Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last: “Comedy is so cold and heartless”

Kurt Vonnegut often confessed that he wrote to a basic pattern, the joke. And while Margaret Atwood‘s voluminous and diverse canon of work is often punctuated with wordplay, the humor is often dark and the overall weight of her fiction is relatively heavy.

About one-fourth of the way into Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, we encounter that wordplay at the center of the novel when a main character, Charmaine, muses about her work euthanizing undesirables inside the speculative near-future where the economically desperate choose to spend half their lives in prison: “Then he’s unconscious. Then he stops breathing. The heart goes last” (p. 70).

The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury Publishing)

The joke (“the heart goes last” is death, not love) is that this novel filled with a great deal of sex—including sex robots, infidelity, and brain surgery designed to turn people into little more than sex slaves to one individual or object (think The Stepford Wives)—is rarely sexy and certainly void of genuine gestures of love, at least until the twist at the very end.

Atwood’s novels demonstrate a brilliant awareness of and contentious relationship with genre; Atwood is often simultaneously conforming to and resisting the conventions of genre.

Science fiction, speculative fiction, dystopian fiction—these have become touchstones for the later Atwood (since 2003), who has written extensively about genre distinctions as well as having a public debate with Ursula K. Le Guin about science fiction.

For many people, Atwood is defined by her The Handmaid’s Tale, a speculative, dystopian work that she echoed later in her brilliant MaddAddam trilogyOryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam.

In these works, Atwood channels her inner-George Orwell, and argues that she is not creating science fiction (in other words, making things up), but speculating about much that already exists, or has occurred in human history.

These speculative works exhibit her masterful wordplay, but the motifs as well as the plots are dark and heavy.

I would add for context that Atwood also creates characters who are often compelling, complex and worthy of our compassion. In her speculative works, we have someone, or several characters, to pull for, to love.

While many will call The Heart Goes Last science fiction or speculative fiction, this novel is not in the Atwood tradition noted above. Instead of Orwellian, Heart is something of a comic hybrid—Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World meets Idiocracy.

Yes, we meet Charmaine and Stan, a stereotypical hard-working, middle-class couple who has been reduced to living in their car because of an eerily familiar economic downturn that devastates the middle-class and poor; as in our current real world, the wealthy appear mostly unscathed, if not benefitting from this apocalypse that comes upon people like going broke does for Mike in The Sun Also Rises—gradually and then all at once.

The central tricks of the novel also feel like SF—desperate people being coerced to spend half their lives as prisoners to regain economic stability, genetic manipulation of animals for food, sex robots, secretive and mysterious euthanasia, and brain surgery that creates permanent (and perverse) sexual bonds (even between a woman and a knitted doll).

However, readers reaching for Heart and expecting MaddAdam are warned early by Atwood as the narration, a shifting limited omniscient, reveals Charmaine’s thoughts on watching TV while doing her waitressing job:

She can watch TV on the flatscreens, old Elvis Presley movies from the sixties, so consoling; or daytime sitcoms, though they aren’t that funny and anyway comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness. She prefers the more dramatic shows where everyone’s getting kidnapped or raped or shut up in a dark hole, and you aren’t supposed to laugh at it. You’re supposed to be upset, the way you’d be if it was happening to you. Being upset is a warmer, close-up feeling, not a chilly distant feeling like laughing at people. (p. 17)

Expecting Atwood’s manipulation of genre and her laser attention to detail, I see the “comedy is so cold and heartless” as an author’s hint of what is to follow—a work of nearly slapstick comedy exposing that the joke is essential human nature, a shallowness, a heartlessness.

While in The Handmaid’s Tale the wordplay and jokes were embedded in a much darker and serious work, Heart reverses this pattern so that the broadly comedic—sex robots in Elvis and Marilyn Monroe models, the Green Man group—is the main narrative with the dark and serious playing smaller, punctuated roles. [This, I think, makes Atwood’s novel more like Vonnegut than her other speculative fiction.]

About halfway through the novel, for example, again through Charmaine’s perspective, readers are presented with the guiding motif of the speculative story: “Because citizens were always a bit like inmates and inmates were always a bit like citizens, so Consilience and Positron have only made it official” (p. 145).

Free will, sexual attraction/love, fidelity, pop culture, social class inequity, gender roles and sexuality—these issues are examined by Atwood with the same sort of insight and thoughtfulness she brings to all her work. Atwood, for me, is always meticulously well-informed and then capable of seeing and re-seeing the world in ways that are both unexpected and incisive.

Heart is accessible and funny, although it isn’t the sort of speculative, dystopian fiction I most enjoy by her. Ultimately, my main criticism is that Heart never offers any characters for whom I care, leaving me, like Charmaine (sort of), needing a bit of brain surgery so that when I face them again, I can fall in love with their not-so-funny inadequacies of simply being human.

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