THE HEART GOES LAST by Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart), 304 pages, $34 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Margaret Atwood’s latest speculative fiction is an irresistible mix of horror and hilarity. She’s one of just a few authors who can pull that off.
In The Heart Goes Last, the economy has collapsed and the social fabric has unravelled, leaving married couple Stan and Charmaine to live in their car – their last substantial possession – and pray that brutal roving gangs don’t notice them. Their situation is so desperate, they can’t resist joining the new socially engineered community Consilience.
The deal is straightforward: you get your own large, well-appointed space and great food in a splendidly manicured neighbourhood, and – here’s the catch – in alternating months, while another couple lives in your civilian home, you spend time in Positron, the prison system where, as faux inmates, you work on projects that build the community. Turns out, though, the projects are downright diabolical.
Atwood’s riding a surge of interest in the perils of rapidly privatizing prison systems; Chris Hedges has taken them on, and it’s a primary theme in the third season of Orange Is The New Black. But where Hedges bemoans the crippling debt incurred by prisoners, and Orange sends up the crappy food, Atwood goes much further when it comes to Positron. Once inside, Charmaine is forced to engage in ethically questionable (to put it mildly) activities.
Sounds brutal, but in Atwood’s hands it’s also hysterically funny. A sequence where male prison workers jam on the topic of how to make the most exciting sex robot is high satire, and another featuring Elvis impersonators is ludicrous in the best way.
And The Heart Goes Last gets very sexy when Stan and Charmaine start cheating on each other.
Atwood’s storytelling chops are on full display. Very few writers create entire new worlds as believably as she does, and the narrative, full of twists and turns, powers along.
Okay, it doesn’t pack the strongest emotional charge. But it’s plausible, ridiculous, funny and terrifying all at the same time. Read it.