This book was, shockingly, a leftover from 2015 for me. I say shockingly because Atwood is my favorite author, and this book was a birthday present, and my birthday is in September. I finished it in February. I don’t think this has nearly as much to do with the book itself as it does with the major changes in my life since last May. Prior to May, I worked full-time and had a one-hour lunch break to do anything I wanted five days a week while someone else watched my kids – and what I wanted to do was read. Now, as a stay-at-home mom, I still get to read – but not with the focus and duration one needs to truly appreciate Atwood’s writing. Lesser authors? Sure. I’ve read plenty of those in the interim. I’m learning to work with the time I get, though, and so I finally managed to finish the book.
With that said, I will reiterate: Atwood does not disappoint. For me, The Heart Goes Last (Penguin Random House, 26.95 USD) is right up there with The Handmaid’s Tale and the MadAddam trilogy: desperate times, the promise of utopia – and the true cost of it. In other words, what Atwood does best.
It takes Atwood quite a while to set up the premise of the story here – but the result of this is that I could all but imagine the street layout in Consilience (a small town selling itself as a real-life utopia in a post-economic crash wasteland – and where most of the story takes place). In fact, The Heart Goes Last should be on the required reading list of any megalomaniac looking to trick the desperate masses into signing a life-long contract with no guarantee as to how long that life might last. But first, let’s start at the beginning.
Charmaine and Stan, a married couple, are attempting to ride out a devastating economic collapse while living in their car. Atwood’s depiction of the collapse of society is downright post-apocalyptic. The only people with money are criminals, and every night in the car brings the danger of looters and rapists. Surviving on Charmaine’s meager waitressing tips, Stan’s lack of job options (he formerly worked in robotics), and living in a confined space have put a serious strain on their marriage. Stan considers asking his criminal brother for help (an unsettling role reversal, as Stan was the one who bailed out Conor before the collapse), but then Charmaine hears about a new community called the Consilience from a television ad at the bar where she works. She convinces Stan to take the bus ride (paid for by the Positron Project, which is based in Consilience) to check it out – maybe even apply.
Much unlike the barren wasteland ruled by thugs and criminal masterminds like Stan’s brother Conor, Consilience appears to be a thriving community straight out of Leave It to Beaver – but with current technology. The landscaping is ornate, there are hors d’oeuvres and beverages containing foods like olives that they (and everyone else applying) have long done without, and everyone is “so fucking nice! The niceness is like the olive: it’s a long time since Stan has encountered that muffling layer of smiling and nodding. Who knew he’s such a fascinating dude?” (32)
Both Stan and Charmaine sign up, despite their better judgment and Conor’s warning against it (“unless you’re in top management, you can’t get out. Except in a box, feet first”). What choice do they have, really, after spending a night in the town’s only hotel, in a real bed with real sheets and in a room with a connected bathroom? Conor is right – the contract they sign is for life.
The other catch is their living arrangements: Stan and Charmaine have a house to themselves, but only every other month. They must spend the intervening months locked up in Positron Prison, separated from each other. While they are away, another couple lives in their house; when they come back, that couple goes into the prison. Stan and Charmaine aren’t allowed to know anything about their Alternates, because it could lead to feelings of possessiveness or jealousy. All personal belongings get stored away in lockers in the basement before the switchover.
Despite the finer details of the fine print, Stan and Charmaine settle into a pleasant routine. Nothing objectionable is shown on television, and no offensive music is played on the radio (or allowed in personal possession). So, it’s mostly mid-twentieth century sitcoms and cop dramas on television and Doris Day on the radio. The mastermind behind Consilience’s rebirth, known as Ed, has carefully avoided anything that could cause a revolt when planning his community. Predictability is the goal; tedium is the result. Despite the significant step up from living in their car, Stan and Charmaine grow bored.
Several months into their life in Consilience, Stan finds a titillating note that must have be a sexy game between the Alternates (“I’m starved for you!”), who are (according to the note) Jasmine and Max. A kiss pressed onto the note in lipstick is what does it for Stan – a whorish shade of purple that Charmaine would never wear. He becomes obsessed with “Jasmine,” fantasizes about meeting her and finding that she is irresistibly attracted to him. Little does he know that Charmaine has been doing her fair share of fantasizing – and more – as well.
Most citizens spend their prison months doing repetitive tasks such as folding towels or growing the food that everyone in Consilience eats. Charmaine, however, lands the important job of Chief Medications Officer. Mostly she just keeps track of the medications in the pharmacy – she’s very organized – but she also must perform the occasional Special Procedure. The Procedure is called that for security reasons – if the citizens of Consilience knew what it was, there might be a revolt. The truth of the Special Procedure and the illicit affairs of both Charmaine and Stan eventually lead to a desperate mission to tell the world what’s really going on at Positron.
Charmaine is a bit of an enigma. All the characters are, really, except for Stan. Charmaine comes off as a bit of an airhead at first – a simple, sweet woman whose sentences frequently begin with “Grandma Win always said…” and who is married to a grumpy guy who used to have an important job, until the collapse took all the important jobs away. Before the collapse, Charmaine worked for the Ruby Slippers Retirement Home chain, having studied geriatrics and play therapy in college. She doesn’t seem particularly bright, and she seems too sweet to be capable of having an affair, but in the thick of the story, she’s a bit of a sociopath (or easily manipulated – most likely both). The hell she went through before Positron has taken its toll. Considering how closely the initial events of the collapse in the book mirror events of recent years, this is perhaps Atwood’s most plausible dystopia yet.
The plausibility of this story is what makes it so unsettling – a catastrophic economic collapse setting off the strange chain of events in this story seems far more possible today than it did around 2007. The further widening of the income gap only makes it that much more likely. But Atwood is not all hard bluster – she serves her unpleasant reality with a side of droll humor. A Blue Man Group ripoff called The Green Man Group plays a pivotal role late in the book, and Stan finds himself pretending to be a gay man pretending to play a straight Elvis impersonator as a key part of his covert mission. It may have taken me nearly four months to get to the halfway point – again, I attribute this more to my life than to the writing, but the setup in Consilience is not half as thrilling as what comes later – but I read the last half of the book within three days. If the action in the story hadn’t been enough to keep me reading (it certainly was), the bizarre silliness Atwood seasons it with would have. Three more words on that: Elvis sex robots.