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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Margaret Atwood: "The Heart Goes Last"

Author:  Margaret Atwood 
Title:  The Heart Goes Last 
Plot Type:  Dystopian Fantasy 
Ratings:  Violence2-3; Sensuality4; Humor—3  
Publisher:  Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (9/2015)

    Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of an economic and social collapse. Job loss has forced them to live in their car, leaving them vulnerable to roving gangs. They desperately need to turn their situation around—and fast. The Positron Project in the town of Consilience seems to be the answer to their prayers. No one is unemployed and everyone gets a comfortable, clean house to live in...for six months out of the year. On alternating months, residents of Consilience must leave their homes and function as inmates in the Positron prison system. Once their month of service in the prison is completed, they can return to their "civilian" homes.

     At first, this doesn't seem like too much of a sacrifice to make in order to have a roof over one's head and food to eat. But when Charmaine becomes romantically involved with the man who lives in their house during the months when she and Stan are in the prison, a series of troubling events unfolds, putting Stan's life in danger. With each passing day, Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.

     Imagine what conditions in the U.S. might have been like if the 2008 recession had been 100 times worse than it actually was. Then imagine what your life would have been like if you were unemployed, penniless, and living in Detroit (although Atwood never gives the city a name). Having lost their home, their jobs, and their savings, Stan and Charmaine are living in their car and looking at their future with more fear than hope. Stan feels that he has "been expelled, cast out, condemned to a life of frantic, grit-in-the-eyes, rancid-armpit wandering." Life had been increasingly good before it became incredibly bad. They had worked hard and done all the right things. "Then everything went to ratshit. Overnight, it felt like….the whole card castle, the whole system fell to pieces, trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheets like fog off a window….Someone had lied, someone had cheated, someone had shorted the market, someone had inflated the currency. Not enough jobs, too many people." Now they spend their nights moving from parking lot to parking lot, always fleeing from the gangs that prowl the city streets. Public law enforcement is a thing of the past; only the rich have enough money to pay for police protection, most of them having fled the country to live in homes built on "tax-free sea platforms just outside the offshore limit." 

     One day, while Charmaine is tending bar (a temp job), she sees a television ad about Positron/Consilience, and it's as if the man on the screen is speaking directly to her: "Tired of living in your car?…Of course you are! You didn't sign up for this. You had other dreams. You deserve better." Without much discussion, Stan and Charmaine apply for and are accepted by the Positron Project, and they sign the final papers without too much worry, even though Stan's outlaw brother, Con, tries to warn them off. After all, Positron promises good jobs, a safe and secure place to live, and all of life's other necessities in exchange for doing an honest day's work. Although the prison part of the deal is somewhat worrisome at first, it turns out that they both are assigned to interesting jobs and that the prison even serves top-notch meals. 

     The Consilience motto is "CONSILIENCE = CONS + RESILIENCE. DO TIME NOW. BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE." The town and its prison are tightly gated and closed off from all physical and electronic contact outside its walls. The closed-circuit Consilience television network is heavily censored and extremely retro: "To avoid overexcitement, there is no pornography or undue violence, and no rock or hip-hop. However, there is no limitation on string quartets, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, the Mills Brothers, or show tunes from vintage Hollywood musicals." The Consilience Network theme song is the barn-raising dance music from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Living in Consilience is basically a trip back in time to the early 1950s. At one point, Charmaine muses, "The past is so much safer, because whatever's in it has already happened. It can't be changed; so, in a way, there's nothing to dread."

     The first half of the book reads like a near-future dystopian tale that might actually be possible if the economic conditions ever degraded to historically disastrous levels. If you combine the 40% unemployment rate of this story with real-life America's high incarceration numbers and the growing trend toward prison privatization, you can almost imagine that something like the Positron Project could be a real possibility. 

     In the first half of the book Atwood explores Stan and Charmaine's alternating lives: as Positron prison inmates and as citizens of Consilience. Charmaine is Chief Medications Administrator, and her job is to carry out a Special Procedure on certain specified inmates. She is also part of a knitting group that makes blue teddy bears for the children of Consilience (but keep an eye out for how those little blue bears are used in the later chapters). Stan's prison job is to take care of the chickens, a job that he really enjoys. Early on, though, he is coerced by some inmates to allow them carnal access to his flock. Stan wonders, "What did that make him? A chicken pimp. Better that than dead." Later in the story, management announces a new plan to feed headless chickens through tubes because it will "decrease anxiety and increase meat growth efficiencies; in addition to which it eliminates cruelty to animals, which is the sort of multiple win that Positron has come to stand for!" All the way through these early chapters, we watch Positron gradually announce and rationalize new, sometimes horrifying, policies. Each time, these announcements are followed by Stan and Charmaine's reactions (via internal monologues) in which they convince themselves to accept, even welcome, the new policies. 

     But then, Atwood turns away from exploring the disturbing dystopian elements of the Positron Project and turns the plot into a labyrinth of twists and turns that gradually devolve into a kind of dark, madcap concoction of sexual betrayals (both physical and mental), organ trafficking, espionage, blackmail, and the manufacture of sex-bots (aka prostibots: human replicas with appropriate vocal and sensory effects). They are "said to be better than the bonk-a-chicken racket that used to go on at Positron…No squeaking. No scratchy claws." Eventually, near the end, we find ourselves in a Las Vegas that teems with hordes of Elvis and Marilyn impersonators—both real and robotic. The second half of the bookwith its fast-paced noir humor and serpentine plot twistsis far different from the carefully crafted dystopian exploration of first half. At times, the final chapters veer towards slapstick as Stan dons his sparkly jumpsuit and fake lips and eyebrows and heads out to perform at retirement villages, where he hugs elderly ladies and growls, "I love you too, honey…I love you tender." He also joins up with a Green Man group (as opposed to Blue Man) with all of the attendant revelry that involves.

     This book began as a serialized on-line novel, which may explain the unevenness of the writing and the dissonance between the first and second halves of the book. Atwood introduces us to her characters through the extensive use of interior monologues by Stan and Charmaine as they tell their individual stories and react to the events of their new and increasingly chaotic lives, particularly as they constantly rationalize the awful things that they do to each other. Here, Atwood demonstrates her deep understanding of the human psyche and her ability to reflect our fears and anxieties back at us.

     As usual, Atwood inserts noir humor into even the most ominous scenes. For example, during Stan's tour of the horrifying sex-bot facility, he takes a look at a coded checklist used by clients to specify which "standard expression" they prefer. For example, "W…for Welcoming…like a flight attendant. T+H is Timid and Hesitant, L+S is for Lustful and Shameless. A+B is for Angry and Belligerent; not too much demand for that, you might think, but you'd be wrong." The technicians explain the quality control of the assembly line to Stan: "Specialized….No latitude for error…Get it wrong and [the bot] can have a spasm…Bits can come off…I mean bits of you."

     The book has moments of poignancy, high emotion, horror, and humor, but even with the extensive internal monologues, I never truly connected with Stan and Charmaine, and certainly not with the supporting characters (particularly not with Max/Phil or Ed). For me, the first half of the book felt terrifyingly plausible, and I would have enjoyed a deeper development of some of the Positron-related characters (Jocelyn, for example). Or perhaps some of Sam and Charmaine's neighbors, who would no doubt have had different types of adjustment problems. Mostly, though, I did enjoy the book for its inventive premise, for the depth of the mythology, and the noir humor that found its way into even the darkest scenes. 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of The Heart Goes Last is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

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