"The Heart Goes Last,” by Margaret Atwood
This is a book with so many angles that it is not really clear what it is about. The book starts with the United States suffering dystopian conditions similar to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” – the result of a huge financial collapse. People have lost their jobs, live in cars, starve, work odd jobs like bars or prostitution, fear theft and death. To avoid this dreadful situation, the lead characters join a sinister ‘utopian’ solution to their poverty called the Positron Project. It is a confinement / prison community where the residents spend 6 months in neat ‘50s bungalows working normal jobs and 6 months in jail raising chickens or knitting blue teddy bears. The 1950s is the touchstone for this world. It seems like Atwood is riffing on the incarceration state that the U.S. has become. It is the beginnings of a good story.
Then the secrets of the comfortable prison are slowly revealed – housing and then murdering prisoners for profit through organ-harvesting; kidnapping for baby-blood infusions; human meat used for chicken feed; the manufacturing of sex robots and to top it off, romantic ‘mind-surgery’ on unsuspecting women. The prison is like some kind of corporate capitalist conglomerate trying every creepy profit angle - not just earning money from the state to incarcerate criminals and the unemployed, which is creepy enough. And absolutely accurate.
Ultimately there is an internal rebellion organized by some high-level insiders (not prisoners...) against the corporate dictator, Ed, who runs the Positron Project. The story ends by leaving the dystopia of lived-in cars and the poor robbing and killing out of desperation. It leaves the prison situation in which freedom and confinement are inextricably mixed. It ends up in a ‘normal,’ somewhat present-day Vegas – with wedding chapels, Elvis and Marilyn impersonators, even the “Green Man” group - with no seeming connection to that past. As if Atwood lost interest in the earlier story and had just paid a visit to the joke that is Las Vegas and wanted to use it for material. As somewhat of an odder coda, after the boss Ed is exposed for his more nefarious doings and punished, the prison / bungalow enterprise still continues - but ‘only’ to continue to produce sex-bots and collect money from the state for incarceration. Like normal, like the situation has improved!
The real story in this book seems to be a somewhat unreal take on romance, love and sex. It seems to Atwood that all men primarily want sex (somewhat like the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’) and so, indeed, do most women. The story or themes are window-dressing for an unconvincing story of ‘love’ by somewhat robotic characters – or actual robots. The lead female is a conventional, air-headed blonde married to a brooding but ‘solid’ conventional guy. She is actually attracted to another man in the compound because her husband is dull, and adultery follows. The boss Ed eventually becomes obsessed with her too and wants to turn her into his sex slave through brain surgery on her. Meanwhile her husband gets trapped into an adulterous relationship himself while pining for another sexy woman he doesn’t know. Following this? Do you care?
So what we have here are subjects previously touched on by “Cloud Atlas;” by “The Road;” by “Frankenstein," even by any number of romance novels. The organ harvesting is especially interesting, as this has been going on since the birth of capitalism and the fact that it still plays a fictional (and real) role shows how little has changed. If there is a coherent point to “The Heart Goes Last?” or even a coherent story within it, it escaped this writer. In spite of the prominent blurbs on the back-jacket, and as much as I admire Atwood, the answer is no.
Reviews of “The Road,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Cloud Atlas” and "Monsters of the Market," below. Other dystopian books and films are also reviewed. Use blog search box, upper left.
September 19, 2016