Books, Class, Feminism

Elvis Impersonators, Sex Dolls and the Perils of Free Will: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes LastThe Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood, Random House, 2015

Margaret Atwood
McClelland & Stewart
September 29, 2015
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The latest story from Canada’s literary heavyweight, Margaret Atwood went down an unusual path before it eventually became the hardcover novel we see in bookstores today. Originally serialized online in 2012 on The Byliner and then later on Wattpad, the pieces eventually came together to tell the story of a not-too-distant future. A troubling future of economic collapse where people like Charmaine and Stan, who once lived “normal” lives, now find themselves struggling to survive out of their car with no guarantee of what the future might bring. Things are bad and there’s no sign of improvement up ahead. So when a social experiment, masquerading as a gated community, called Consilience comes along, promising stability and security, Charmaine and Stan can’t resist.

Consilience promises stable jobs, three meals a day and a roof over your head. It’s a 1950s white-picket fence dream after the nightmare they’ve been living through. So how can they deliver all these wonderful goods? With a prison. Positron. Prisons create jobs. But in order to do that a prison needs prisoners. So every other month Stan and Charmaine leave their cookie cutter house behind and undergo incarceration, switching places with their Alternates.

And a first it seems like it’s working. Charmaine and Stan have the stability they craved, they have jobs that keep them busy. Even prison life isn’t that bad. Things are finally looking up. That is until Stan finds the note…”I’m Starved for You.” A sexually suggestive note sealed with a kiss. Four little words but what follows is a tale of sex, obsession, deception, and human desperation. Charmaine and Stan become obsessed with their Alternates, dark truths are revealed and they soon find their brief window of stability shattered.

This unexpected world Charmaine and Stan find themselves trying to navigate through can at the very least be described as bizarre. There’s life-size sex dolls, a troupe of Elvis impersonators, and complicated feelings directed towards knitted blue teddy bears. These elements may seem wacky and they are. And if I’m being completely honest there are moments where it feels as though Atwood gets off track. But don’t let all of that scare you away. It would be a mistake to dismiss the novel as nothing more than absurd or over the top.

The bizarre elements are what not only what give The Heart Goes Last a darker comedic edge, but their absurdity also makes it possible to confront the very real questions the novel is asking and the potentially uncomfortable answers that follow. What would we do if we were truly desperate? What would we be willing to give up? What compromises would we be willing to make? As the original suburban gleam of Consilience wears off and its more sinister side (because there’s always a more sinister side) makes itself known, it’s easy to judge Stan, Charmaine, and all the others who willingly signed their freedom away. It’s easy to feel superior and confident that you would never make that mistake. But how are we to know?

The Heart Goes Last won’t be everyone’s favourite Atwood novel. But it is a biting, astute portrait of the technology, medicine, and economy of our future and once again Margaret Atwood has produced a novel that not only challenges us to ask where we’re going but also if we’re sure we really want to get there.