Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

Today I'm looking at another book by the author of The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood. Today though I'm reviewing The Heart Goes Last, a book written a couple of years ago and definitely takes a lot of inspiration from the financial crisis which began in 2007. Overall this book is interesting and it has some tantalizing plot threads, but I feel like Atwood ends up trying to do too much and cover too many topics so the result feels far more scattered. In many ways I'm almost reminded of a Phillip K. Dick novel like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Dick had this habit of coming up with a ton of ideas for his books, any one of which could have been the basis of an entire novel. The problem was Dick was so hopped up on methamphetamines the entire time that he wandered off to a thousand different interesting ideas. Atwood's book definitely doesn't have the same frantic pace that Dick's work does, but it feels like a similar effect in regards to the lack of focus.

The book follows a married couple, Stan and Charmaine, two young professionals who were hit by a cataclysmic financial crash sometime in the near future. Most of New England and the Rust Belt are gutted wastelands, any companies that remained have packed up and headed west. The super rich live tax-free on floating communities offshore, while 40% of the U.S. population is unemployed and law enforcement is something that happens only in the richest enclaves.

Stan and Charmaine have been living in their car for months now, desperately short on cash and wondering if they'll survive to tomorrow. Then they hear about the opportunity provided by Consilience, a social experiment town that provides full housing, full employment, and a safe community. The catch is that every other month half the population spends their time locked up in the prison, the central ''industry'' of Consilience while the other half act as the civilians. Most people, Stan and Charmaine included, are too desperate too be overly worried by Consilience's weird rules and are just happy to have food in their bellies and a safe place to sleep. Unsurprisingly, of course, things are not as they appear and Stan and Charmaine find themselves embroiled in a much more sinister conspiracy.

As I said, the biggest problem I have is this book has a lot of things going on, but there are so many threads that I don't think Atwood really gets a chance to develop any of them particularly well. I'm also left scratching my head at some of the plotlines or decisions for how the stories get resolved, which makes this book less than perfect for me. Atwood is still an excellent writer and she does at least touch on a lot of themes in this book, but it feels very lacking in focus and I think that's to the book's detriment.

The foremost example, without getting into spoilers, is the whole prison setup to Consilience. The residents of Consilience are working whether they're inside prison or outside prison, and either way their jobs and houses are assigned to them. It's basically a giant, centrally-planned economy with most of the profits (allegedly) getting scooped off to the investors in the project. Like, for example, they say part of the full employment plan is to have people be guards for the prison, providing jobs, while also exploiting cheap prison labor. But if everyone's working for the same company, having some of them be guards is really just make-work that serves no real purpose. You'd think it'd be more profitable to have everyone working all the time.

The only reason I could think of having the prison population is what Ed, the guy in charge of the whole Consilience project, says at the beginning. He veers into mustache-twirling villain territory by saying that the American economy is failing because we simply aren't willing to make use of slave labor, starving people to death while wringing every possible bit of work from them. So in theory the reason to have a prison population is to make use of slave labor. But the entire population of Consilience are basically prisoners anyway because they're not allowed outside the walled enclave of the town, whether they're in a prison month or no. Everything is either imported or made by the company, everyone works for the company, and is paid by the company. They're literally stuck in a company town, it just raises more questions than answers.

And this isn't the only plot thread that doesn't really get explored to its fullest potential. Charmaine has a tragic childhood fraught with physical and emotional abuse, but that's seen in glimpses and used an explanation for why she has such a Pollyanna exterior. Not to mention the double life Charmaine is living when she starts having an affair with Max, one of the residents of the house when Stan and Charmaine are spending their months in prison. Or a couple other plotlines I won't go into detail about because that goes into spoiler territory. But I think if Atwood had chosen to focus on just one or maybe two things this could have been a really good book, but because she doesn't keep the book focused we end up with potentialities instead of actualities.

And then there is the ending which I find kind of objectionable for a number of reasons, but again that gets into spoiler territory. Suffice to say everything seems wrapped up a little too neatly for this book. Overall I think this book could have been really great, but because Atwood starts exploring these different avenues the result is sadly less than spectacular.

- Kalpar

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