My brother used to have a saying – an aphorism, I suppose – taped to his wall. It was attributed to Skippy the Lizard God and went like this:
Sex is like pizza – when it’s good, it’s really good. Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.
The same is true of albums by great bands, movies by great directors, or books by great authors – even their lesser efforts are generally worth your time. That’s a long way of saying that while The Heart Goes Last is far from Margaret Atwood’s best work, it’s still worth a read.
The Heart Goes Last has a deliciously absurd premise. A husband and wife, Stan and Charmaine, are living in their car in a depressed, near-future New England dystopia (there’s some suggesting things are better in the rest of the US). They’re not exactly happy, but they’re getting by. They find out about a quasi-utopian project called Consilience that promises work, happiness, and safety, but with a catch – people in the town live one month in their home and then one month in prison (where they’re used as cheap labor). Stan and Charmaine move in. It’s wrong to say “wackiness ensues,” but what transpires is pretty fucked up.
Without going too deep into spoiler country, Stan and Charmaine get caught up in a grand scheme that could bring down the whole operation, one that detours through murder and organ harvesting, Elvis impersonators, romantic imprinting gone awry, and Dutch-designed sex robots.*
There are some wonderfully dark and funny bits in all of this. In one instance, Stan finds what he thinks is a love note between the two “alternates” who share his and Charmaine’s house (occupants switch each month – one set in the house, one set in the big house). It’s lusty and sexy in a way Charmaine simply isn’t, which makes Stan determined to find and bed the other woman (contact between alternates is strictly forbidden). He spins out an R-rated, Technicolor fantasy that covers not only his attempted seduction but the surely violent reaction from her muscled, bald, and tattooed husband. It’s all completely inane, made all the more so when we learn the truth about the note.
Then there’s the blue teddy bears. I don’t think anybody has gotten such mileage out of an ordinary inanimate object since Tom Hanks (Castaway link).
Which is all amusing for a bit, but it doesn’t really coalesce into anything substantive in the end. Part of that’s due to Stan and Charmaine, who are our only POV characters. Since they’re essentially pawns in the game, we never get a solid idea of what the game is, who’s playing it, and why (even at the end). In addition, neither one are what you’d call bright. Stan is mostly a slave to his baser urges, while Charmaine is so chirpy and positive (even when dispatching souls in her prison job) that it’s hard to sympathize with her very much. I agree with this bit from the NPR review:
The Heart Goes Last’s deepest investment isn’t in Consilience’s hideous secrets. It isn’t even in Stan and Charmaine’s inner lives — both characters have interior monologues like repetitive tape loops. The book is mostly interested in their sexual obsessions, and the way they fetishize each other only once they’re separated. But their predictability doesn’t do much to ground an unpredictable narrative, or give readers a worthy point of view. As other people plot against Consilience, the protagonists become hapless bystanders in everything from their marriage to the larger story.
It doesn’t help matters that the endgame, as it plays out between this two, has a confusing, Rube Goldberg quality. Which could be fun, if we had some idea of what the people setting up the scheme were trying to accomplish.
As I said, all that makes The Heart Goes Last frustrating and I certainly wouldn’t suggest it as a starting point for someone who’s never read Atwood before. But she’s too talented a writer to not score some points along the way, so I’d definitely say it’s worth it (it’s pretty brief, all things considered). Nobody succeeds every time, but few of us are lucky enough to stumble as interestingly as Atwood.
Also, if I ever meet Grandma Win in person, I’ll punch her dentures down her throat.
* Indeed, it’s kind of odd how many parallels there are with The Mechanical and The Rising that I reviewed recently. Dutch robots? Check. Reprogrammed humans? Check. Ruminations on the nature of free will? Check. Done in completely different ways, of course. The sex bots also remind me of Zappa, naturally.