A certain strain of exceptionalism runs through most of our stories about catastrophes. The author sets the stage for this tragedy or that dystopia, but we are reassured because our hero is special – he or she is an orphan, the prophesied, has special powers, in some way or another is an underdog still guaranteed a victory. Margaret Atwood offers no such safety nets in The Heart Goes Last, a befuddling but engrossing portrait of a mundane couple stumbling through life after the American financial system collapses.
Stan and Charmaine have been coasting through middle-class married life until they suddenly find themselves without jobs and living in their car, driving from one abandoned strip mall parking lot to the next to evade marauding gangs of thieves and rapists. Their salvation comes in a suspiciously perfect corporate package: sign a lifetime contract and they can live in the town of Consilience, where employment is at 100%, everyone has a roof over their heads, and all you have to do is spend every other month as a willing inmate in Positron Prison.
Whatever shady shit you're imagining right now is probably in this book. Where in her other novels Atwood tends toward lush prose and a carefully sculpted narrative, here her writing is sparse and the story has everything but the kitchen sink, including sex-bots, illegal organ sales, Big Brother surveillance, and mind wipes. It certainly keeps one on one's toes but often teeters on the edge of being overwhelming and purely humorous.
The Heart Goes Last may, as other reviewers have suggested, ultimately be read as a contemporary companion piece to satires like Candide. Like Voltaire's protagonists, all through their trials and tribulations, Stan and Charmaine remain a little glassy. Although great forces are at work around them, they remain preoccupied with personal problems and do little but follow orders (whether those instructions come from the establishment or the revolution). Their small-mindedness and sex-focused inner lives are potent critiques of our willingness to surrender freedom for pleasure and our regular failures to see the big social picture from wherever it is we are standing. It's all a little too on-the-nose to laugh at, though. We want to imagine that we'll be the hero when it all goes down, but Stan and Charmaine suggest that we'll all probably be standing on the sidelines, looking at each other and thinking about who we think is hot.
Margaret Atwood will speak about The Heart Goes Last at the Texas Book Festival Sat., Oct. 17, 10am, in the House Chamber of the Capitol, 1100 Congress.
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