December 3, 2015

Book Review: "The Heart Goes Last," by Margaret Atwood

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The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last
By Margaret Atwood
Random House
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Sometimes I wonder Margaret Atwood spends thinking up dystopias. Maybe that was part of why I was leery about this one going in, along with the fact that it was her third book in as many years. Plus she had just completed a dystopian trilogy in 2013, which made me wonder if it was really time for another novel in the genre, and not just from Atwood but from any author. The short answer ended up being no, especially since this doesn't have Stone Mattress's fairy-tale flair in mind. Instead, this serialized novel doesn't do much more than rehash old Atwood tropes and ask the reader to invest themselves in some of her thinnest characters yet.

Before I get into that, some notes on plot. Even writing the book's plot disappoints me, because this novel had some potential. At its base, it's the story of Stan and Charmaigne, a couple hit hard by a financial crisis I assume is like the current one. Ripped from the headlines dystopia? Oryx and Crake did that. After months of living out of a car, they move into a town that doubles as a prison, known as Consilience. Here they spend a month living in town and a month living in prison, switching off with another couple known as their "alternates." Both of them develop sexual obsessions with their alternates. Both also fall into a resistance movement against Consilience, whose peaceful veneer rapidly proves too good to be true. By the way, remember when characters fell into a resistance movement in the Handmaid's Tale?

So why this potential? I really wanted to like the "soap opera meets 1984" aspects of this novel. It should've been a fresh twist on an overstuffed genre, and it would've been really funny and at the same point haunting. I want to step away from that, though, because I don't want to ask Atwood to write a book she didn't write. There are problems here beyond the blown opportunity. First off, let's look at the two leads, neither of whom are interesting or developed in the slightest. Stan's whole thing is to feel jealous and occasionally have violent sexual fantasies, while Charmaigne's chipper but resilient thing would work a lot better if the two weren't expressed in such generic ways. She is an utter grotesquerie, someone who likes weird sex but won't say anything ruder than "darn." It's like Charmaigne is intended to parody suburban blandness, which would be all fine and good if that target hadn't also been hit so many other times. Plus she recites useless feel-good advice imparted to her by an older caretaker, which also happened in the Blind Assassin. This still gives her more character than Stan, but Stan is so empty that Atwood has to frequently point out his blandness, as though she thinks calling attention to it will excuse it.

The uninteresting characters drag the rest of the book down, too. Any sense of tension becomes sucked out of the whole affair, since it's not like this is one of those novels that can get away with thin characters. If she was performing crazy formal experimentation or deliberately pointing out the holes in our perception of fiction or even writing the sort of astounding prose she's capable of, fine. But she doesn't do any of these things. She's going for a character-driven narrative, one about the marriage's disintegration, and it just doesn't work. No investment in the characters, no tension, not even in scenes that would've been magnificent in their stomach-turning dread if she turned some of the Cat's Eye-era magic on her protagonists.

There's also a lot of absurd humor throughout. Sometimes it comes off - the Elvis colony in Las Vegas was a nice touch - otherwise it just comes off like the same rubber chicken gag on repeat. So I found it good for a few chuckles, although I could just as well forget those chuckles as this book fades from my memory, and not a lot else. Atwood writes a lot, so she'll probably have something better out next year, but this just makes me long for the Blind Assassin and Cat's Eye. Sure, it speaks to our immediate social situation, but a great novel has to do more than that.

Out of 10: 5.8

Read even more about The Heart Goes Last: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, December 3, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |