25 May 2018

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

If you read my review of The Handmaid's Tale, you'll know all about my ongoing love-hate relationship with Margaret Atwood. Nevertheless, I can't resist a good piece of fiction and when I saw this on the $10 table at Indigo a few months ago I put my tail between my legs and went ahead with it. While this isn't a terrible book, it's certainly not her best work by a long shot. This would likely be bottom of the list of Atwood recommendations from me. I found it to be a bit childish, I hated both the narrators, and I think the feminist agenda was a lost (in my opinion).

The plot begins after some sort of large collapse in the economy. Narrators Stan and Charmaine (the novel switches between them) are a married couple who have lost their jobs, lost their house, and are living in their car while Charmaine fights for shifts as a waitress and Stan fights off thugs who want to rob them. They hear about a new community that's recruiting residents called Consilience for a new 'project' they're trying. Basically the town is completely contained, when you move in they give you a house and a job in the town and in return you alternate months in a prison called Positron, and another couple will live in your house and do your jobs. They have a recruitment weekend where they put you up in a nice hotel and woo you (it had a lot of Downsizing or The Lobster vibes) and then you can sign up if you'd like but your commitment is for life, there is no changing your mind.

The catch here is everyone 'trying out' Consilience for the weekend has basically been living in poverty, so they sign up without even considering the repercussions. Charmaine, being the brat she is, begs Stan to sign the papers upon seeing a clean bath towel. They move in and begin their new lives, Stan manages the chicken farm and Charmaine is a "medical administrator". You soon learn that medical administrators essentially put disobeying humans who weren't a 'good fit' for Consilience to sleep.

Margaret Atwood, no new hairdos.

Eventually, Charmaine has an affair with her male alternate (the man who lives in her house when she's at a prison) and Stan is caught monitoring her scooter after being suspicious. The HR woman who catches him blackmails him and stages a coup to smuggle Stan out of Consilience so he can leak information to the media. To do this, they have to fake his death, meaning Charmaine has to 'put him to sleep'. It's the most fucked up scenario because they don't tell Charmaine it's fake- they want her grief to seem realistic to the other executives at Consilience. There's this awkward section where Stan is positive Charmaine could never kill him, but, being the selfish bitch she is, she does. This obviously takes a large toll on their relationship when Stan is on the outside and reveals to Charmaine that he's still alive.

One of the biggest themes throughout this book is sex. Everyone is obsessed with sex, how to improve their sex lives, how sex will make their lives better, etc. When sex is taken off the table, the men in the book will do anything to get some action. This passage below describes one of the prison inmates threatening Stan if he doesn't let him fuck a chicken:

'You want to what?' he asked the first time. The guy had spelled it out: he wanted to have sex with a chicken. It didn't hurt the chicken, he'd done it before, it was normal, lots of guys did it, and chickens didn't talk. A guy got very horny in here with no outlets, right? And it was no fair that Stan was keeping the chickens all to himself, and if he didn't unlock that wire cage right now, his life might not be so pleasant, supposing he was allowed to keep it, because he might end up as a chicken substitute like the fag he probably was. Stan got the message. He allowed the chicken assignations. What did that make him? A chicken pimp. Better that than dead."

Eventually it becomes clear that Consilience has been developing new prototypes for sex robots, based on real people. The owner of Consilience, obsessed with Charmaine, makes a sex robot of her but is disappointed that it isn't lifelike. He instead creates a surgical procedure to make someone obsessed with you. As the plot comes to fruition, it's clear the owner plans to give Charmaine this surgical procedure- which is compared to a duckling imprinting on it's mother. Charmaine would forget all about Stan and only want to have sex with him. ***Spoiler Alert*** Stan comes to the rescue (despite his wife actually 'killing him') and drugs the Consilience owner so Charmaine can imprint on himself instead.

There's an interesting section after the surgery where Stan reflects on his new sex life with Charmaine after the procedure. He mentions how it's the best he's ever had now, but even that can become routine. It speaks a lot to human nature I think, we'll never, ever feel truly satisfied. Even our wildest dreams will eventually bore us.

On the other hand, his sex life has never been so good. Partly it's whatever adjustment they made inside Charmaine's brain, but also it has to be his repertoire of verbal turn-ons... all he needs to do is haul out one of those riffs- Turn over, kneel down, tell me how shameless you are- and Charmaine is toffee in his hands... True, the routine has become slightly predictable, but it would be surly to complain. Like complaining that the food's too delicious. What kind of a complaint is that?"

In the end, once Stan switches places with Ed (the owner) so Charmaine imprints on him instead. They go on to live life happily ever after until a year later when HR at Consilience comes to Charmaine to reveal a 'secret':

'You can choose,' says Jocelyn. 'To hear it or not. If you hear it, you'll be more free but less secure. If you don't hear it, you'll be more secure, but less free.' She crosses her arms, waits. ...
'Ok, tell me,' [Charmaine] says.
'Simply this,' says Jocelyn. 'You never had that operation. That brain adjustment.'
'That can't be true,' says Charmaine flatly. 'It can't be true! There's been such a difference!'
'The human mind is infinitely suggestible,' says Jocelyn.
'But. But now I love Stan so much,' says Charmaine. 'I have to love him, because of that thing they did! It's like an ant, or something. It's like a baby duck! That's what they said!'"

Atwood definitely had a feminist agenda in writing this. There are a lot of discussions between the male characters of replacing all the women with robots, or even the surgery to 'imprint them' on men and take away their free will. However, I felt there was so much going on with the plot that it was hard to even get to that mentally. In The Handmaid's Tale, female oppression smacks you in the face and stays there, whereas with this novel it kind of gets lost. Of course, this could just be saying something about me as a human- that I don't recognize obvious misogyny where it exists- but I think it did get buried in the ever-changing plot line.

As I mentioned earlier, Charmaine and Stan were both unbearable and terrible people and I hated them as narrators. Charmaine actually KILLS her husband (or so she thinks) just because she's told and immediately is hoping they may put her in one of those singles condos in Consilience. Stan, on the other hand, is just a sex-crazed chump. I felt like they were both babies and as a result the whole book came across as a bit 'young adult' as a genre. (Imagine it was a YA novel and I totally missed that.) If you want to read some dystopian fiction I know Meghan and I would both be happy to recommend some better alternatives than this.

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