Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: Margaret Atwood's "The Heart Goes Last"

Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest novelists of the era and has written the book on chilling dystopian fantasies as well as the complex dynamics that characterize the eternally fascinating bond between men and women. Her intensely readable and sometimes enjoyable, The Heart Goes Last is the latest offering from this major writer and it evokes mixed feelings.

Times are hard. A married couple, Stan and Charmaine are living out of a car, filling up on stale doughnuts and coffee while on alert for attacks from gangs. In desperation, they sign up for the Positron project, brain child of Consilience, which is a social experiment that promises them a home and job. The only caveat is they must swap their new home for a prison cell every alternate month because they are informed it is a good idea to “Do time now, buy time for our future!” Since, it is Atwood, of course Big brother is watching. Always. It is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to make Atwood fans, lick their lips in anticipation, in the hopes of discovering another A Handmaid’s Tale on their hands.

Stan and Charmaine convince themselves they are happy as can be with their new lives and remain that way till they develop an unhealthy obsession with the alternates who take over their homes while they are in prison. The sexual trysts that follow, ensuing subterfuge, jealousy, tension, in their domestic life coupled with the fact that something is clearly rotten at  Consilience given that coldblooded punishments are doled out to those who break the rules or are simply in the way or aren’t makes it all suitably creepy and pacey.

However, gradually the proceedings which you expect will take a turn towards the blackly humorous and chilling becomes increasingly farcical and bizarre. The reader will encounter men who enjoy intercourse with chickens, illegal organ and baby blood trading, fake Elvises and Marilyns used for sex, succour and entertainment, prostibots that deliver so much they promise to make prostitution redundant, and lasering technology which will manufacture sex slaves who are not really sex slaves because they want nothing more out of life than to be sex slaves. The material is wickedly funny till the laughs dry up.

Regular readers may be aware of Atwood’s propensity for selling even the most outlandish of concepts but this time around she seems to be a little off her game. It starts with the characters. Stan is an average Joe who is solid and dependable as a rule. Then he pimps out chickens and starts to develop alarming notions of convivial bliss. Charmaine is docile and disturbed before becoming downright disturbing in her job as Chief Medications Officer, a euphemism for Angel of death which is a euphemism for something far worse. She is a case study of the potential risks posed by those who are singularly susceptible to the pressures of conformity and a pathological need to please, before devolving into the vapid, subservient spouse, she originally was.

The dysfunctional duo limp forward in search of a happy ending with other twisted characters for company who are far too similar to the ‘talking heads’ that hand out death penalties at Carmaine’s job. These are not people you can root for. In fact, then can hardly be called that.

This dystopian saga which starts out as sinister begins to lean towards stupid and insipid. Atwood is sly and self – aware as ever, seemingly having a whale of a time but that somehow does not translate into a riveting read, perhaps because she seems to have lost control of the plot which romps ahead recklessly and heedlessly into the realms of the extraneous, which stops it from being satisfying or spectacular. Instead it is merely readable and somewhat disappointing. 

An edited version of this review appeared in The New Indian Express which you can read here.

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