Series: Positron 0 #1
Published by Nan A. Talese on September 29th 2015
Genres: Science Fiction
Source: Advanced Readers Copy
Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.
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If you’ve read any of Atwood’s work before, you’ll know she has a penchant for taking current technology to the next step, and then exploring its causes and consequences. She herself dubbed her work as “speculative fiction,” and I tend to agree – not quite distant or fantastical enough to classify as science fiction, her stories are mostly set in a very relatable near future. Another hallmark of her imagination is her complete lack of faith in society as whole – her depictions of the upcoming decades are nearly always quite grim. The Positron series, as the book in question was originally titled, is another rumination on both of these themes.
Our heroes are the not-so-plucky Stan and Charmaine, a married couple living out of their car in the wasteland that is the Eastern US after the credit bubble bursts. Businesses and banks have failed and it’s now a lawless opportunist’s dream. Charmaine is employed at a dirty bar and barely earns enough money to keep gas in the car. So when she sees an ad for Consilience on TV, it sounds too good to be true. A place where you’re guaranteed a job, a house, and food on the table as long as you spend every other month in a prison – and as long as you have no contact with the outside world. Despite all subconscious warnings, Stan and Charmaine sign on. And for a few months, it’s a ‘50s utopia, complete with hedge trimmers and floral tablecloths. But of course, events start to unfold that pull the slipcover off the sofa to show all the nasty, greasy stains underneath. The facade starts to crumble, both around the corners of Charmaine and Stan’s marriage, and around the idyllic picture presented to Consilience residents by the overseers. What’s really happening behind the walls of Positron? Are Consilience’s investors finding illicit ways to profit? Will Stan and Charmaine pull through, or do they have a bigger purpose in the whole operation?
In the beginning we follow our two protagonists as they desperately try to carve a niche for themselves in a world that doesn’t seem to have any room left for them. They cling to each other for support, washing over the minor interpersonal struggles in order to survive. But when they transplant themselves to the simple, undemanding community of Consilience, the cracks in their relationship begin to show. It’s a stark representation of human will that becomes more and more convoluted. As the story progresses and we meet some of Consilience/Positron’s key players, both Stan and Charmaine are swept up in roles pivotal to the success or ultimate demise of the “project.” The author’s focus turns from small, individual struggles with morality, to how these individuals influence the corporate grey area and the Positron’s clandestine workings. We get the sense that while both Stan and Charmaine struggle with some of their poor choices, they really do care for each other and we root for them to end up happy and together. Atwood manages to make them relatable even through their transgressions, which in my opinion takes a deft hand and a dark mind. However, as their roles in the plot are revealed, they lose what little sense of agency they had and become unwilling pawns in a larger conflict. Even though this makes them less likable, I think it is a purposeful move by the author to make us consider the role of the individual in a larger, more morally corrupt system.
I would be remiss if I didn’t gush a little bit about Margaret Atwood’s style. It is always a joy to come back to her books – while thematically they are dark and heavy, her prose is very straightforward and clear. Her sentences are unpretentious, but somehow she manages to suggest just enough detail to create a world that is incredibly clear and personal to the readers. She doesn’t describe facts, she suggests a reference point and lets the reader form their own ideas about the style of a couch, the look of a certain woman, the type of car that Stan and Charmaine sleep in. Charmaine fears being “crushed in his embrace like a stepped-on blueberry muffin.” Stan, when he’s informed he’s about to do something he doesn’t get a choice in, “peers down over the edge of the next half hour. Mist, a sheer drop. He feels sick.” Atwood delights in making emotions and relationships something very tangible and visceral. I think that is what brings me back every time. Even if her characters are not always the most relatable, their reality and their reactions are so close to our own that we are drawn in anyway.
Lauded as Margaret Atwood’s first standalone novel since 2010, The Heart Goes Last was actually started in 2012, as the first installment of a 5-part digital serial. Atwood is known for pushing the boundaries of technology and this work is a “new” approach to a novel – digitally publishing one installment at a time, without knowing what would come next. This method of publishing added an extra dimension to the writing process – Atwood was able to receive reader feedback on the story after each section, and use it to shape the next. However, it also meant that she was not able to go back and revise the story as a whole. I did not follow the story as it was released (I didn’t even know it was happening, apparently I live under some sort of rock), meaning I have the distinct pleasure of reviewing it as a fully finished oeuvre. Approached as a finished novel, it does suffer a little bit from the initial style of publishing, and the pacing of the plot staggers and starts a little in odd places. The conclusion feels a bit cheap and just a little forced, although this could be construed as a metaphor for the characters’ choice of ending. It was difficult to link the ending chapters back to the book I thought I was starting, and thematically I had lost the thread a couple of times by the end.
Overall, The Heart Goes Last is not the best of Margaret Atwood’s works – other books have had a larger scope and covered more exciting thematic ground. However, I think for anyone new to Atwood, this is as good as a place as any to start. I enjoyed it as much if not more than the last two MaddAddam books. I think the prose was more playful and the characterization more introspective, which appeals to me. The more time I have to think on the novel all together, with a little bit of distance – the more I appreciate it.