Margaret Atwood's new novel, The Heart Goes Last, is a playful romp that also doubles as a ruthlessly sharp critique of life in the early 21st century.
It’s hard to think of a zanier book you’ll read this year. The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood’s 15th novel, started out as an online story and was then worked into its current form. This digital gestation period seems fitting enough as Atwood has written a relentlessly energetic satire on life in the early 21st century. Everything gets a good going over: economic rationalism, the internet, social media, robotics, biotechnology, neurotechnology, you name it. The story has a frenetic pace and Byzantine plotting that is both ridiculous and (considering the strange places that digital technology is taking us) disconcertingly plausible.
Atwood shows no interest in writing a precious literary novel, instead opting for a kind of loopy Shakespearean comedy, stuffed with more ideas and conceits than is possible to digest in one reading. In many ways, The Heart Goes Last is a techno A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with some Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick thrown in.
The time is somewhere in the near future. Charmaine and Stan are living out of their car, trying to fend off robbers and get by as best they can. Both have lost their nice middle class jobs, Charmaine at the Ruby Slippers Retirement Home and Stan at Dimple electronics. When Charmaine sees an advertisement to join an experimental community called Positron, they sign up. The deal is they have to spend one month in the Positron jail, then alternate that with a month of freedom in the 1950s style town of Consilience. It’s almost like a timeshare arrangement as they continually rotate, month on month, their nice Consilience home with another couple. This other couple are called their “alternates”. While the alternates are in prison, Charmaine and Stan get the house. When the alternates get out of prison, then Charmaine and Stan go back in. The whole Positron experiment is not so much a social one as an economic one. There are financial backers hoping it will be the next big money spinner.
Soon enough sexual shenanigans start up as Charmaine and Stan have affairs with their alternates. Bedroom farce turns into political intrigue and adventure: the alternates are well connected to the upper echelons of Positron. Charmaine and Stan find themselves involved in a madcap plot to blow the lid off Positron and some of its more unethical practices. This is where the story takes on a madness all of its own as Charmaine and Stan are separated from each other, unsure if they will ever be reunited. Some of the elements in the plot involve gay Elvis impersonators, sex dolls called “prostibots” and neurosurgery to make people sexually attracted to the first person they see after waking from the procedure (a clear reference to A Midsummer Night's Dream).
All’s well that ends well, and the two lovers, Charmaine and Stan, are finally reunited after their many strange adventures. The only real snag is a cognitive one, as Charmaine, otherwise happy with her restored middle class life of fluffy pillows and soft bathroom towels, is presented with a question that utterly bamboozles her.
The Heart Goes Last is hard to categorise. Is it a series of thought bubbles, experimental fiction, an entertainment, Shakespearean farce, furious contemporary critique? It’s perhaps all of these. Nor does the novel lack for comedy and light hearted playfulness. There are many laugh-out-loud moments. Atwood is a sharp observer, a writer who takes a keen interest in the world around her. This gives her prose a youthful flavour, almost like it’s written by someone in their thirties (rather than Atwood's mid-seventies). The Heart Goes Last is a thorough romp, but also thought provoking, with an unsettling thread of darkness that runs through it.
The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN: 9781408867785 RRP: $32.99
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