The Heart Goes Last: A Novel (Positron) - Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last

by Margaret Atwood

 

This is awkward to admit, but I'm really not sure what to make of this book.

 

The Heart Goes Last takes place in a near-future dystopia where the economy has collapsed and with it has fallen all societal order. Stan and Charmaine are forced to live out of their car, subsisting off of Charmaine's meagre waitress salary, always moving to fend off thieves and gangsters and rapists that will attack any working vehicle. When Charmaine sees an advertisement for a new life in the symbiotic prison/town system of Positron and Consilience, she's desperate to take the plunge. And so Stan and Charmaine find themselves switching monthly between life behind bars in Positron and a soothing 1950s-style domestic life in Consilience. As the ads say,

"DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE. CONSILIENCE = CONS + RESILIENCE."

But Charmaine and Stan soon realize that, just like their fifties ideal, a facade of perfection isn't easy to maintain.

 

Given the amusingly bizarre premise and the absolute absurdity of later events, I'm pretty sure that the book was intended to be black comedy. Unfortunately, I didn't find it funny at all. Part of this had to do with the themes. As with all of Atwood's books, feminism--and more specifically, the victimization of women--plays a major role. It's an extreme thing to say, but this book gave me the sense that Atwood just despises men. Most of the book's plot rests upon the assumption that men are basically sexual predators. In the collapsed society, they rape all the women they come across. If they're denied female companionship, they rape chickens. If they're afraid of real women, they rape androids. And if they can manage it, they do whatever it takes to rape the women of their dreams. The entire book is about sex, and every single example involves something with the flavor of rape, from Charmaine unprotestingly and joylessly allowing Stan to do what he wants to the more extreme versions found later. The men of Atwood's world are all driven by sexual desire, and deep down, they all want their sexual encounters to involve force. To my mind, there are certain themes-- genocide, child abuse, etc-- that are simply too serious to be treated comically. Rape is one of those themes.

 

With respect to the androids, I know there were the Elvis ones, but note that when they are introduced as "Possibilibots for everyone," it's in reference to gay men's desires, not women's. And I know Jocelyn is an abuser, but as the ball-buster woman, she's simply treating men the way the men treat women.

 

Stan, our supposed protagonist, is, of course, the worst example of all. His sex with Charmaine, with her docile but unwilling, sounds a lot like rape. From his first conversation with Jocelyn about "the thing with the chickens," it sounds like he spent his prison time raping them as well. If he's not an abuser already, he's on the first steps towards it; when he's angry, he smashes and breaks things, and he wants Charmaine to be abused:

"How long before Phil resorts to domestic violence, just for something to do? Not long, Stan hopes. He wouldn't mind knowing that Phil is smacking Charmaine around, and not just as a garnish to the sex, the way he does onscreen, but for real: somebody needs to."

His fantasies of Jasmine all involve overcoming her by force, only to have her melt into his arms. He stalks her. He wants to rescue Charmaine, not because she'll be turned into a sex slave, but because she'll be turned "into a sex slave for the wrong man." And in the end, as his reward for service, he wants Charmaine to be turned into a sex slave for the "right" man. I know it didn't really happen; that whole ending was telegraphed from the first moment the sex slave business got introduced. But that doesn't change the fact that Stan wanted to rip away Charmaine's agency and free will and turn her into his sex slave.

Stan, our "every man" protagonist, is an awful, awful person. So what does that say about the book's portrayal of men in general?

And what about the ending, where the various men have their wills taken away? I'm appalled that Atwood saw that as a "happy ending."

(show spoiler)

 

Atwood sees men as predators and women as (usually willing) victims. I get it. I've gotten it since Handmaid's Tale. But this isn't 1985 anymore--or 1950, for that matter. Women may not have gained full equality, but surely we can tell stories with a more nuanced message.

 

Maybe I could have survived the book if I had been able to warm to a character, any character. But to my mind, all of the characters were simply awful--and more importantly, unsympathetic-- people.

Both Charmaine's and Stan's first thoughts were about murdering each other, and both dismissed the fantasy only because of practical issues. Charmaine embraces her role as victim, actively seeking out a man who will degrade her. She submits just as willingly to her role of "Angel of Death." To my mind, the kiss on the head was the most grisly part of all. I wanted to like Jocelyn, but her role as the foil for all the abusive men made it awfully hard. 

(show spoiler)

 It's as if the entire world is composed of sociopaths. I actually started to wonder how Atwood could make the characters less sympathetic, but apart from wringing the necks of a few puppies, I'm stumped. The heart may go last, but honestly, I felt that these characters had no heart at all. It might just be part of the whole "black humour" thing, and maybe it's just not my genre, but at least for me, awful people doing awful things made for a grueling, distasteful read.

 

I started out by saying that I didn't know what to make of The Heart Goes Last, and that's mostly because I spent a good portion of the book trying to figure out if it was intended to be serious or black comedy. Some of the serious themes appealed to me; for example, the book heavily explores the distinction between being exploited and feeling exploited. Yet the plot certainly suggests comedy: every trope of B-movie scifi is mashed together, with additional absurdity thrown on top. Put it this way: Elvises (or is it Elvi?) get involved. Yet the themes and events, especially the ones that Atwood so thoughtfully explores, crossed the "not funny" line for me. There's a certain genre of black comedy involving despicable characters doing (and failing to do) despicable things, and this book fits neatly into that category. But it's not the genre for me.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Doubleday Books, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review.~~