Fiction Unbound has been celebrating Margaret Atwood all month in preparation for her latest release, The Heart Goes Last. While we would each pledge ourselves to prison for the love of Atwood, not every book can be a favorite. Write on, Ms. Atwood, but please don't begrudge us for not loving this one. We'll still pre-order your next book; promise.
CS Peterson: Ding Dong the Witch is Dead
There is no question that Atwood is a master at the craft of writing. However, in The Heart Goes Last, her previously serialized plot persisted in wandering off in a surreal, Rocky Horror Picture Show kind of way. I kept trying to figure out what kind of Atwood book I was in. Every time I thought I had it nailed, Atwood would throw in a band of Elvis impersonators and I’d be stumbling around after her again, in a romp through her own very particular brand of enchanted forest.
Finally, Jocelyn, the orchestrator of the action, declines to attend a wedding, saying “I don’t want to be the wicked witch at the feast.” Ahh! Everything popped into place. It’s a fairy tale, it turns out. And Jocelyn, the good fairy/wicked witch (depending on the day you’ve been having) has been in a discussion with that squeezable, agency averse princess, Charmaine, about free will. Wish I’d known this sooner. I kind of like that. But enough waffling and wandering about, I’m off to the gym. Got to keep in shape for the broadsword match I have against Jocelyn this weekend.
Theodore McCombs: Gilead Won?
Is heterosexual sex actually enjoyable? I ask because, after several eye-opening reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, then reading The Heart Goes Last, I am gravely concerned about the suffering of my straight brothers and sisters. I’ve been under the impression for years that sex between men and women, given the right partners, was at least fifty, sixty-percent as pleasurable and fulfilling as same-gender loving; but in the world of Consilience/Positron, sex is the province of rapists, idiots, slaves and prostitutes. Mutual adultery spills into rape by blackmail which segues into sex toys – don’t worry, it’s bleak satire in no danger of the fun that ‘toy’ suggests – and then rape by lobotomy; the characters are sex-starved, sex-crazy, or sex-shamed. Every character is at one point either having or plotting to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to. There are kiddie robot sex dolls shipped in little satin coffins for high-paying clientele and housewives who put fuschia lipstick kisses on adulterous notes. Fuschia lipstick, for God’s sake!
Look, I get it. Human sexuality has a big ol’ dark side. Watch Dollhouse. Hell, watch Law & Order: SVU. (No, really, you should all watch Dollhouse.) All glibness aside, any standard of sex positivity has to incorporate the very real threats of violence, exploitation, and extortion; it has to incorporate, too, the way isolation and insecurity can skew one’s sexual drive into dark, lonely places. But that can’t be the end of it -- well, tragically, it is for certain individuals, but if you’re painting social commentary with a broad, speculative brush, as Atwood is here, an examination of human sexuality that leaves out everything good and true just isn’t making a plausible case.
Atwood’s vision of sex is so relentlessly grim and prim, it seems impossible she’s the Atwood who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, who saw the human longing, grace, and rebellion in Offred’s sexuality. No, The Heart Goes Last is Gilead propaganda: a stern warning to those with the stupidity or depravity to enjoy a good lay. Please, just tell me you guys and gals are having some fun – the propagation of the species just isn’t worth this misery.
Lisa Mahoney: Fear the Puppets
As a writer, I’ve often wondered how long a reader would sympathize with a character who fails to consider the ramifications of important decisions. Well, now I know. In Atwood’s latest dystopia, we find a couple down on their luck, trying to make the best of life in a very real, near future where the economy is in shambles. I was willing to travel with her there, but when the husband, Stan, who is much more worldly than the wife, Charmaine, agrees to please her by moving into a project where all they really know is that they’ll have a house and job but no way out, ever, Stan loses me, because he doesn’t pay much attention to the presentation or bother to read the fine print of the agreement. Really? Worse, when Stan’s brother goes far out of his way to warn him against joining up, Stan doesn’t care enough to insist upon learning what rumors Conor has heard. Wouldn’t you want to know what dirt your underworld-connected brother knows about a place you’re about to sign away the rest of your life to? I sure would. Okay, it can be interesting when characters get tricked, but when they exhibit gross disregard for their own fates, then I want them to get what they deserve. And do they ever.
Being in Jocelyn the Puppetmaster’s POV as she decides to retaliate against her own husband by condemning him to sexual slavery would have been interesting. Instead, we follow Stan and Charmaine whose choice is to go along with Jocelyn’s Big Unexplained Plan or to die, which is not a choice, not “free will,” as Catie mentions above.
Orphan Trope Aside: In keeping with my promise to note the protagonist’s orphan status in books I review, Atwood gets minus points for using a character, Charmaine, who grew up orphaned but in her grandmother’s care, because we learn few details of Charmaine’s abandonment except hints of grave abuses long repressed which is supposed to help explain why she is so materialistic, compliant and ditzy. It doesn’t.
CH Lips: Looking for Elvis in all the Wrong Places
(Warning: spoilers abound!)
Dear Ms. Atwood,
Namaste. I bow to your literary goddess-ness. In your newest book, The Heart Goes Last, your exquisite ability to create character through the inner dialogue of the two protagonists, Charmaine and Stan, does not disappoint. Charmaine constantly bolsters her rigid Pollyanna credo (adopted to overcome childhood abuse) with down-home Grandma Win-isms: “If all you’ve got is lemons...make pink lemonade.” Charmaine’s cussing rants get as randy as “gosh,” and “darn it to heck.” Meanwhile husband Stan is busy thinking in words like “fuck,” “ratshit,” and “softly purring spook vehicle.” He’s always of two minds--trying to figure how to save Charmaine from the bad guys while getting his hands up her skirt. We know these two. They are Barbie and Crude Ken. Or: Crude Ken before Mattel made him anatomically incorrect.
A quick personal aside: When I was four years old someone gave me a Barbie Doll. I played with her for about four and half seconds and then took a ballpoint pen and colored her all over in blue ink. I realize now why I did it--that coy tilt of the head, those relentless pointed toes, the optic blue eyes--Barbie never, ever changed. And that pissed me off.
When I consider the deeper subjects of literary thought, things like theme and character arc in The Heart Goes Last, I regret to say that I’m forced to rise up from my namaste bow. I’ve tried not to. I’ve trolled the internet looking for connections like: Tragic Heroes of Iconic America: Elvis Presley/Marilyn Monroe. I’ve considered that the colossal, satirical Atwood wit has zeroed in on America’s obtuse obsessions with Elvis impersonators and Marilyn conspiracy theories. I’ve unearthed such oddities as the mildly terrifying Marilyn Monroe bath duck. But ultimately, I come to the conclusion that this is a story of how Barbie decides life is too hard (which in fairness is quite true) and that flowered sheets and safety are worth the trade for freedom. Ken mindlessly agrees and they sign up for prison. Forever. Within the story there are fascinating opportunities for Stan and Charmaine to change, to bust out of their plasticized Ken and Barbie forms. The moment when Charmaine has to choose whether or not she will inject Stan (her husband!) with a lethal drug comes to mind. And the scene when Stan sees Charmaine again after she has supposedly executed him. I kept turning the pages through the kinky extra-marital affairs, Elvis impersonators (both straight and gay) and fetishism with knitted blue bears knowing that the brilliant Atwood moment would come, Stan and/or Charmaine would have a new idea, make a freaking decision. At least kick someone.
But the moment never happens. By the final page Stan is as slightly-less-than-satisfied with his marital sex life as he was at the start of the story and seems to have no other needs, wants or insights. Charmaine has named her daughter after Grandma Win and, when handed the revelation that she is free to choose her life, Charmaine’s only response is, “How do you mean?”
Damn it to hell, where is my blue pen?
Gemma Webster: Serialized is Superior
Writers need to be paid more for their work. The long, lonely hours to create something entertaining and beautiful for others is a worthy pursuit. I can get behind a writer being paid twice for a piece because inventing stories is hard work. I would not begrudge a writer who is paid for their short story and then for the same story again in a collection. I read the Positron 1-4 stories when they came out in serial form. I found them enjoyable and I have to say I found them entertaining and complete. It is possible that I wasn’t paying close attention but I honestly thought I had read all there was or would be in the Positron story-verse. I left it satisfied. I’ve read that others did not feel the same and that some people thought that the serial episodes would continue. I suppose this novel is the answer to that.
I have to say I liked the serialized story better. I liked the mystery and the rate of revelation within each new episode. There was enough room for me to come to my own conclusions about what sort of people Stan and Charmaine were and what kind of world they were confronting that would lead them to this scenario. Also, I found the storytelling feels uneven in the novel. The parts that were the pre-existing serial stories are stronger than the new novel padding. Ultimately, for me, the novel is over explained, answering questions I never raised.
I still consider myself an avid fan of Atwood’s work. I’ll read whatever she writes next but I do hope that whatever it is, it stays true to itself.
Here’s an interview with Margaret Atwood about what she was trying to accomplish with the original serial story for TIME.