The Heart Goes Last centers on main characters Stan and Charmaine, a married couple who are living in their car as of the beginning of the story. They’ve lost their jobs and their homes as the economy in the US Northeast has completely tanked. Charmaine works at a seedy bar to earn enough for them to buy fast food and gas, but that’s about it. Gas is essential, because even when locked into the car at night, crazy or desperate people may attack, break the windows, and try to rape or kill them, and being able to drive off in case of emergency is what keeps them alive. Life really sucks, and even though they both remember what it was like to be newlyweds in love, it’s getting harder and harder to keep any affection alive when life is just that awful.
Is it any wonder that they sign on, rather blindly, to the promise of a new and better life? Stan and Charmaine are seduced by an advertisement for an experimental town called Consilience. The Consilience project offers a house, safety, security, meaningful life, and the absence of fear and worry. After a quick visit within the gated walls of the town, they’re ready to sign up. The catch is that, once in, it’s permanent, but no worries! Charmaine is too entranced by the idea of a house, her own kitchen, and a cozy couch to even consider walking away, and to Stan, it sure sounds like a great alternative to quick, unsexy sex on the backseat of the car while watching out for attackers.
Once Stan and Charmaine have committed, we start to learn more. There’s a flip side to Consilience: Positron. Positron is a prison, and here’s the deal. For one month, Stan and Charmaine live in their cozy suburban house and go off to work at their pleasant jobs. Then comes switchover day, and the two go over to the Positron Prison, don orange prison garb, and become inmates for a month. Stan goes to the men’s ward, where he tends chickens, and Charmaine goes to the women’s ward, where she’s a medications officer. The prison is safe, filled with other happy Consilience residents, offering delicious food, meaningful work, and even a knitting circle in the evenings to pass the time. Meanwhile, Stan and Charmaine’s house is now occupied by their alternates. Half the town spends each month as residents, half as inmates, and then they switch. This way, the project provides housing and occupation for all, and everyone is happy. Be happy, damn it!
Perhaps picture-perfect suburbia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:
The hedge trimmer emits a menacing whine, like a wasp’s nest. The sound gives him an illusion of power that dulls his sense of panic. Panic of a rat in a cage, with ample food and drink and even sex, though with no way out and the suspicion that it’s part of an experiment that is sure to be painful.
Things are as weird as they seem, and weirder. There’s sexual obsession and deception, nefarious corporate goons, weird sexual fetishes, secret medical procedures, and a recurring motif of blue knitted teddy bears. Of course this utopian refuge has a dark side, and of course Stan and Charmaine become deeply involved as puppets in the greater scheme of things. When I say things get weird, I really mean it.
By the end of the book, we’re in Vegas. There are hordes of Elvis and Marilyn impersonators, Blue Man Group rip-off artists, brain wipes, and sex/love slaves. And as word of the goings-on in Consilience/Positron is leaked to the greater public:
Instantly the social media sites are ablaze with outrage. Prison abuses! Organ-harvesting! Sex slaves created by neurosurgery! Plans to suck the blood of babies! […] Talk shows roister on into the night — they haven’t had this much fun in decades — and bloggers break out in flames.
I wish I could say that The Heart Goes Last was a great read, but unfortunately, I found it somewhat problematic. I was intrigued at the outset by the set-up, by the collapse of society, and by the way Stan and Charmaine’s marital issues tied into their dilemmas and decision-making about Consilience/Positron. Unfortunately, the book keeps veering off in new and disjointed directions, and by the time the Vegas elements come around, the storyline has passed the line from odd to ridiculous.
There are some truly eerie or disturbing sequences, but eventually, as one after another scenario unfolds, the whole thing loses its power and feels too scattered to be truly affecting. The goofiness of certain plot points (Elvis… Marilyn… the bear) makes the whole story somewhat farcical. While there are some kernels of deeper meaning in there about choice and the illusion of choice, the trade-off between security and free will, and whether unwavering love adds to or subtracts from actual happiness, the lack of overall coherence blunts the impact of all of these.
“Isn’t it better to do something because you’ve decided to? Rather than because you have to.”
“No, it isn’t,” says Charmaine. “Love isn’t like that. With love, you can’t stop yourself.” She wants the helplessness, she wants…
On top of the all-over-the-place plot, the fact is that dystopias are pretty much a dime a dozen these days, and it takes quite a lot to offer something new or startling. The idea of a perfect little town paired with a prison is interesting, especially as the town seems like something out of the movie Pleasantville (the only movies shown on Consilience TV are from the 1950s, and Doris Day is everyone’s darling) — but we’ve all read enough of these new society, perfect world set-ups to know that the people in charge have ulterior motives, there’s surveillance everywhere, and that a controlled world must be intrinsically corrupt at its core. Even though there are some clever and unexpected twists, at its most fundamental level, there isn’t anything all that fresh in the overarching concept.
Sadly, The Heart Goes Last was ultimately a let-down for me. I wouldn’t NOT recommend it, but it’s not Atwood’s best work either. I was never bored, exactly, but at some point, I just kind of rolled my eyes and decided to go with it.
Title: The Heart Goes Last
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Publication date: September 29, 2015
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley