THE HEART GOES LAST. By Margaret Atwood. Doubleday. 308 pages. $26.95.
Nearly 30 years ago, Margaret Atwood jumped into speculative fiction with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” set in the near future after a totalitarian takeover of the United States. In that great book, her concern is for the survival of vitality and human awareness in an exploitive world. As she recounts the daily deprivations her characters suffer, Atwood evokes with delicacy the lives we live now: sometimes fraught with too many choices.
Atwood’s new novel, “The Heart Goes Last,” is another dystopian foray. Again, social conditions are dire and solutions are deadly. Again, Atwood imagines the heart as the last human holdout in a world where everything else is programmed. But she also signals a more lighthearted approach to her material by opening “The Heart Goes Last” with epigrams from the comic tradition, among them Shakespeare’s famous speech from Act V of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Lovers and Madmen have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends.”
Atwood’s nod to comedy cues us to read without fear. Wrongs will be righted, order will replace mayhem, and everyone will find a mate. In comedy, love and forgiveness are easy.
Charmaine and Stan, Atwood’s main characters, begin the novel in a state of menace. They sleep in a third-hand Honda, eat day-old doughnuts and feel “blown by a vicious but mindless wind.” Gangs roam unchecked, preying on the weak. Only the rich can afford police protection. There are rumors of better luck somewhere, maybe a boom in Oregon. Then one day, Charmaine sees an ad beginning, “Tired of living in your car?” The Positron Project is accepting new members.
Lickety split, Atwood installs her couple on a bus with other applicants. Eyes are scanned, fingerprints taken, then off they go to the walled town of Consilience, a mock 1950s community that Charmaine says is “a dream come true.” Stan at least knows it’s not real. During initiation workshops, Ed, the titleless ruler, discloses that management chose the 1950s, complete with Doris Day soundtrack, “because that was the decade when most people had self-identified as being happy.”
After a couple of workshops, the Positron recruits must make a decision: if they want out, they’re free to go; if they buy in, they sign on for life. Management stresses the element of free choice. Ed and his bogus panaceas! Consilience, it turns out, equals CONS + RESILIENCE. All inductees agree to buy their freedom and good life by spending every other month in prison. The month-in/month-out model allows two families to share a house, thus saving on housing costs.
In other hands, this would be a Kafkaesque tale of blameless guilt and unearned punishment. Or it would be a something somber out of Hawthorne about individuals and communities. Instead, Atwood abandons the truly creepy implications of a single decision foreclosing all other decisions for life, and has a very good time writing a parody of the story she might have told differently.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” made serious use of doubling motifs to suggest the threat of lost identity, lost individuality. Stan and Charmaine also are subject to quicksilver transformations and unlikely pairings. They live in the “twin city.” They spend half their lives as free people, the other half in prison. They share a house with “alternates” who take their places on alternating months. And they become expert at two-timing and double dealing.
Stan and Charmaine have no sooner decorated their little house than Atwood leaves them for a year. Fifty pages and one year in, things have gotten interesting. Stan has begun to imagine the alternate woman in his house and to dream of an affair. Charmaine, more practical and greedy, already is deep into an affair with the male alternate.
The plot gets whackier and more implausible from there. Keep reading, and you’ll meet human sex slaves, a “Special Procedure” for euthanizing malcontents, organ harvesting, baby blood-sucking, “sexbots,” neuro-adjustments, madcap escapes and Elvis impersonators. There’s no time to mourn the loss of old worlds. New worlds with their new and slimier ways to coerce and subvert keep coming so fast. Atwood’s fling with B-movie scenarios is wild, strange and comically anarchic — or, to quote again “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: “Merry and tragical.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.