With The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood takes readers to a favorite destination on her literary map: dystopia. Married couple Stan and Charmaine began well enough, with good jobs and a starter home. Then Charmaine lost her job with Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes. Stan, a robotics engineer, held on a little longer. That ended when his company moved out west. Now the couple lives out of their Honda, dodging thieving street gangs. During the day, their cash dwindling, they share stale doughnuts.
Then Charmaine sees a commercial for the Positron Project. “Tired of living in your car?” asks the announcer. The Positron Project, in the town of Consilience, offers full employment and housing to the right people. Panning through a bright, clean house, the camera focuses on billowing curtains and plush towels. Charmaine begs Stan to consider it.
Joining a busload of hopefuls, the couple travels through Consilience’s gated entry to mingle amongst the select. Men and women are separated, their cell phones confiscated. Ed, the director, explains the Positron Project model, which discards the niceties of innocence or guilt for the ease of groupthink. Everyone serves time on an alternating basis, spending a month in Positron Prison, a month out.
Housing, provided by the project, is shared. While one couple is imprisoned, the alternates move in. Employment comes courtesy of the prison, for the captive require maintenance. Ed has great plans for Consilience’s future as a model self-sustaining community, one he hopes will be duplicated nationwide. Meanwhile, prisoners happily garden, raise chickens, and knit. There’s even a brewery in the works.
Stan and Charmaine are sent to a filthy motel to make their final decision. Late that night, Conor, Stan’s criminally-inclined brother, urges Stan to reconsider. Though Stan harbors doubts—where is the Positron Project’s profit margin? Why the ban on rock and hip-hop?—his need to please Charmaine outweighs his concerns. They sign on.
Their first night in Consilience, Stan watches uneasily as Charmaine goes into raptures over the dishwasher, “cooing over as if it’s a kitten”. But he adjusts quickly, rock music forgotten as Doris Day sings “Paper Doll” over the headphones. He enjoys caring for the lawn, too, even if their alternates leave the hedge trimmer dirty.
At 320 pages, The Heart Goes Last is one of Atwood’s shorter books, fast-paced and funny. Charmaine, sweetly air-headed, has overcome a difficult childhood reminiscent of The Robber Bride’s Charis. Subjected to verbal abuse and possibly worse, Charmaine resolutely seeks life’s best side. Her gentle manner, so successful at the retirement home, lands her an appointment as “Chief Medications Administrator”, performing top secret “Special Procedures”.
Stan, Atwood’s third male narrator in 15 novels, is more confident than Life Before Man‘s miserable Nate or Oryx and Crake‘s hapless, hallucinating Jimmy. When The Heart Goes Last opens, Stan, is reeling:
“It makes him cross-eyed to remember how hard he’d worked. Then everything went to ratshit. Overnight, it felt like. “
Nevertheless, he keeps his wits as life in Consilience goes haywire, largely by recalling his love for Charmaine.
It is Charmaine who tips the balance. Despite her desperate longing for safety and stability, for immaculate sheets and scented fabric softener, she falls into a crazed affair with the alternate Max. The relationship releases a wild sexual persona Charmaine barely understands; succumbing to Max’s demands, she becomes the lusty Jasmine.
Matters worsen when Stan finds one of Jasmine’s lipsticked notes. Stan vividly fantasizes about Max and Jasmine, only to have his fantasies crushed when Max’s wife appears in their shared garage. To say more would spoil the story; suffice to say she is quite displeased. Her revenge is complex and exacting, upending conventional notions of sexual power along with the entire Positron Project.
At this point The Heart Goes Last takes off rapidly, the plot verging on slapstick. There are Elvis impersonators, a Green Man Group, and headless chickens. There are blue teddy bears, a cancer-stricken news reporter landing her final story, and a gorgeous victim of a botched brainwashing surgery. Questions of dealing with true criminals and the aged are handled humorously, but blood edges the laughs.
The novel’s characters are drawn in shades of gray; only Ed is a wholly nasty piece of work, his income strategies nastier. He’s got a lucrative line in Possibilibots, high-end, custom made robotic sex dolls. The most expensive models breathe and have heartbeats, though glitches leaves them prone to user-mutilating spasms. “You need to fiddle with the settings,” remarks one of the engineers, likening them to bicycle seats.
This being Atwood, male sexual rapacity coupled with financial greed means a bad ending. Although Ed’s demise is initially amusing, thoughtful readers may find it otherwise.
Other characters, forced to make life-changing decisions, behave surprisingly. Charmaine may love Stan, but like so many Atwood heroines before her, survival predominates. And if involvement in shady business isn’t necessarily indicative of shady character, Conor stands out. He’ll never win the keys to the city. But he’ll always be able to slip through the back entrance, wad of cash handy. These days, as Atwood’s world of speculative fiction inches ever closer to our reality, what skill set is more important?
True love ultimately endures in The Heart Goes Last, but so do the real terrors present in Atwood novels, all too often manifesting in ours. (Remember when Offred learns her cash card is cut off in The Handmaid’s Tale? ATM cards were unknown in 1985.) Brevity doesn’t make The Heart Goes Last any less pressing or fearful. The heartbeat may be the last human function to cease, but only when given the opportunity.
"The stories in this collection are circular, puzzling; they often end as cruelly as they do quietly, the characters and their journeys extinguished with poisonous calm.READ the article