The future, as Margaret Atwood has painted it in such dystopian novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy, is not so far-fetched. It’s not so far off, and it’s not so pretty. It doesn’t get prettier in her new book, but unlike the Booker winner’s recent bleak novels, The Heart Goes Last rides a wave of dark energy. It’s rare apocalyptic entertainment.
Meet Stan and Charmaine, a young couple who once had rewarding jobs, decent incomes and a home. Now, in the wake of America’s economic and social collapse, they have none of those things and are living out of their car, “a third-hand Honda,” fending off roving bands of criminals and predators. When the couple learn about the Positron program in the town of Consilience, offering work, “a meaningful life,” and, most importantly to Charmaine, “a safe place to live,” it seems an answer to their prayers.
They make their way to Consilience, a new planned — and walled — community with a corporate conscience (think Central Florida’s Celebration but eerier). The two qualify to work at Positron, which turns out to be the town’s economic engine and its prison. Similarly “everyone in Consilience will live two lives: prisoners one month, guards or town functionaries the next.” Oh, and there’s no Internet, no access to the outside world, no one leaves. Ever. Still, it beats the outside world, where survival is for the tough, the crazy or somebody like “Stan’s upsetting brother, Conor … not criminal, Charmaine won’t use that word. Unusual.”
You could argue Consilience, a profit-making enterprise and a sort of prison itself beneath its veneer of sanitized ’50s small town USA, is unusual, too. These are unusual times. “Even the depressives among them said why not try it, since nothing else had worked. People were starved for hope.”
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Hope Stan and Charmaine now have, plus a shiny new home they share with Alternates, a couple who live there when Stan and Charmaine are inside Positron. It’s just another efficiency created by the Consilience/Positron project heads. But you can’t control human nature. That’s the bad news, the good news and the novel’s premise. When Charmaine accidentally meets Stan’s Alternate, they fall into an affair, awakening a kinky side virtuous Charmaine never dreamed of and bollixing up the Consilience’s perfectly planned system.
Atwood has been writing novels, short stories, nonfiction, poetry and children’s literature — more than 40 works in 40 years — fearlessly experimenting and racking up literary prizes, including this year’s Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award. Here the Canadian author is after something less lofty. She sacrifices nuanced characters like those in Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize, trading them for apocalyptic scenarios and a deliciously intricate plot. The Heart Goes Last revisits many of the themes in the MaddAddam trilogy — bioengineering nightmares, corrupt corporations, empty consumerism, urban decay — but with the welcome addition of laughs and sex. Talk about your brave new world.
Short chapters shift between Stan’s point of view and Charmaine’s but contribute to a larger structure revealing a study in opposites — good and evil, innocence and experience, male and female gender stereotypes, freedom and security, control and anarchy, fantasy and reality, sex and death, each opening up into the other like a kaleidoscope. Not only does Atwood sketch out an all-too-possible future but she also looks to the past, tapping into archetypes from fairy tales and myth, giving the novel a resonance beyond satire. Meanwhile, she ratchets up the tension and gleefully knocks down the fictive world she created.
Just when plausibility appears to have vanished entirely, the author grounds the story in something concrete, laugh-out-loud funny or both. There’s the Green Man Group, a Blue Man Group knockoff. Technology has created sexbots, marketed commercially as possibilibots. “With the Platinum grade, they … breathe.” Think they’ll never replace the original human model? “They said that about e-books,” says a character. “You can’t stop progress.” Ouch. And you can’t stop Atwood, who originally published The Heart Goes Last as an e-book.
The Heart Goes Last is itself a duality, a divertissement that also delivers a message — hope for humanity, of all things. “Nobody’s either/or, when it comes right down to it,” a character notes. Being human makes us good, evil and so much more. It can’t be bred out of us. Yet.
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.