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Margaret Atwood's Wonderfully Trashy Dystopia

'The Heart Goes Last' is a tale of marriage and surveillance

Oli Scarff / Getty Images News

From the first few chapters and the jacket copy, you wouldn’t necessarily expect The Heart Goes Last to differ from the standard apocalyptic program: Stan and Charmaine are living in their car, having uncomfortable backseat sex following the collapse of civilization, knowing that roving gangs could descend on them any minute. Desperate for hope, they apply for membership in the experimental Positron Project at Consilience, a sort of planned community bulwarked from the advancing ruin, whose population spends half the year as workers in the Positron prison and the other half in paid-for condominiums. Free from the struggles of survival, Charmaine embarks on an affair and takes to her new role administering The Procedure—execution by injection—to supposed troublemakers, while Stan nurses doubts about the community’s resident self-mythologizing (and more-than-vaguely-Jeff Bezos-like-entrepreneur/overlord).

Everything at this juncture is set for a chilling Shirley-Jackson-style parable about moral compromise for the sake of community. Instead, what follows is, for lack of a better word, trash. Glorious, sequined, pencil-thin mustache, midnight movie trash. Stan is sexually enslaved by a woman named Jocelyn, who oversees Consilience’s Surveillance efforts, and forces him to watch security footage of his wife’s passionate extra-marital encounters, then reenact them with her in bed. Jocelyn turns out to be a double agent secretly working against the Positron Project and sends Stan to the prison, where an unsuspecting Charmaine is pressured into performing The Procedure on her own husband—on Valentine’s Day!

Thanks to Jocelyn’s machinations, Stan survives and begins a new life at a factory that produces incredibly lifelike sex droids called Possibilibots, one of which has been commissioned by the head of Consilience who (out of the blue) we learn is in love with Charmaine and planning to have her brain reprogrammed to reciprocate. In order to stop this nefarious plan, Stan teams up with a prostitute whose own botched brainwash has made her emotionally dependent on a blue teddy bear and goes undercover as one of a troupe of gay Elvis impersonator-escorts in Las Vegas. There he finds his ne’er-do-well brother, who was introduced early in the novel then completely shelved, has joined a spin-off of the Blue Man Group called the Green Man Group, an improbable series of coincidences ensue and the novel ends like a Shakespearean comedy with every character—even the evil Jeff Bezos guy—romantically paired with another based on no demonstrable chemistry.

I don’t know if it’s clear from the foregoing, but The Heart Goes Last is pretty likeable despite its aggressive silliness. I’ve discovered that I want to read novels that feature pleasurebot-assembly factories and where the twilight world of Elvis rent boys is an actual subplot. But this might be because I know better and so does Margaret Atwood. She inaugurated the novel of speculative dystopia, as it is currently practiced, with 1985’s classic The Handmaiden’s Tale and perfected the formula with Oryx and Crake. The latter, arriving just two years after 9/11, presented a world of vicious online torture videos, oppressively amoral viral trends, and ubiquitous disease scares. These touches not only seemed to capture Bush-era malaise in the moment, but proved a revelation in terms of how timely and relevant science fiction could be, provided writers were willing to dispense with the space-faring utopianism of the 1960s and revisit tropes like genetic engineering and computer science through a more pessimist lens. In the following years, post-apocalypse became perhaps the most acceptable form through which to address the present, largely written by women who seemed to be asking, “If, as we’ve been told, societal structures are to blame for the oppression of minority groups by an ascendant majority, what happens when those structures are stripped away by flood, disease or generalized economic collapse?”

Granted, I think it’s fair to question, in books like Edan Lepucki’s California or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, why we need to look to the future when religiously-motivated persecution and the politicization of women’s bodies is already a daily reality for thousands of earth’s current inhabitants. (One might also wonder why a Canadian writer like Atwood needs to go further than the present-day U.S. to conceive of consumerist culture as a futuristic nightmare?)

Then again, a subset of these books developed a neat curiosity about how stories of the past (our present) would be told and what conventions would be deemed worth preserving. Lepucki wondered what marriage and child-rearing might become in a dying world, without institutions to either support them or insist on their necessity; St. John Mandel inquired as to whether Shakespeare and classical music would find any function once culturally-enforced class divisions collapse; and Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns posited (correctly) that quotes from The Simpsons will be the foundation on which a new civilization will be reborn after the great crash. Atwood herself got in on this action with Maddaddam (now in development as an HBO series), which capped off the trilogy she’d started in 2003, by imagining the fashion for sustainable food movements enshrined as doctrine. There have been other, usually less engaging, mass extinction novels that didn’t emphasize the role of women, but the commercial apotheosis of the form arrived with the massively successful The Hunger Games young adult series (and the requisite film franchise) and 2015’s exceptional Mad Max: Fury Road, both with female characters front and center.

This is the climate in which The Heart Goes Last appears and part of why its cheekiness comes as some surprise. If dystopian fictions are, as I believe, how we’ve come around to addressing the imbalances of the present, what are we to make of a novel where a hooker gets down with a teddy bear (“Oh, honey. Oh, yes. You’re so soft!”), a minor character abruptly comes clean about her face transplant and why she had it (roller derby accident), and in which, following Charmaine’s mock execution of Stan—which she believes is real—she thinks to herself, and I quote, “Holy shoot”?

Obviously, this is all a bit of a palate cleanser, a lighthearted corrective to the bleakness of the genre, and part of me suspects that other readers might find this book bad, or even terrible, but I don’t think it does anyone any favors to impugn what is triumphantly camp. It is marriage, the ultimate synthesis of structural power, that is Atwood’s subject in The Heart Goes Last. Reversing the roles of husband and wife found in 1950s domestic dramas like Peyton Place, it is Atwood’s Stan who is exploited, discarded, dressed and poised while Charmaine pays for their lifestyle in a workplace that takes the form of her marriage: a prison.

The message Atwood has worked into the novel’s disarming level of inanity is a radical one: namely that the one thing worth preserving in a marriage is a wife’s power to choose. To choose her lovers, her friends and her work and to acknowledge the fluctuations of her heart, however inconvenient those fluctuations are to the status quo, and to differentiate between consent and compulsion, sex and pornography. This becomes most vividly the case near the end, when Charmaine begins to wish for an operation that will force her to desire Stan exclusively and return them to the bliss they knew before Positron, before the combustion of society. The darkness of this desire belies the melodrama that is Atwood’s method. But she seems to understand that such melodrama can confront the reality of marriage with a frankness that is often missing from more infantilizing stories of marriages that can only be happy or unhappy, and in which individuality is a threat to both parties. And so, perhaps even more than its post-apocalyptic peers, The Heart Goes Last a grown-up novel. Its world is our world, and the future it depicts is the present, which is where we will all be spending the rest of our lives.