Margaret Atwood’s latest, “The Heart Goes Last”, is so funny, and so scary at the same time that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I was done. At the start, we meet Stan and Charmaine, a recently married, once happy couple, now destitute, and living in their car. The backdrop is an economic collapse, in a political environment with no safety net. Those in the middle and lower ends (I guess the middle is not an end) of the economic scale are devastated. Stan and Charmaine are constantly on the run from would be robbers and murderers because of the economic devastation and because “only rich people can afford to have police”. Stan cannot find work anywhere and Charmaine is working in a bar which also serves as a brothel (not much activity in the bar, but the brothel part of the business is booming–sex is a theme of this book!). As you can imagine, living in a car in constant fear puts a damper on a relationship, not to mention the perspectives of the residents.
Stan reluctantly decides to visit his gangster brother to collect on some debts and at about the same time, Charmaine sees an ad for an idyllic living arrangement called the Positron Project in the town of Consilience. At the Positron Project, residents get a house and a job. They also get to spend every other month working and living in a prison, while another couple lives in their shared house. The arrangement sounds good to Stan and Charmaine (I told you that living in a car and escaping marauders can skew your perspective) and they sign up and move in. Positron has very strict rules, unexpected surveillance and dictatorial leadership. All goes well, for a while… And then things begin to go very, very wrong. There are desirable and undesirable sexual encounters, disappearances, sex robots, interesting medical procedures, unexpected interrelationships, gangsters and lots and lots of Elvis impersonators running around. And at the end (I won’t really give away the end), there is real life uncertainty.
All in all, the book feels like a light story, but of course it’s not. Although the book seems funny at times, Charmaine observes that “comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness.” “The Heart Goes Last” is a story of what happens to human nature when life becomes hopeless–both from the perspective of the helpless and the perspective of those who capitalize on despair and hopelessness. And the story, in true Margaret Atwood fashion, highlights the need for opportunity, economic equality and honest, selfless and empathetic leadership, within a story that illustrates the possible impact of the loss of those qualities. The story also reminds us that things are not always as they seem and that human nature is complex and sometimes unpredictable. All in all, a good read.
You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/search/C__Sthe%20heart%20goes%20last?lang=eng.