When I was halfway through Margaret Atwood's latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, my husband asked me what it's about. I quickly found myself stumbling over my own feeble rehashing.
"So somewhere in the indeterminate near future there's a huge economic collapse, and this couple is underemployed and living in their car, and to escape from their poverty they sign up for this program that resembles 'The Initiative' on the TV show Lost, except they have to go to prison every second month, and the couple ends up cheating on each other, and it turns out the company is killing inmates, and stealing babies, and brainwashing people without their consent," I rambled off enthusiastically.
"Also there's sex robots, plushophilia and Elvis impersonators."
It wasn't in any way the eloquent description the book deserves – the look on my husband's face confirmed as much – but, in my defence, The Heart Goes Last has a great deal of moving parts. In fact, there are so many that when you're in the midst of reading you're unsure of where you came from and thoroughly unsure of where you're going. That's not to say the book is bloated. Quite the contrary – every tiny, bizarre piece is fundamental in making sure the narrative hums swiftly along. The painstakingly intricate detail of the universe Atwood has created is exactly what makes it not only believable, but deeply witty and oddly beautiful.
In the interest of a more coherent second attempt: Stan and Charmaine are married and mostly miserable, eating day-old doughnuts and dumpster diving, scraping to get by on only Charmaine's meagre salary. They live in an impoverished world of constant threat, a 40-per-cent unemployment rate making the masses desperate and violent. They're rightfully afraid that drugged and boozed-up roving gangs will break into their car to steal what little they have left. The rather prudish Charmaine is on the brink of considering sex work as a solution to their money woes, when she catches a recruitment ad on television for the mysterious but alluring Positron Project in the gated community of Consilience.
In Consilience there's no unemployment, three meals a day and everyone gets their own pretty little 1950s-style house with a neatly trimmed hedge, fresh linens and patterned dishware. The one catch (and there's always a catch) is that residents spend half their time in prison-issue orange jumpsuits, alternating months between pristine domesticity and temporary incarceration. For the truly desperate, the sacrifice seems acceptable enough, and Atwood does an excellent job of convincing us that we, too, would do the same if we were in their shoes. Her frequent descriptions of food, and how plentiful it is in Consilience, drive home the point that the starved will suffer through a great deal in order to feast.
What's most interesting is that even with all the discord the couple face in the uncertain environment of a failed economy, Stan and Charmaine's relationship only falls apart when their lives become "perfect" behind Consilience's pristine walls. Against both the rules and the odds, Charmaine impulsively takes up with her husband's "alternate," the male half of the couple who reside in their home when they're spending time in prison. The clandestine affair is surprisingly kinky, given Charmaine's floral-patterned wholesome charms, pornographically enacted on the dirty exposed floorboards of abandoned buildings on the edge of town. (The female protagonist's extramarital lust turns out to be the least egregious way she departs from the blandness of her nightgowns decorated with bows and daisies.)
The infidelity acts as the catalyst for larger institutional unravelling, kick-starting action that leads to one surprising turn after another. It's not that Atwood is shaming her characters for their indelicacies, or needlessly moralizing a consequence to every action, but instead revealing that picture-perfect boredom begets self-manufactured strife. This is as much a novel about the flaws inherent to long-term pairings as it is about the apocalyptic danger of inevitable economic implosion. In a book so inventive, its most compelling aspect is really the ever-fluctuating love and loathing of its principal characters. Both Stan and Charmaine, very much in love, are pretty open with the reader about their casual interest in murdering one another – something that, in the context of the novel, is not even remotely shocking.
"How bad are things when you can get nostalgic about living in your car?" Charmaine asks herself. The novel certainly answers her question, with the couple's situation and the Positron Project becoming more and more horrifying by the chapter. Yet somehow Atwood is able to write about neurosurgical sex slavery, institutionalized murder and rape, and intercourse with chickens without disgusting and depressing us completely.
Though Atwood is obviously delivering a serious lesson about societal greed and human exploitation, it's frankly an amazing achievement how jovial The Heart Goes Last is from start to Shakespearean-style comedic finish. The novel is certainly a dystopian effort that belongs on the same hallowed list as Brave New World, 1984 and Atwood's own masterpiece, The Handmaid's Tale, but it also manages to be a whole lot of quirky, poppy fun, without ever once undermining its core message.