science fiction and fantasy book reviewsThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood sff book reviewsThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

I consider Margaret Atwood to be a literary treasure. The Handmaid’s Tale. Alias Grace. The Blind Assassin. The MADDADDAM trilogy. Any author would be thrilled to have written a single work evincing such craft and depth. Atwood churns them out on a regular basis. That context is important here, because her most recent work, The Heart Goes Last, is in my mind definitely a “lesser” Atwood and is in several ways a disappointing work. But that’s “lesser” and “disappointing” in relation to Atwood’s other output, which means despite that overall judgment, there’s still a lot of biting wit, some spot-on social/cultural satire, and prose that is always precise, smooth, and that at times delivers lines that strike right you right between the eyes.

Early on it appears we’re in somewhat typical Atwood territory, a sort of near-future dystopia. Financial collapse has wreaked its havoc on the world and the US, and Charmaine and Stan are dumpster diving and living out of their car, having lost their jobs at Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Clinics and Dimple Robotics, respectively. Despite their lives being turned upside down and seemingly headed even further in the wrong direction, they still seem sweetly naïve in their love for each other and their continued attempts to climb out of their hole.

Their final such attempt comes in the form of the Positron Project, a new social/economic creation for postmodern times. Or as their TV commercial puts it:

Remember what your world used to be like? Before the dependable world we used to know was disrupted? At the Positron Project in the town of Consilience, it can be like that again. We offer not only full employment but also protection from the danger elements that afflict so many… Accentuate the positive!

Desperate, Charmaine and Stan sign up for an orientation weekend. After the creepy commercial and even creepier in-person presentations, the reader is pretty sure it’s a bad, bad idea, even before Stan’s street-rough scam artist petty crook brother shows up to warn them off joining, darkly implying people don’t ever come out. Stan and Charmain do join, of course. And it turns out to be even worse than Stan’s brother or the reader could have guessed. Even worse than what seems to be the ostensible premise of the Project: a private prison/civilian town where the two halves of the town rotate through being prisoners or guards/workers on a monthly basis —

If every citizen were either a guard or a prisoner, the result would be full employment… [And] think of the savings, with every dwelling serving two sets of residents!

Sam enters with a skeptical eye, while Charmaine buys more fully into the concept, happily settling into the routine. The reader, who has seen this sort of thing before, sides more with Sam, though I’m guessing few can guess where Atwood spins off. Before she does so, though, we get a sharp send-up of modern trends in classic Atwood mode: the movement toward privatizing prisons, the retro movement (Consilience is perpetually the 1950s because “this was the decade in which the most people had self-identified as being happy.”), the ravages of unfettered and unregulated capitalism.

And then, to be honest, things started to feel like they were coming off the rails a bit. The Heart Goes Last spirals outward into AIs, sex farce, Elvis impersonators, pneumatic sex, blackmail, murder, sexbots, brain surgery, Blue Men jokes, conspiracies within conspiracies and more and the characters — perhaps the most shallow and broad characters in an Atwood work that I can recall — just can’t bear the burden of the plot. It doesn’t take long for the novel to bog down, therefore, feeling overlong by a good 20-30 percent, I’d say. And some hard-hitting and more thoughtful bits fly fast and furious at the very end, almost as if Atwood herself had realized that what had come before was a bit too light and hadn’t really earned the novel’s length or heft.

That said, this is Atwood. And so even as the novel felt padded and plodding, even as one wished for more intelligent or even fully human characters, there remain lots of moments of darkly wry or deeply black humor, sharp efficient detail, or thoughtful examination of culture, society, and human nature. Here, for instance, are a few such examples:

  • On new and improved chickens: “A new process will soon be introduced at Poultry; headless chickens nourished through tubes, which has been shown to decrease anxiety and increase meat growth efficiencies; in addition to which it eliminates cruelty to animals.”
  • On sexbots: “’I don’t think they’ll ever replace the living and breathing,’ says Gary.
  • “’They said that about e-books,’ said Kevin. ‘You can’t stop progress.’”
  • On interior decorating: “They go out into the hallway, turn a corner, then another corner. More framed pictures of fruits: a mango, a kumquat. The fruit, he notes, is getting more exotic.”
  • On one character’s facial expression/characterization: “’Of course,’ says Aurora with a half-smile like a perfect symmetrical slice of lemon.”
  • On nostalgia: “The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed, so, in a way, there’s nothing to dread.”

Had The Heart Goes Last been a novella-length work, it could have been quite strong, even with some issues with character. Cut off a hundred pages or so out of its 300+, and it would have been an enjoyably light Atwood with regular flashes of depth and darkly satiric comedy. As it stands though, it’s a good start that seems to spin out of control, going on too long about the sexual hijinks of characters that are too shallow and broad, though it’s made more palatable than most books based on this plot and these characters would have been thanks to Atwood’s classic satirical insight, playfully dark humor, and always smooth and often sharp prose.

Published in 2015. Margaret Atwood puts the human heart to the ultimate test in an utterly brilliant new novel that is as visionary as The Handmaid’s Tale and as richly imagined as The Blind Assassin. Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of an economic and social collapse. Job loss has forced them to live in their car, leaving them vulnerable to roving gangs. They desperately need to turn their situation around—and fast. The Positron Project in the town of Consilience seems to be the answer to their prayers. No one is unemployed and everyone gets a comfortable, clean house to live in . . . for six months out of the year. On alternating months, residents of Consilience must leave their homes and function as inmates in the Positron prison system. Once their month of service in the prison is completed, they can return to their “civilian” homes. At first, this doesn’t seem like too much of a sacrifice to make in order to have a roof over one’s head and food to eat. But when Charmaine becomes romantically involved with the man who lives in their house during the months when she and Stan are in the prison, a series of troubling events unfolds, putting Stan’s life in danger. With each passing day, Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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