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The Heart Goes Last Analysis Essay

Not that those aren’t interesting things to explore, and not that Ms. Atwood, who has produced so much extraordinary work over her long and distinguished career, shouldn’t be allowed to explore them, as she has in different ways before. But “The Heart Goes Last,” her 15th novel, inevitably suffers in comparison with previous books, including the remarkable, recently concluded MaddAddam trilogy, with its sheer inventive beauty and stunning emotional resonance.

At the beginning, you can’t help wondering what fresh hell the author has in store for us this time. In past “speculative fiction” books, as she calls them, Ms. Atwood has set up situations in which crazed Christian terrorists wipe out the United States government, suspend the Constitution and rule by military theocracy (“The Handmaid’s Tale”); or in which most of the world’s population is obliterated by a man-made viral pandemic (“Oryx and Crake” and the other two MaddAddam books).

The world in “The Heart Goes Last” — like ours, but a little further into the future — is ending not in fire or ice or some other ghastly natural way, but in catastrophic economic collapse. It’s quick, brutal and just a whisper away from what could have happened in 2008.

Overnight, Ms. Atwood writes, “the whole card castle, the whole system, fell to pieces, trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheet like fog off a window.”

No one really understands what caused it — “someone had lied, someone had cheated, someone had shorted the market, someone had inflated the currency” — but jobs disappear, markets dry up, and large sections of America slide into chaos and anarchy.

When we meet Stan and his wife, Charmaine, they are living in their car, impoverished and desperate, as bands of rapists and thieves maraud outside. They’ve lost a succession of jobs, and they see no viable future until they hear about an enticing new community where there is full employment and they can live at no expense, and which is taking new applicants.

There are a couple of catches. First, their new home, the dual community of Positron and Consilience, is essentially a penal colony ruled by a Big Brotherish leader named Ed whose residents take turns being prisoners — one month inside the prison, one month in the Levittown-like suburbia that surrounds it. (Jobs for everyone! If you’re not a prisoner, you’re helping to sustain the prison.) Also, it’s like the Roach Motel — you can check in, but you can’t check out.

Don’t do it, the reader cries, but, of course, they do it anyway.

For a while, it works out. Charmaine enjoys her job, dispensing medication to prisoners, even when she discovers the nasty truth about the medicine, and as the reader learns the disturbing reason for the book’s title. Stan, too, likes his position — tending chickens — although he’d like it better if he weren’t forced to pimp them out to the resident poultry-sex fetishists. Neither dwells too seriously on the existential downsides of this new situation — e.g., no free will — though Stan “can’t shake the feeling that this place is some sort of pyramid scheme.”

Ms. Atwood’s spins out her plot as busily as a spider, constructing an intricate web that ensnares Charmaine and Stan in a dizzying game of betrayal and counterbetrayal involving extramarital affairs, human-organ trafficking, blackmail, espionage, identity theft and sex-bot manufacturing. At one point, Charmaine is demoted to folding towels, and Stan is terrorized by the erotically rapacious Jocelyn, masquerading as his wife (“I’ll pretend you’re the plumber,” she says, ominously). Both Stan and Charmaine are recruited in a high-stakes scheme to expose the truth about this hellish anti-utopia to the outside world.

One of Ms. Atwood’s great strengths as a novelist, along with her deep understanding of psychology and her ability to reflect our worst fears and anxieties back to us, is her way of leavening even the grimmest scenarios with dark, impish humor. It’s in full flow here. In the sex-bot facility, Stan learns that customers can ask for an A+B model, meaning Angry and Belligerent (“not too much demand for that, you might think, but you’d be wrong”); that bearded “lumbersexual” male prostibots are a trend; and that accidents can occur when the robots malfunction. (“Bits can come off,” a co-worker warns. “I mean bits of you.”)

Ms. Atwood loses me, though, when she shifts away from the urgent questions she’s raised about liberty and self-determination, totalitarian excess and how mankind will cope with the disasters that surely await. Instead, she’s suddenly more excited by who is turned on by whom, and the ways that technology is going to enhance or mess around with all that.

There’s a lot of talk about a medical procedure that alters people’s brains so they’ll become sexually enslaved to the first person they see afterward, the way baby geese supposedly think that you’re their mother if you’re on hand when they hatch. The characters rush to secure the participation of whoever has been tantalizing or rejecting them, but, by then, I was rushing to get through this part of the plot.

There are consolations. Ms. Atwood is incapable of writing a limp or boring paragraph, and her imagination and playfulness remain as fertile and unpredictable as ever. But it’s impossible to feel passionate about “The Heart Goes Last.” Maybe the best approach is to lie back and think of something else.

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Margaret Atwood is one of literature's greatest living interior decorators. Some of her best stories are light on incident, but rich in character, as she examines her protagonists' inner lives at length. In rearranging their mental furniture and dusting the cobwebbed corners of their consciousness, she often comes across complicated truths about human nature, especially about gender relationships: How women and men treat each other, how women see each other, and how sex affects societies both real and metaphorical.

Her latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, flips her usual script to surreal but disappointing comic effect. Where the protagonists of Atwood's Cat's Eye, Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin stumble through emotional landscapes furnished by complicated pasts and difficult present choices, the central characters in The Heart Goes Last have minds like vacant lots, lit by a single dim bulb. Their shallowness and naïveté make them tractable and easily chivvied from one crisis to the next. Their story is antic and crammed with reversals of fortune, but they lack the depth to understand or engage with the horror in the horrible situations around them.

Stan and Charmaine are victims of a vast economic collapse, living in their car and scrambling for gas and food money. When a prosperous planned community offers an escape from post-apocalyptic misery, they don't question the details. That's just as well, since the details of Consilience don't follow any rational logic. The thriving city is built around Positron Prison, and residents like Stan and Charmaine are expected to alternate months as support staff and prisoners, with each group providing work and a rationale for the other. Consilience promises a meaningful life of luxury, in complete isolation from the outside world.

There's some Swiftian satire to the idea of prisoners and guards being fundamentally interchangeable, and a hint of societal critique in a prison system that exists solely to financially support its employees. And Consilience is a familiar kind of dystopia, a 1984-esque panopticon where a hidden leadership isolates its citizens, spies on them and manipulates them through cheery propaganda. But while Atwood draws on fears about surveillance states and prison-industrial complexes, both are just a soft-focus backdrop to Stan and Charmaine's outsized adventures in a world of brain reprogramming and Elvis sexbots.

Atwood originally wrote the book as "Positron," a four-part serial released via the now-defunct website Byliner. In interviews about the story, she often evoked Charles Dickens as the ultimate serializer, paving the way for subscription-driven online publishing. But it's often clear where Dickens was being paid by the installment, and where he inflated his word count through windy descriptive passages. Atwood veered in the opposite direction. The Heart Goes Last is slick and fleet, closer to Voltaire's Candide than Dickens' Bleak House. In dystopic novels like The Handmaid's Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood explores real-world issues that deeply concern her. Here, she's less invested in the real-world inspirations for her society than in the ways paranoia and control affects the sexual obsessions of two ninnies.

The Heart Goes Last's deepest investment isn't in Consilience's hideous secrets. It isn't even in Stan and Charmaine's inner lives — both characters have interior monologues like repetitive tape loops. The book is mostly interested in their sexual obsessions, and the way they fetishize each other only once they're separated. But their predictability doesn't do much to ground an unpredictable narrative, or give readers a worthy point of view. As other people plot against Consilience, the protagonists become hapless bystanders in everything from their marriage to the larger story.

Their lack of initiative or capability makes this book deeply frustrating, especially by comparison with Atwood's usual thoughtfully textured stories. The Heart Goes Last is packed with the kind of morally and socially complicated ideas that usually intrigue Atwood, and it's impossible not to wonder what she would have done with these ideas in a more heartfelt book, or one that used the serial-installment model to stretch out and explore more of this lightly sketched world. The humor here is wry almost to the point of invisibility, and it's no replacement for Atwood's usual unique insight into human nature. So many people could have written this bouncy, surface-driven novel. So few people can do what Atwood does at her best, when she cares more about her characters' minds than about their hormones.

Tasha Robinson is a freelance writer and a former Senior Editor at The Dissolve and The A.V. Club.

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