Book review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood. Picture: Getty Images
Margaret Atwood. Picture: Getty Images
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NEVER mind the frolics, this brilliantly scatty novel should become the next Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Heart Goes Last

Margaret Atwood

Bloomsbury, £18.99

THE last novel by the late William Gaddis – one of the most underrated figures in contemporary literature – was called A Frolic Of His Own. The Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Margaret Atwood’s new book, The Heart Goes Last, might well have been subtitled A Frolic Of Her Own. There is something frolicsome and gleeful about this, an author giving what my fellow reviewer Allan Massie wisely compares to Sir Thomas Beecham’s “lollipops” at the Proms. It is a novel that seems to be about austerity and turns out to be about adultery; a dystopia with a strangely sour-sweet happy ending; a bagatelle with anger.

At the beginning of the novel, Charmaine and Stan are reduced to living in their car. The banks have foreclosed on their mortgage, and every employer is relocating. Just as her job in a seedy bar is bringing her perilously close to prostitution, Charmaine sees an advert for a new social experiment: Consilience. It’s a town where you get a free house, a job, a living wage – except you have to become a prisoner every other month in the local penitentiary. The occupants of the prison will then replace you – they are “Alternates” – and your graciousness will make them less criminally inclined. “Do time now, buy time for the future” is the catchphrase. For Charmaine it’s ideal – she gets to chintz things up – and Stan is resigned to it, despite his wayward brother’s warnings against the whole scheme.

Just as you think this is a set of variations of the Stanford Experiment, Stan finds a note hidden beneath the fridge, which he presumes is from Charmaine’s “Alternate” – a note which entrances him erotically. At the same time, we learn, Charmaine is actually having an affair with Stan’s “Alternate”, and the note was left by her, using their pseudonyms. So Stan’s sexual fantasies are actually about his own wife. Then, dear readers, things get brilliantly scatty. Without spoiling the plot, we will encounter organ-harvesting and sexbots, Elvis impersonators and living headless chickens, Las Vegas dance routines and a woman in love with a blue teddy bear. The last part needs some explication: the villainous Ed who runs Consilience is working on a new technology which zaps bits of your brain to make you love, and energetically copulate with, the first person you see when the anaesthetic wears off. It’s a Shakespearean convenience, but to her credit Atwood puts some sours into the cocktail. So, for example, the girl who looks like every sexual fantasy ever only has eyes for a blue teddy bear.

Compared to The Handmaid’s Tale or Alias Grace, this is far more hi-jinks in terms of gender and identity, but no less sharp-eyed or incisive. Atwood writes wonderfully about the poverty of Charmaine and Stan’s existence before they sign up to Consilience, and it gives a grounding to the manner by which their goodness is nibbled away at when they suddenly have a degree of certainty in their lives. It means that the “happy ending” is one of the saddest and strangest I have read. It deals with one of life’s great imponderables – is love which is not freely given love? Atwood gives herself space to deal with some of the technological changes we are witnessing, while writing a novel about the unchanging nature of the human heart. There’s almost a throwaway quality to, for example, her discussion about the ethics of creating artificial beings for sex – what would be wrong about creating an artificial child for paedophiles? Other novelists might have spent an entire book exploring that dilemma, but Atwood is a consummate juggler, and this problem must vie with panopticon prisons, rehabilitation, genetic manipulation, neuroscience and a culture comprised of pastiche for her laser-like attention. There are points where the reader is left to make up her or his own mind: when Stan genuinely regrets not appreciating Charmaine’s “quasi-virgin like restraint”, are we to sympathise or condemn? Is the antagonist an exemplary strong woman or a ball-busting, scheming harridan?

All of this made me think that The Heart Goes Last might actually be the basis for a very good musical, and if Richard O’Brien, of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Shock Treatment, might be persuaded to turn his hand to the genre again, this would be ideal material. It has the same mixture of realism and fantasy, a naïve and gullible young couple, sexy villains and parodies of the 1950s throughout – Consilience is cut off from the world, and pipes Doris Day into every home (Stan wonders if her career would be different if she were called Doris Night). As a musical, the whole glorious silliness of Elvis impersonators, men whose only sexual outlet is chickens and the espionage plot would be positive advantages, and it is almost structured already as a series of solos, duets and ensembles.

In a way, Atwood has earned her stripes and is entitled to a little fun. While her previous trilogy – Oryx And Crake, The Year Of The Flood and Maddadam was earnest to the point of polemic, this is just sheer fun, with a sharp edge. It reminded me of Lucy Ellmann’s similarly caustic and elegiac comedies, where every laugh is accompanied by guilt at laughing. In the end, the title tells you everything. This is about the heart, and it is about its cessation. But that it redeems the most brokenhearted and vilifies the heartless is a giggling astonishment.