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The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

When everything goes to hell, sex and booze is all we want.

I came to this conclusion after reading “The Heart Goes Last” in which Atwood describes a dystopian world quite close to reality. Charmaine and Stan are a young married couple trying to make ends meet after a big financial crash left them with no jobs and living in their car. Charmaine found work in a bar (because, after all, when everything goes to hell, sex and booze is all we want) and Stan’s main occupation is to make sure nobody steals their car. It’s a derelict existence. It’s survival. It’s not much of a life. That is until Charmaine sees an ad on TV in the bar where she works. There is a city named Consilience/Positron and anybody can apply to live there. There are jobs to be had, a free house, food and clothes, everything that was taken away by the crash. A clean bed with ironed sheets! Heck, a bed! Even that seems like a dream. The catch: once you’re in, you can’t get out. But Charmaine is a “glass full” kind of person and she wants in. Why wouldn’t she, when every night she sleeps in fear of her life as the violence has escalated and she’s always afraid of being beaten or raped or God knows what. So she convinces Stan and they get in.
For Charmaine, it’s a perfect place. She finds comfort in routine, in the cleanliness of the house, in cooking meals, in doing her job. It’s a routine, yes but this is so much better than their other life. So, so much better. Until it isn’t.

There is so much going on but things really start to get weird in the second half of the book. It’s like this book has double personality – half grim, half really funny. It was really depressing to read the first half and I seriously considered giving up but then I hoped things would pick up later. No city is perfect, especially one that’s so perfect on the outside. I imagined the place looked like in the video for “Chained to the Rhythm” by Katy Perry. Even the lyrics match. I wanted to quote them here but I’m not sure it’s allowed.

My patience was rewarded. The gloomy Orwellian atmosphere was dispelled. There were prostibots, Marilyns and Elvises, vampire references, a prison, and teddy bears. The blue, knitted ones, the kind you’d give a child. But oh, how Atwood twisted that into something disturbing and hilarious. It’s very likely next time I’ll see one in real life I’ll burst out laughing.

I enjoyed following Stan’s thought process as he was faced with some hard decisions. Charmaine was tough but in a superficial way – she seemed like a no-nonsense woman when it came to making sacrifices and it was entertaining and at times scary to watch how far she would go and the lies she would tell herself so she could keep what she had. There’s some trauma in her past but it’s only hinted at, a possible explanation to why she seemed so willing to accept anything to stay in Consilience/Positron.

I found interesting the duality of things – the city for a start, Consilience/Positron has a double name because everybody lives a dual life: for one month they live in their beautiful houses, then other month in prison. The irony does not escape me.
Life in prison is seen more like a succession of chores: there’s a laundry section, a knitting circle (for knitting blue teddy bears), even exercise classes. The city is soon to be franchised, there’s big money to be made and possibilities are endless. Just like possibilibots, life-like sex robots that are being made in the city. Because when the world goes to hell, yes, sex and booze is all we want. And maybe headless chickens, just because it’s better if we don’t have to decapitate them in order to eat them. More humane.

It’s interesting that Atwood sees only two possibilities: either a harsh life where everything is volatile, your job, your money, your transport, but you at least have your freedom, or a secure, sedate, domesticated version of a life where you get what you want but you’ll have to follow the rules. However, the human race being what it is, unpredictable, rules are broken and things really go to hell. There is no middle ground, unless you’re willing to compromise because every bit of comfort and happiness has a price. And you pay and pay and pay until there’s nothing left of you to pay with, no dignity, and no personal freedom.
Some of the things I saw coming but they were still entertaining to read and they had a satisfying twist. There are endless topics for discussion but that would mean giving away more of the plot and I’d rather not do that. I recommend it if you like dystopian fiction with a lot of swear words thrown in.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in June, 2017

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | Tagged , , | 6 Comments