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The Heart Goes Last: A Novel Paperback – August 9, 2016
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“Captivating. . . . Thrilling. . . . Margaret Atwood [is] a living legend.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Quintessential Atwood. . . . The writing here is so persuasive, so crisp, that it seeps under your skin.” —The Boston Globe
“An arresting perspective on the confluence of information, freedom, and security in the modern age.” —The New Yorker
“A gripping, psychologically acute portrayal of our own future gone totally wrong, and the eternal constant of flawed humanity.” —Huffington Post
“Dystopia virtuoso Margaret Atwood turns her effortless world-building, deft humor and grim commentary on the depths of human hubris to the prison industrial complex, love and free will.” —The Denver Post
“Rare apocalyptic entertainment. . . . Not only does Atwood sketch out an all-too-possible future but she also looks to the past, tapping into archetypes from fairy tales and myth, giving the novel a resonance beyond satire.” —The Miami Herald
“Another Atwood classic.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Poignant. . . . Gloriously madcap. . . . You only pause in your laughter when you realise that, in its constituent parts, the world she depicts here is all too horribly plausible.” —The Guardian (London)
“Engrossing.” —The Austin Chronicle
“Wonderful. . . . Explores the idea of a powerful system and its discontents. . . . Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is a riveting addition to her oeuvre.” —Electric Literature
“Atwood’s creepy but entertaining vision of a possible future.” —The Washington Times
“Fast-paced and funny. . . . True love ultimately endures in The Heart Goes Last, but so do the real terrors present in Atwood novels, all too often manifesting in ours.” —PopMatters
“Eerily prophetic. . . . A heady blend of speculative fiction with noir undertones that is provocative, powerful and will prompt all readers to reassess which parts of their humanity are for sale.” —BookPage
“Ever-inventive, astutely observant, and drolly ironic, Atwood unfurls a riotous plot. . . . This laser-sharp, hilariously campy, and swiftly flowing satire delves deeply into our desires, vices, biases, and contradictions, bringing fresh, incisive comedy to the rising tide of postapocalyptic fiction . . . in which Atwood has long been a clarion voice.” —Booklist (starred review)
About the Author
Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize; The Year of the Flood; and her most recent, MaddAddam. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award, and lives in Toronto with the writer Graeme Gibson.
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Still, I found humor and pathos in The Heart Goes Last. And, as usual when reading Atwood, my brain couldn't help but accelerate into the murky stratosphere of the future: when the reckoning comes, for whatever course we've set ourselves on, what will become of us? And what will we mere humans do to survive in a repugnant cosmic stewpot of our own making?
Keep writing, Maggie! You inspire, enlighten, dazzle and comfort all at once.
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 50s 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 novel 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 bit 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.