The Heart Goes Last
By Margaret Atwood. McClelland & Stewart, 320 pp, hardcover
In the opening pages of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, Stan and Charmaine, a married couple crushed by a nationwide economic meltdown, are living in their car and fighting off nightly attacks from armed marauders. Desperate, Stan sells his blood, only to find it isn’t worth much. Charmaine keeps the couple in gas money by working in a bar that caters to drug dealers and prostitutes.
But just as the reader settles into this gritty tale of financial heartbreak, the novel shifts gears—and literary genres—when Stan and Charmaine move into a closed community called Consilience where, bizarrely, residents spend half their time in well-appointed suburban homes and half their time in prison, guarded by their erstwhile neighbours.
In Consilience, we learn, corporate America hopes to profit from the chaos of financial collapse. There is, however, precious little profit to be wrung from a prison in which inmates live part-time in suburban luxury, and the reader is not surprised to learn that the scheme is a cover for more nefarious activities involving selling the body parts of condemned prisoners, building highly realistic sex robots, and reprogramming the brains of women to turn them into sex slaves.
All this might work if Atwood were truly invested in probing the dystopian world she has created, but in The Heart Goes Last, which began as a serial for the online site Byliner, she seems content to use Consilience primarily as a stage for a clumsily constructed sex comedy. Much of the novel focuses on a largely humour-free sexual roundelay in which Stan and Charmaine swap partners with the couple who live in their home during the months they are locked up.
At times, the sheer loopiness of Atwood’s fictive universe injects some much-needed humour. One character, a former prostitute, has her mind reprogrammed, but due to a glitch falls madly in love with a blue teddy bear. Stan, tasked with letting the world know of the horrors of Consilience, is spirited out in an Elvis Presley costume and lands in Las Vegas, where he falls in with a group of men working as Elvis-themed escorts for lonely older women.
But there is too much narrative dead air between the jokes and insights in this oddly sex-obsessed late novel by one of Canada’s most venerated literary icons.