Like many of Margaret Atwood’s novels, The Heart Goes Last is slightly disturbing – but for good intent. It forces readers to think about the role sex plays in modern society and how that role changes when considering the pervasive nature of technology. Atwood’s protagonists, Charmaine and Stan, are two of your every-day Americans, down on their economic luck, until one day, they see an advertisement for Consilience — a social experiment that allows participants to return to their suburban dream, as long as they spend every other month in prison. Desperate and enticed by the glamour of stability, the couple sign up.
Atwood’s ability to make any scene palpable – however intricate or mundane it may be – is remarkable. The rapists hanging around Charmaine and Stan’s car, the peacefully uneventful streets of Consilience, and the couple’s structured lives inside prison walls loom over readers, reminding them of all that is at stake for Atwood’s protagonists. Readers get to delve into, both Charmaine and Stan’s minds, allowing them to understand the two protagonists’ different desires, and how eventually, these different desires divide them. More importantly, the two perspectives allow for Atwood to challenge and explore the sexual politics lying at the core of her novel. Carrying on her legacy as a feminist author, Atwood portrays different types of sexual relations and manipulations — relations and manipulations shown from both the female and the male eye. As readers learn about the brand new invention of sex robots — life-like and customizable, Atwood explores how gender roles in sex can amplify or change with technology.
Where the novel disappoints is the end: Atwood introduces so many different elements, but fails to provide a satisfactory or believable end. She includes everything from Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe impersonators to extramarital affairs in order to explore the big themes in her work, but quickly wraps things up as Charmaine and Stan’s (surface-level) problems begin to dissolve away. The brisk nature of the end detracts from some provocative elements of the story, making them appear ridiculous, and consequently unnecessary.
But what Atwood manages to capture in her latest novel transcends her unsatisfactory ending. We live in a world of sex-saturated media: everything from music videos to perfume adverts, to magazine covers revealing ‘The 42 Best Tips For Bed!’ use sex to attract the general public. Most of the time, this notion of sex that we, as a society, are fed is patriarchal, one-sided, and therefore, inaccurate. Even with its flawed ending, Atwood’s new novel exposes this patriarchal influence of our society’s perception of sex and its consequent dangers. Indeed that, on its own, makes The Heart Goes Last a worthy read.
Image: Timothy Swinson