Known For Being A Person
by ALEX CARNEVALE
The Heart Goes Last
by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese, 320 pp.
"Sometimes you miss the newspaper," mumbles one character in The Heart Goes Last, the new novel from Margaret Atwood. Life in the twin towns of Consilience and Positron consists of one month as a civilian, and one month as a prisoner in a penitentiary. Atwood heard in her own newspaper about the vagaries of for-profit prisons, and decided they were some kind of hostile omen for the future of mankind.
Atwood has looked at the United States in the past with a viewpoint that alternates between condescending paternalism and utter forgiveness. The United States is a mess, she explains, full of different impersonations and desires that cannot help but fall into irretrievably broken pieces. Her protagonist Charmaine is a housewife turned bartender with no parents. After economic collapse forces her to reside in a car, she enrolls in the Positron Project.
Nothing really sounds all that bad about this dystopia. Charmaine and her husband Stan quickly grow apart, with him informing her that the shampoo on offer makes her smell like paint remover. There are evil workings behind the scenes, however, and Charmaine has just the right levels of cruelty and empathy to carry out Positron's executions with a smile on her face.
The entire story of Charmaine's struggle in dystopia is more window dressing than anything else. Atwood's real skill is on offer when she describes how human beings make decisions in the face of all the aspects of their lives. No other writer can as entertainingly explain how complicated and multilayered human motivations are. Even though Charmaine and her scooter mechanic husband Stan are flimsy archetypes when The Heart Goes Last begins, Atwood can't help but humanize them from their stale beginnings as she goes along.
Stan discovers that the scientists at Positron have discovered a way for human beings to imprint on each other "like ducklings." Stan meets a woman he knew outside of Positron who has accidentally imprinted on a blue teddy bear. Observing her love for the inanimate object becomes a turn-on for him as well. It is the most stirring emotion he has in the entire manuscript of The Heart Goes Last. "A person is a person no matter how creepy they are," observes Atwood.
We get the sense that Ms. Atwood may not really believe that statement. Charmaine's attentions wander from her husband to the man, Max, who lives in her house while she is doing her mandatory month of hard time. Atwood details their adultery in a relatively safe way, but the fashion in which she gets inside Charmaine's head, deciding how completely she gives herself over to the man who is not her husband, is chilling. In a broad satirical piece she has effortlessly unraveled a deeper psychological profile.
Stan finds out about the affair from the wife of the fellow Charmaine is boinking. (The sex of the married pair consists mostly of abbreviated intercouse with Stan occasionally begging Charmaine to "let go!"). Max's wife begins to force him to have sex with her on a regular basis. It is the darkest part of The Heart Goes Last, and the subtext is that there can be no compulsion between a man and a woman in this area. Men are helpless and inadequate when they cannot fill their roles as gainful providers, Atwood explains, but they are still men.
Most satires burn out of steam by the third act, but Atwood is supernatural at teasing out mysteries where there really aren't any. Near the end Stan takes up work in a sex robot factory, where he has some harsh words for people who desire such imitations of life. This joke seems relatively old, given that lifelike sex toys have been on the market for over a century. Atwood uses this discussion as an argument against relativism, as a way of explaining that not every human sexual desire deserves equal recognition.
Atwood's most recent novels in the Oryx and Crake universe were not for everyone. They were highly realized science fiction containing the interplay of genius level characters on a massive, world-breaking canvas. Despite their scope, Atwood is absolutely expert at never losing a grasp of the personal even within a large story. There is a conscious effort in The Heart Goes Last to slow things down. She has written a book that can have its impact on anyone, that addresses its lessons to a broader audience, with a firmer hand. It would be a bit overbearing if we didn't feel like this inspirational pamphlet was actually good for us.
Though much sought after, control is impossible in The Heart Goes Last. Even the ownership of time is brokered over — are the moments Charmaine spends fucking her boyfriend in an abandoned house those to do with as she pleases, or do they essentially belong to her husband? The fight against being taken over by events outside ourselves does nothing to change the fact that there is something intrinsic inside us that wants to be told what to do. In The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood wonders, at length, what exactly that thing is.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
"Wedding Ring" - Glen Hansard (mp3)