The Edge of Our Own Horizons: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Heart Goes Last, is set in a frighteningly possible future just over the edge of our own horizons. It features Stan and Charmaine, married and living in their car after a financial crisis so dire that it has torn whole cities apart, complete with downed power lines, depleted water supplies, and chaotic streets. The couple is afraid to venture out of their car at night for fear of being attacked and don’t leave it empty, as it might be stolen or vandalized. Their marriage survives on hasty, uncomfortable backseat sex and Charmaine’s work as a bartender in a surviving pub that caters mostly to the clients of the two prostitutes who’ve set up shop there.
It is at Charmaine’s job — hers, not his, a fact that Stan is acutely aware of — that she sees a commercial on television that seems to be speaking right at her: “Tired of living in your car?” it begins. Ed, the besuited talking head, is the founder of a new kind of city and advertises its comforts: neat little houses, king size beds, curtains, clean streets. “At the Positron Project in the town of Consilience… we offer not only full employment but also protection from the dangerous elements that afflict so many at this time. Work with like-minded others! Help solve the nation’s problems of joblessness and crime while solving your own! Accentuate the positive!” Striking a balance between practical and self-help, Charmaine is convinced, and she and a more dubious Stan apply to join, even though the two prostitutes at her bar don’t believe that anything could be so good. They believe there’s a catch. And, indeed, there is.
Stan and Charmaine ride a bus to the newly founded city where they are taken on a daylong tour of the place after which they have to decide whether to join or not. During the tour, men and women are separated at some parts, and as the novel alternates between Stan and Charmaine’s points-of-view, it is Stan we see during much of the tour, as he is the more skeptical of the two. He listens as Ed, the founder of the town, explains the model of the city: “CONSILIENCE = CONS + RESILIENCE. DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE!” Ed admits that “the powers that be” have considered the model of Consilience/Positron to be an “infringement of individual liberties, an attempt at total social control, an insult to the human spirit.” Indeed, signing up is not like joining a gym; once you go in, you can’t come out. Ed’s reverse psychology is powerful, though — if he readily confesses to the criticism, it can’t be true, can it?
Ed begins to explain the dire situation of criminality in the country, using a PowerPoint presentation — all the more reason to see this world as close to ours — with graphs that prove his point, which is that prisons can be made to be useful. Rather than having convicts doing pointless jobs that often don’t contribute much, they could be working construction, cleaning, medical, agricultural jobs and more. And thus, the model of Positron was born, the brainchild of Ed and the silent woman who sits beside him. Her presence in this scene is foreboding, though it is only later that a reader will make this connection.
So what exactly is it that allows for the town of Consilience to be so perfect, so beautifully decorated and neat, so The Truman Show-, The Stepford Wives-, Pleasantville-, ‘50s-esque? The Consilience/Positron model is a switcheroo between prison and a life of comfort. Every person accepted to and entered into the city’s system spends one month in his or her luxurious family home or comfortable singleton apartment, where they have colored lockers. At the end of each month the residents put their personal effects into their own locker. Then they ride their scooters (the town is big on scooters — cars are for officials and high powered people only) to Positron, the prison, and voluntarily check themselves in. Men and women are divided into separate sections, where their jobs are helpful to the community. They grow food, take care of livestock, fold laundry, and are encouraged to take up healthy activities during their free time, such as yoga or knitting. During the month they are in prison, their alternates ride their own scooters to the house or apartment, unlock their own locker, and settle in for their month of living the luxurious and comfortable life. Alternates are never supposed to meet.
The system is seemingly perfect. Six months out of a year, you get to have a perfectly comfortable life. The other six months are still comfortable; Positron isn’t the kind of prison where stabbings occur, gang fights break out, and fear-mongering guards loom over every activity. No, it is a clean facility, with jobs aplenty, and the worst thing about it is that maybe it gets a little boring. But who isn’t bored half their life anyway? What could be so bad? This is where Atwood’s brilliance shines: she has us this close to being convinced to join ourselves.
Time is glossed over in the novel, and there is a feeling of urgency as Atwood sets up Stan and Charmaine into their steady life in Consilience/Positron, as if she’s just waiting to get to the good stuff, to the more powerful and painful moments. But when the curtain veiling the dramatic scenes to come finally drops, it feels, at first, like a cop-out. We find out that Charmaine has been cheating on Stan with a man who calls himself Max (she calls herself Jasmine). Max is Stan’s alternate, and his wife is Charmaine’s. A character cheating being used as a turning point is such an obvious narrative choice that it feels cliched. Skilled storyteller that Atwood is, however, she complicates matters very quickly, because Charmaine’s affair pales in comparison to the morally questionable job she holds at Positron as Chief Medications Administrator. In this position (more powerful than Stan’s, just as outside in the real world) she organizes shelves and makes sure everything is in its place, but her main responsibility is euthanizing former actual convicts, a role in which she sees herself as a benevolent angel of death.
Meanwhile, Stan begins to fantasize about Jasmine, whose note he finds under the fridge and which was meant to be for Max. When he eventually decides to wait at the house for her, certain she will tear his clothes off and schtup him silly since he’s created an erotic creature in his mind, he finds that there is no Jasmine. There is only Max’s wife, Jocelyn. Ed’s right hand woman. Stan sees her as being “on the short side, with straight hair down to her shoulders. Dark eyebrows. A heavy mouth, no lipstick. Black jeans and T-shirt. She looks like a dyke martial arts expert.” It is this woman, whose “sick fantasies” Stan has to enact (and which involves them schtupping each other silly, even though it’s not exactly what he imagined it would be like) who is the only true rebel of the flawed, dictatorial, and financially greedy Consilience. It is she who attempts to bring about a socially moral outcome. And it is she whom we, the readers, are programmed early on to hate.
From this point on, the novel becomes stranger, creepier, more disturbing, and as such more wonderful. Jocelyn uses Stan, keeps him out of Positron while making sure that Charmaine remains inside, but is deprived of her top level position as a kindly killer. Things begin to change in Positron as suddenly there are no real convicts to put to sleep anymore. What does a prison that euthanizes criminal elements do when it has no one left to kill? It begins to find the insurrection among its own people, of course.
Positron, central though it is to the novel and bizarre as it may be as a model for a perfect society, is not the creepiest thing about the whole enterprise. That honor lies in a warehouse where Ed has been developing a line of customizable sexbots. Even worse, he has developed a medical brainwashing technique that creates love and lust in a person’s brain by imprinting onto the first pair of eyes it sees (rather like ducklings, except not in the motherhood kind of way). One notorious example is femme fatale Victoria (one of the prostitutes from Charmaine’s bar) who falls for a blue knitted teddy bear instead of the man who had purchased her. She is considered a botched attempt, an accident. This makes her the perfect vehicle, however, to help Jocelyn, Stan, Charmaine, and the rest of Consilience, since she is unable to be seduced by anyone and has every reason to be furious, since she was the first to undergo this medical procedure which has rendered her a freak to most of society.
A citizen of the contemporary world, Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is a riveting addition to her oeuvre in which she explores the idea of a powerful system and its discontents.
by Margaret Atwood