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The Heart Goes Last
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
One of the more interesting aspects of the "CCLaP 100" essay series on literary classics I've been writing over the years has been in researching the authors in question, and discovering that many of them have thirty, forty, fifty books or more as part of their complete bibliography, even though it's the same two or three titles that now get read by modern audiences 99.9 percent of the time. The question becomes, why have these other 47 books faded into unread obscurity? Are they truly subpar novels that aren't worth our time? Were they ever popular with contemporary audiences when they first came out? Or is this simply the reality of a writer destined to be remembered by history -- do they simply have to crank out 50 novels in order to produce two or three that are still worth remembering and reading a century later?
With these questions floating around in my head all the time, then, it's easy to apply them to the contemporary living authors of today, the ones who have already racked up a couple of ultra-popular titles and will likely make up the next wave of the so-called literary canon; take Margaret Atwood for a good example, whose 1985 The Handmaid's Tale is almost guaranteed at this point to be considered a classic by future generations, and whose brilliant post-apocalyptic trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam also has a good chance of outliving her at-the-moment fans. And that's what makes her newest novel, The Heart Goes Last, such a heartbreaking thing to read, because it becomes clear quickly that this is one of those proverbial minor novels to be almost immediately forgotten by history within just a year of its publication, one of those red-linked titles at the end of her Wikipedia bio that obsessive fans in the 22nd century will wonder whether it's worth it to even track a copy down.
Yet another day-after-tomorrow speculative novel like so many of her best ones, The Heart Goes Last is unfortunately a half-baked example of one, with a central premise that is both trite and that makes no logical sense -- in an America that voted in the Tea Party after the Great Recession of the 2010s, things are quickly starting to devolve into Mad Max territory, with privately owned prisons being one of the few industries left that is still demonstrating economic growth, if it wasn't for the fact that those pesky prisoners keep doing things like killing each other and starting riots and becoming now-well-trained threats to society the moment they're released. Wouldn't it be great, some Halliburton-type corporation decides one day, if you could have all the economic benefits of a large prison but without the drawbacks of actual hardened criminals? And thus is the experimental walled city of Consilience started, populated with "volunteers" fleeing the anarchy that most American big cities have become by now, operating under a simple approach -- every month, half the town's population acts as prisoners while the other half are their guards and support staff, then the next month these halves are reversed, with everyone involved getting free middle-class room and board for their troubles, as long as they agree to never leave the town, and never talk to outside reporters.
Granted, Atwood's earnestness is in the right place with this book, but that's also the problem in a nutshell; the whole thing feels like some weird, not-well-thought-out nugget of an idea that popped into her head one night when watching yet one more Donald Trump rally, a sort of kneejerk reaction to the one-percenters that somehow got filled out to 300 pages before anyone bothered to ask whether the novel's central premise even makes narrative sense. What exactly are the economic benefits of a fake prison filled with fake prisoners? Why would someone fund a fake prison in the first place? If the entire town exists as a way to provide cheap labor for the outside world in exchange for middle-class safety, why not just get rid of the entire fake-prison concept altogether and make the town the entire point? And if this is supposed to be a model for a way to potentially save America from complete downfall, why are the town's founders so paranoid about not letting the public glimpse any of it? Especially when they're not really doing anything that people living under Mad-Max-type conditions would especially complain about? (The main thing the town's founders are trying to hide is that they peacefully euthanize troublemakers who refuse to tow the line; but in a world where bands of armed criminals roam the lawless countryside, murdering and raping while facing no repercussions at all, a little lethal injection of the worst malcontents would actually seem like a blessing to most.)
Ugh, the amount of questions regarding narrative logic that immediately pop up when reading this book is enough to boggle the mind, but that's not the end of the problems; Atwood then marries a bunch of cheesy, too-obvious details to this premise, such as the fact that all the houses in this town are modeled and furnished in the style of 1950s suburban ranch homes (the period of history when people professed "being most happy"), or the fact that "rock and roll music" has been banned from the town's private communications system, replaced instead with endless amounts of such Mid-Century goody-goods as Doris Day and Pat Boone. It's less of an Atwood novel and more a freshman writing student's hackneyed ripoff of an Atwood novel, an entire full-length book entirely fueled by a single thought one night while watching CNN of, "Ooh, I hate those Tea Party people so much;" and for an author like Atwood who has proven what a masterful and inventive storyteller she can be, such a book goes way beyond disappointing and into the realm of legitimately insulting, especially given that a million dollars was spent on marketing this book which could've instead been used to promote a thousand better novels from small-press authors you've never heard of. So the next time you're looking through the Wikipedia bio of Jack London or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Theodore Dreiser and get to wondering about all those books listed at the bottom of their page you've never heard of, keep The Heart Goes Last in mind and realize that they've most likely fallen into obscurity for a very good reason.
Out of 10: 5.2