IT seems unnecessary to call Margaret Atwood’s new novel a dystopic vision of society, given that there are plenty of people in the world of The Heart Goes Last who are doing just perfectly well. And yet the near future she writes about is indeed dystopic for the novel’s protagonists, an average American young couple who are facing the end of their world as best they can. Charmaine and Stan’s best isn’t very much though, given that they have both lost their decent jobs, their house, and are now living out of their third-hand car, scraping by on the little cash Charmaine makes tending bar at a seedy little joint that plays host to a rough clientele and a small group of local prostitutes.
Civilised society has very much collapsed, alongside the US economy with the “big financial-crash business-wrecking meltdown that turned this part of the country into a rust bucket”. With too many people and not nearly enough jobs, most have turned to crime or prostitution, including Stan’s brother Connor who seems to be some sort of criminal mafioso, from whom Stan is unwilling to ask for anything more than some cash. Charmaine and Stan have stuck it out on the straight and increasingly narrow so far, falling asleep each night in their stuffy car, always with one eye open, keeping “the windows mostly closed because of the mosquitoes and the gangs and the solitary vandals”.
One day at the bar, Charmaine sees a TV commercial for the Positron Project, a place offering safety and comfort to those who are deemed a fit for it. “Tired of living in your car?” asks the Positron representative on TV and Charmaine feels as if he really is just speaking to her. This is all Atwood needs — a single sentence in a commercial — to make the reader realise just how many people are living in destitution, “in abandoned cars or subway tunnels or even in culverts” and will sign their lives away for safety from a dangerous and chaotic society, where “there’s an epidemic of drugging and boozing: suicide-grade alcohol, skin-blistering drugs that kill you in under a year.”
But what are they signing up for? Positron is a prison and works in conjunction with Consilience; a small, contained artificial town. Their set-up is simple enough: once you have been selected to enter the system, you spend one month living a regular life in a safe environment with a home, amenities and a job; Charmaine works at a bakery and Stan repairs the scooters everyone uses to get around. Everything seems almost worryingly comfortable. At the end of every month, they swap places with someone in the prison, taking their place in Positron while the ‘prisoners’ come and live in the Consilience house as their ‘alternates’.
In prison, no one is treated badly: they are well fed, clothed, given clean living spaces, allowed to talk, read, knit and even given tasks to make their time more meaningful and regulated. While in prison, Charmaine is a medical administrator, and on occasion conducts a frightening ‘special procedure’ on people, while Stan helps out with the chickens, having to compromise in some odd ways that cause him to think of himself as a “chicken pimp”. But there is to be no communication with anyone outside their section of the prison, because “if prison isn’t prison, the outside world has no meaning!” It’s all horrific, it’s all hilarious.
There is no turning back at all, though. No emergency exit and no pause button: once you enter the system, you’re in it for life. But why wouldn’t you want to be, when the alternate is to live in fear on the outside?
The Positron-Consilience socioeconomic system makes no sense at all, though Charmaine and Stan are desperate enough to ignore this. How is it logical for people to spend a month in jail and a month out of it when no major cost-cutting seems to be happening in either place? What then, is the point? Who is funding this entire system and why? Who makes a profit off it and how? Who turns the cogs? Why are they not allowed any pop music or interaction with any family outside Consilience? Why is all communication within the town monitored too? If no one in Positron is an actual criminal, then where are all the actual criminals? Are they roaming free outside the city’s walls while the ‘good’ people are locked up inside? Even when they are not in the prison, Charmaine and Stan don’t appear to have a great deal more freedom.
In a recent Guardian article about modern freedom, Atwood asks, “How often have we been told that this or that new rule or law or snooping activity on the part of officialdom is to keep us ‘safe’?” In the same way, Charmaine and Stan are safe in Consilience but live very restricted lives. They are not free to do what they please: they are free from the dangers they faced on the outside. Freedom to and freedom from are not the same thing, that much is clear.
The usually sweet, submissive Charmaine starts a torrid affair with Max, one of their alternates, when they run into each other on the day they are to swap places. She barely recognises herself with him, losing herself entirely to sexual abandon such as she has never felt with Stan. Her feelings about Max are “purple. Passionate. Garish. And, yes, bad taste. To a man like that, for whom you have feelings like that, you can say all sorts of things, I’m starved for you being the mildest of them. Words she would never have used, before. Vandal words.”
Meanwhile the not very bright, passive-aggressive Stan finds a note under the fridge that says ‘I’m starved for you’ and is signed with a lurid lipstick kiss and the name Jasmine. Assuming her to be the alternate wife, Stan begins to fantasise about her, imagining her to be a sexual predator, planning ways to surprise her on a switchover day, to take advantage of what he imagines to be her constant lust.
When he does meet her though, she isn’t quite what he expects and the story turns more complicated, with Stan finding himself an unwitting but crucial part of a larger conspiracy. At this point, Atwood amps up the dark comedy element with great abandon, adding in the secret production of and booming economy of extremely high-end lifelike android ‘prostibots’ — officially called Possibilibots — a gang of Elvis impersonators, brain wipes to cause early imprinting that result in a beautiful woman in love/lust with a blue knitted teddy bear, a spin-off of the Blue Man Group called the Green Man group who entertain with an ecological theme, babies’ blood in high demand for its possible rejuvenating effects and even a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who is complicit in the grand scheme unfolding around Charmaine and Stan. It may seem silly but Atwood is incredibly sharp and funny. She always has been but with The Heart Goes Last, she goes all-out madcap, with little caution. We can laugh all we like: she’s seen the future and it’s not pretty.
The question of free will comes into play again and again. What would you do if you were told you didn’t have any? When disguising himself as an Elvis impersonator, Stan thinks that “he does look something like Elvis. Is that all we are? … Unmissable clothing, a hairstyle, a few exaggerated features, a gesture?” Both Charmaine and Stan, along with all the other characters Atwood creates, are only ever just first names: we don’t need anything more about them because we see their secret selves, their alter egos, their deepest darkest desires. Atwood captures a great deal in very little. Of course, this is no surprise to anyone who has read her work before.
The Heart Goes Last started life as a serialised story on the site Byliner.com. Atwood wrote five short stories for Byliner, eventually expanding and connecting them into this full length novel, her first standalone piece in more than a decade. The Positron stories (as they were called when published by Byliner) were written as they unfolded, the way serialised novels were written in the 19th century such as Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers and Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Always ready to move with the times, Atwood isn’t afraid of e-books or any other digital ways of storytelling. As she told Time.com in 2012 “You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.”
The Heart Goes Last is in equal parts entertaining, disturbing and hilarious — and all the more disturbing because of it. When did we start to find lookalike prostibots funny? When did we start to laugh at a man’s explicit, aggressive unwanted fantasies about a woman who does not know him? When did we start to giggle at the idea of someone being brainwashed into loving passionately? As always, Atwood makes us ask ourselves, what is wrong with us? And as always, she gives us a clear answer: plenty, of course.
Atwood has always been sardonic and wise. She’s also very often alarmingly prescient. Her stories sizzle and spark every single time with sharp chemistry, “smells, textures, flavours, secret ingredients… Chemistry can be like magic. It can be merciless”. As is Atwood. Every single time.
The Heart Goes Last
By Margaret Atwood