The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Into Everywhere by Paul McAuley
This year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction was awarded to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s début novel The Sympathizer which I look forward to reading at some point in the coming months.
For genre fans Nguyen’s win was of less significance when compared to the news that Kelly Link’s collection, Get in Trouble: Stories, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. If my Facebook page was any indication, Kelly’s appearance on the Pulitzer honor role was recognition (finally) by the literary élite that genre fiction deserves to be taken seriously. Personally I think it’s evidence of Kelly Link’s brilliance as a writer of fiction – genre or otherwise – than a first step toward genre / literary reconciliation. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be proud of what Kelly has achieved by writing unashamed genre fiction. But I also think that a writer of Kelly’s talents are rare and that she will prove to be the exception rather than the beginning of a trend.
Your enjoyment of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is going to entirely depend on whether her brand of satire resonates with your sense of humor. I’ll say straight out that while I enjoyed the writing, there’s some deliciously good prose on display here, I found nothing remotely funny or insightful in Atwood’s satiric take on America’s twin obsession with capitalism and sex.
The opening of the novel is promising. We’re introduced to married couple Charmaine and Stan, two victims of a horrendous financial collapse – imagine if the 2008 crisis just got worse – that’s seen them unemployed and living out of their car. Stan is miserable and cynical and prone to bouts of anger. Charmaine, inspite of everything, has a cheery disposition and a belief – inspired by her dead Grandma Win who always had sage advice for every situation – that things will improve. So when they both see an ad for a gated community called Consilience, offering the poor and dispossessed a chance for stable employment and a house of their own, Stan can’t help but wonder what the catch is while Charmaine sees it as the answer to their current predicament and a fix for their marriage. In a sense they’re both right, living in Consilience is an escape from the gloom and doom of the outside world and it does fix their marriage – sort of – and as they will both discover to their horror there is most definitely a catch. And it’s a biggie.
The satire – if that’s’ what it is – truly kicks in when Charmaine and Stan enter Consilience. It’s also the point where the novel, tonally and in terms of plot and character begins to falter. Consilience was built around a prison and the contract that every residents agrees to on arrival is that each month they will alternate between working in the prison – as a prisoner – and living as a civilian in the peaceful and idyllic community that makes up the rest of Consilience. This is the Positron Project, the notion that people will give up their liberty for six months every year for the guarantee of safety and security. It’s an interesting thought experiment, though sadly it’s not really the point of the novel. It’s just a façade. What funds Consilience is the sale of body parts and the manufacture of sex bots. Charmaine is instrumental in the former – unbeknownst to Stan she’s extremely good at putting people to sleep – and Stan ends up dealing with the latter – as a reluctant hero, Stan’s attempt to escape Consilience and tell the truth of what happens there involves him seeing how the sexbots are built.
And throughout all this what becomes clear is that everyone in the novel is obsessed with fucking. Whether it’s Charmaine enjoying the rough stuff with a mysterious stranger behind Stan’s back or Stan fantasting about a woman named Jasmine after he found a secret note from her under the fridge or Ed, the CEO of the Positron Project, who has the hots for Charmaine to the point that he has a robot copy made of her or Veronica, a once barmaid / prostitute who has had her neurons fiddled with and has now imprinted on a teddy bear that she constantly wants to fuck, sexual desire and the associated power dynamic seeps through every page. The problem is that it’s handled in such a farcical and silly way that I stopped believing in Stan and Charmaine (or any character for that matter) as real people but rather the punchline to a very long and not particularly funny joke. There was a point where I wondered whether all the sexual antics was Atwood’s way of commenting on the male gaze – Stan in particular spends most of his time lusting after women he can’t have – but that all went by the wayside when the action moves to Las Vegas, becomes a caper novel and features a multitude of Elvis and Marilyn impersonators and Atwood’s parody of the Blue Man Group. The last nail in the coffin is when Charmaine goes through the same surgery as Veronica – she of the teddy bear fetish – and imprints on Stan, only to discover that she never actually had the operation and that her love for Stan must be true and pure after all. At this point any sense of subtlety, commentary, critique, whatever has, to quote the great man, truly left the building.
I’m certain there will be people who will find this novel as both a wicked takedown of American culture – and possibly a glimpse of what the US would be like under a Trump Presidency – and hilarious to boot. This year’s Kitschie judges certainly thought so, awarding The Heart Goes Last the Red tentacle for best novel. But for me the broad comedy, the sexual shenanigans and the caricatures masquerading as people fell flat. Sometimes, you’re just not in on the joke.