ve signed there’s no going back as Stan’s streetwise brother points out but Stan sees the prospect of regular sex and stifles his worries about just who’s benefiting from this ‘experiment’. All goes well to begin with but when Stan spots a passionate note supposedly from Jasmine, their female Alternate, he becomes obsessed, going to great lengths to track her down only to find that the truth is entirely different from anything he could have imagined. Soon he’s embroiled in a scheme which will blow the lid off the increasingly sinister goings on at Positron/Consilience.
Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging out well-aimed barbs as she reels her readers in to this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. All manner of things are in her satirical sights – the privatisation of prisons, sex obsession, robotics, big business, an ageing population – to name but a few. Both Charmaine and Stan’s characters are expertly drawn. Their internal monologues are often very funny: Charmaine’s wholesomeness, verging on the twee, takes a surprising turn; Stan’s lurid fantasies about the sensuous Jasmine come back to bite him. There’s a good deal of sly wit – the beautiful Veronica’s sexual fixation on a knitted blue bear is particularly funny as are the inane self-help videos streamed into Consilience homes. But despite all that it has a deadly serious message: we humans are all too easily lulled into a soporific acceptance leaving us wide open for exploitation. And its ending is a triumph – no copouts from Ms Atwood here.
If you like the sound of The Heart Goes Last you might like to read Naomi’s account of Erica Wagner’s interview with Atwood at the Manchester Literature festival over at The Writes of Women.