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Notes on Diversity:
If you’re looking for a diverse read, look elsewhere.
I can’t remember a single character in the book who isn’t white. All of the characters are able-bodied. Due to economic collapse, characters in the opening struggle with poverty but it is noteworthy that they did not start out that way–this is a story about middle class people descending into squalor (how terrible!), then making horrible compromises to creep back out of the pit of violent poverty again. It is not a story about people who have always been impoverished.1
The book, I think, aims to establish an odd kind of solidarity with queer readers by way of a kind of essentially ironic heteronormativity,2 but the effect, for this queer reader at least, was disheartening. One of the main characters reflects:
Anything goes, out there in the so-called real world; though not inside Consilience, where the surface ambience is wholesomely, relentlessly hetero.
But it’s not clear why. Later on in the book, this same character leaves Consilience, due to plot contrivances, and winds up in a heard of Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas, all of whom appear to be interchangeably gay. But, lo! They are not gay. They just pretend to be so, for reasons, because that isn’t problematic at all.
So, not only is there no authentic queer representation in the book, in one locale it’s explicitly mysteriously absent, and in another, queerness is co-opted and appropriated. Both instances left a very bad taste in my mouth.
I should say right at the outset that Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite writers. She has historically been an auto-buy for me, so when I heard she had a new novel coming out, I pre-ordered it, no questions asked.
I regret it.
The truth is that The Heart Goes Last is not very good. I would recommend fans of Atwood read this engaging interview with her about the book instead of reading the book itself–seriously, skip the book. Everything Atwood wants to say about prisons and commodification she says more succinctly and with more wit in this interview.
The plot of The Heart Goes Last is as follows: there is a terrible economic collapse in America (kind of3) which leads to a middle class White hetero couple, Stan and Charmaine, losing their jobs and living in their car. Stan and Charmaine escape their grubby car-life by signing up for a planned community called Consilience. The deal with Consilience is that residents of Consilience get a house with fluffy towels and a fridge and TVs that play Doris Day movies, but the catch is that every other month they have to serve a term as prisoners in the Positron prison. As civilians, everyone has a job and a secure living arrangement, and then as prisoners, everyone chips in to do the grunt work that keeps the community going. The rotating population also shares housing–so, when Stan and Charmaine are in Positron Prison, a different couple (their Alternates) life in their designated house.
At first things are nice. And then, everything goes to shit. What first begins as a fairly mundane extra-marital affair4 spirals out into a frankly unbelievable conspiracy involving organ harvesting, lobotomies, and sex robots. As Stan and Charmaine are drawn deeper and deeper into the seedy underbelly of Consilience/Positron, each of them becomes pawns in someone else’s game. Ultimately, Atwood raises questions of free will in a forced, haphazard way that decidedly did not work for me. Maybe it will for you.
I found the book deeply unsuccessful. On the one hand, I think Atwood tried to do too much with it; maybe the book should have only focused on lobotomizing-women-so-they-become-sex-slaves or just on the complicity-we-all-have-with-regard-to-mass-incarceration. And in either case, taking on these subjects in a book written as a tongue-in-cheek absurdist romp rubbed me the wrong way.
Here is what I mean. In an interview, Atwood says the following about setting her book mostly in a prison:
The Millions: The set up of your novel felt so real.
Margaret Atwood: It is real.
The Millions: But it’s not necessarily your reality.
That’s my issue–Atwood is a massively privileged person. She has not been to prison. She is at a remove here. Given the scope and the viciousness with which incarceration can derail a person’s life, I think it’s inappropriate to treat it lightly, especially if it is not the writer’s reality. The entire book is flippant, frankly, which is why if didn’t work for me.
Atwood is a brilliant women. I deeply respect her. But I am uninterested in reading a book about how prisons are absurd and bad written from this removed and very privileged perspective. It’s fascinating, actually, considering that one of her previous novels, Alias Grace, did interrogate crime and imprisonment from a feminist perspective quite successfully.
The Heart Goes Last took Atwood from an auto-buy author for me to someone I now side-eye. What a shame.
1I make this distinction because, in my experience, growing up poor and becoming poor as an adult are two distinctly different experiences. When you grow up poor there are things you never learn, elements of social capital that are forever out of your grasp. When you slip down the class ladder later in life you can often still “pass” because you were enculturated with these elements of social capital from an early age. It still sucks, but it’s different, and it is one thing that makes later-in-life poverty actually easier to escape than starting there.
2I would draw a parallel here to the kinds of deeply offensive “hipster racism” or “ironic racism” that are, at bottom, just racism.
3I’m calling a Plot Hole here: it doesn’t make sense to me that large swaths of America would be in total economic collapse but Las Vegas would be just fine. And Consilience/Positron is apparently turning a tidy profit–but who is buying if the entire economy has collapsed? If most of America’s middle class wound up sleeping in cars then how are the Elvis impersonators squeaking by? The economics in the book truly did not make sense to me, and since Stan and Charmaine’s actions are driven by this apparent economic collapse, I really needed to buy into it.
4Honestly there are few plots I find more boring than middle-aged-middle-class-hetero-married-couple-falls-into-affairs-out-of-ennui-and-boredom. This plot thread when on way, way, way too long.
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