The Heart Goes Last
Anarchy has broken out in large swaths of America following a massive financial crash. Gangs prowl the streets, ready to rape, steal, and kill. Meanwhile, prim middle-class couple Charmaine and Stan camp in their car, the doors locked, sleeping fitfully, and surviving off day-old doughnuts. Prospects seem grim.
Then Charmaine sees a TV ad offering a chance for a new life: a suburban utopia, where crime is nil, sheets are crisp, work is plentiful, and everyone has their very own two-up, two-down house. But there’s a catch. In the gated community of Consilience individuals occupy alternating roles. For one month they are at liberty to enjoy leisure and domestic civilian life. The next they must check into male and female prisons where money is saved (and made) through cramped cells and menial labour. And once they’re in, they’re in for good.
Charmaine is just happy she has a washing machine into which she can pour lashings of lavender-scented fabric softener. Her husband is happy that she’s happy. Soon, however, such white-picket-fenced bliss begins to grate. Despite her “quasi virginal restraint”, Charmaine embarks on a lewd affair. It surprises even her. What unravels is far more than just their marriage.
Margaret Atwood has painted a brilliant portrait of a dystopian society. Not only is Consilience dull, with its Doris Day music and chirpy residents, it is dangerous. Facial technology is secretly used to assess true emotions. Bad eggs are erased and their organs sold. And weird scientific experiments include the production of headless chickens and neurosurgical sex slavery.
Veering between page-turning thriller and bawdy comedy, Atwood injects large doses of wit and humour. The blonde, pretty, chitter-chattering Charmaine is particularly convincing: a girl with a soft, proper appearance belying steel underneath. Meanwhile Stan – hopeless and rather gormless – becomes an unwilling pawn in a power play where sex (the dirtier the better) is a trump card.
Big questions, particularly pertinent post-GFC, underpin The Heart Goes Last, not least the corrupting nature of corporate greed. As the title suggests, however, this is a novel about the human heart, and not always a flattering one. Whether dissecting monogamy, asking to what extent love is a question of free will, or probing the silliness of sexual fantasies, Atwood’s satire is whip sharp. This is a writer who remains at the top of her craft. EA
Bloomsbury, 288pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2015 as "Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last ". Subscribe here.