Book Review: The Heart Goes Last: A Novel (Positron), Margaret Atwood (2015)

September 30th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Tiptoe Through the Tulips

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and violence. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

“Never mind which wife is whose,” says Jocelyn. “We can’t waste time on the sexual spaghetti.”

How bad are things when you can get nostalgic about living in your car?

The dystopian society at the heart of The Heart Goes Last is surprisingly mundane – which makes it all the more chilling. Stan and Charmaine live in the northeastern United States, which has been hit especially hard by the latest recession. Things went to ratshit seemingly overnight (“Someone had lied, someone had cheated, someone had shorted the market, someone had inflated currency. Not enough jobs, too many people.”). Charmaine’s company, an upscale retirement chain called Ruby Slippers, scaled back its eastern operations, leaving Charmaine out of a job; Stan’s position at Dimple Robotics soon followed. They held onto their cozy starter home as long as they could, but before you can say “outsourcing,” they’d lost that too. From solidly middle class to homeless, in the blink of an eye.

Now they sleep in their car, surviving on the meager wages Charmaine earns waiting tables in a seedy bar, desperately searching for work and trying to stay ahead of the roving gangs of thieves and rapists that own the streets come nightfall. So when Charmaine spots an ad for the Positron Project – an experimental city/prison in Consilience – the two are understandably quick to sign their lives away. Full employment, zero crime, free housing – and the only way you can leave is in a pine box. But why would anyone want to abandon the safety of these walls to go back out there? You can’t eat freedom, yo.

Their first year in Consilience goes surprisingly well: Stan is assigned a job repairing scooters, and Charmaine works at one of the city’s bakeries. Every other month, they leave their two-bedroom house and enter the Positron prison, where it’s their turn to serve as prisoners. (“CONSILIENCE = CONS + RESILIENCE. DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE!”) Though the amenities are a little less comfy, it’s not all that different from civilian life (save for the gender segregation, of course): Stan is in charge of the prison’s chicken farm, while Charmaine is Chief Medications Administrator in the prison hospital.

While they’re in the slammer, their Alternates occupy their home, and vice versa. No one’s supposed to know who their Alternates are, for obvious reasons: fights over sloppily trimmed hedges and dirty bathrooms are sure to ensue. But when Stan finds a saucy love letter under his fridge – addressed to Max from Jasmine and sealed with a fuschia kiss – he can’t purge fantasies of Charmaine’s Alternate from his mind. Before long, he graduates from obsession to stalking, bugging her scooter in the hopes of arranging a “chance” meeting – which will culminate in Jasmine giving in to his every whim. Naturally.

For Jasmine is everything Charmaine is not: Uninhibited. Passionate. Impulsive. Insatiable. A whore to Charmaine’s prim and proper Madonna. Except not: Charmaine is Jasmine, and she’s been having a hot-n-heavy affair with Stan’s Alternate Max. Whose real name is Phil. Phil the sex addict, married to Jocelyn of Surveillance, who just so happens to be a co-founder of Positron. Enter the intrigue, suspense, and crazy weird long cons, as Stan finds himself sucked into Jocelyn’s marital mind games and corporate espionage. In a twist everyone saw coming, Positron is even more sinister than it appears on the surface – and Jocelyn needs Stan’s help to upend the system.

The Heart Goes Last is like a Russian Nesting Doll of plots and subplots: a dystopia wrapped in a portrait of a highly dysfunctional marriage, all nestled in a sometimes-comical critique of the prison-industrial complex. Just when you think you know where the story’s headed, Atwood pulls the tastefully decorated, retro ’50s rug out from under you. Yet while I adored the individual components, many of them so absurd and thoroughly Atwoodian – headless chickens, fed through tubes inserted directly into their necks (“humane” meat, anyone?); sexbots, custom-made to look like your favorite celeb, that hot barista at Starbucks who wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole, or a seven-year-old kid, if that’s your thing; stealing the blood OF BABIES – they didn’t quite add up to my (admittedly high) expectations.

Let’s take the Positron prison, which stretched my credulity somewhat. Each citizen spends one month as a citizen, and the next as a prisoner, on a rotating schedule. This guarantees a 50% incarceration rate, which would presumably be impossible otherwise. (Try as we might, the United States has only reached .716%.)

The question I have is: why? Why would such a high incarceration rate be desirable? It’s not like removing half the population from the citizenry reduces competition for jobs; everyone in the prison is assigned a job, such that every resident has two jobs, which rotate with their place of residence. It does create some unnecessary jobs in the form of prison guards, I suppose. But absent a prison these folks could be employed in a more productive and profitable way, such as knitting teddy bears for export or assembling sexbots (euphemistically called Possibilibots by the higher-ups).

I suppose the cells do cut down on housing costs, but if that’s the case, why not just have everyone live in dorms? It’s still worlds better than living outside the walls.

Then again, this could be a commentary on the prison-industrial complex itself – and the trend towards privatizing prisons, in particular. For-profit prisons don’t operate with the social good in mind; they’re in the business of making money. A high recidivism rate? Awesome! Repeat customers. College education and job training? What for? We want these people to come back, not function in the real world. The more people they can lock up, the fatter the bottom line. Of course, the Positron prison is practically a day spa compared to, say, Rikers. After they purged it of the “real” prisoners, anyway.

** begin spoilers **

Another thing you should know about The Heart Goes Last: there is a shit ton of rape. Like, I’ve come to expect it in dystopias, but this seemed excessive even to me. And worse, the characters don’t always recognize it as such. I hope that readers will prove more astute, but you never know.

It all starts with Stan and Jocelyn. In order to get revenge on her cheating, sex addict husband Phil, Jocelyn switches his schedule with Stan’s; Stan gets an extra month as a civilian, but the downside is that he has to spend it living with Jocelyn. She shows him the recordings of Charmaine and Phil bumping uglies in abandoned homes all over Consilience – and then demands that they recreate the scenes. She’s in Surveillance and he’s just been caught bugging his wife’s scooter, so poor Stan doesn’t have much say in the matter. This is rape, and it goes on for months.

Later on, when a reconciliation between Stan and Charmaine looks possible, Stan worries how he will explain this “affair” to his wife; in the grand scheme of things, the tally should ring up even, since she also cheated on him. Except he didn’t cheat on her: he was raped. That’s a crucial distinction. One that Jocelyn acknowledges but refuses to give import when she’s blackmailing Stan yet again down the line.

The specter of rape rears its ugly head again vis-à-vis the sexbots. Stan goes undercover in the factory where they’re assembled; when the grand tour reveals bots that resemble kids, Stan is understandably repulsed. (Stan, who pimped out chickens – albeit under duress – during his tenure as Poultry Supervisor in the prison. Stan, who considered raping a chicken himself. Not under duress, just run of the mill sexual frustration.) Thus ensues a spirited debate about whether such outlets will ultimately keep pedophiles from raping real children.

An interesting side note about the Possibilibots: While the technology is hella advanced and the business quite lucrative, so far scientists have been unable to replicate the full range of human facial expressions – and doubt they ever will. Close, but no dice.

Instead of trying to recreate the hardware, then, Positron has decided to steal it. Humans are kidnapped, subjected to risky neurosurgery designed to erase their previous attachments to others, and then “imprinted” on their new owners (there’s really no better word for it), much like chicks with their mum. The first thing with eyes that a newly created sex slave sees upon wakening will be her (or his) sole source of desire forevermore. Why replicate that snooty barisata bitch when you can literally make her love you? I can just pictures the MRAs crowding in line, screaming SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONIES!!!!

Again, just to be clear: this is rape. Consent is meaningless if you’ve literally stripped the victim of free will.

And so it goes with Ed, the now-rogue co-founder of Positron whose rule Jocelyn hopes to overthrow. He becomes infatuated with Charmaine; commissions a replica of her (for which he bugs her bathroom, to get accurate photos for the blueprint); all with the ultimate goal of snatching her during a business trip to Las Vegas and having her brain rewired. So yeah, I’ll go with Stan: a kiddybot will only work for so long. Escalation is the name of the game.

Which brings me to perhaps my biggest problem with The Heart Goes Last: the unsatisfying denouement. Some of the story’s villains are punished, but in an Old Testament kinda way that’s difficult to celebrate. Ed is made into a sexbot for reporter Lucinda Quant, a cancer survivor who hopes to rekindle her career by breaking the Positron scandal. Punishing a rapist with rape? Highly problematic.

Yet Ed’s not the only one to come to such a fate: Jocelyn’s cheating husband Phil is rewired into a sex slave for her co-conspirator Aurora, in exchange for her help, and Charmain is imprinted on Stan as a reward for smuggling valuable information out of Positron. While Phil might indeed be human excrement, the worst he ever did (at least that we know of) is run around on his wife; and, though Charmaine is indeed a murderer, Stan’s impetus for subjecting her to the procedure isn’t punishment, but possession. Gross gross gross.

** end spoilers **

As with many Margaret Atwood novels, the ending is pretty wide open – think Offred’s escape from a still-functioning Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale – which isn’t always my favorite, but I can work with it. Using rape as a punishment – as the only form of punishment – doesn’t sit too well with me, however.

The final verdict: The Heart Goes Last isn’t Margaret Atwood’s best – but it’s still Margaret Atwood. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’m a ginormous Margaret Atwood fangirl, okay.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not much. One of Conor’s employees – either Rikki or Jerold, it’s not clear which – is described as “brown.” A server at Together is “brownish.” Positron is oppressively heterosexual; Stan wonders whether they barred admittance to gays and lesbians during the screening process, or simply weeded them out (read: killed) after the fact. When Stan is on the run and hiding with a troupe of Elvis impersonators in Vegas, he assumes they’re all gay. While some are, others are just pretending for the business.

Animal-friendly elements: In a scene that’d be at home in Oryx and Crake, Positron execs discuss removing the heads from the chickens farmed at the prison in order to create a more “humane” meat. In his early days as Poultry Supervisor, Stan rented out time with the chickens (read: animal rape) to other prisoners, albeit under threat of violence. When she was a kid, Charmaine’s abusive father killed her cat.


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