Margaret Atwood is one of literature's greatest living interior decorators. Some of her best stories are light on incident, but rich in character, as she examines her protagonists' inner lives at length. In rearranging their mental furniture and dusting the cobwebbed corners of their consciousness, she often comes across complicated truths about human nature, especially about gender relationships: How women and men treat each other, how women see each other, and how sex affects societies both real and metaphorical.
Her latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, flips her usual script to surreal but disappointing comic effect. Where the protagonists of Atwood's Cat's Eye, Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin stumble through emotional landscapes furnished by complicated pasts and difficult present choices, the central characters in The Heart Goes Last have minds like vacant lots, lit by a single dim bulb. Their shallowness and naïveté make them tractable and easily chivvied from one crisis to the next. Their story is antic and crammed with reversals of fortune, but they lack the depth to understand or engage with the horror in the horrible situations around them.
Stan and Charmaine are victims of a vast economic collapse, living in their car and scrambling for gas and food money. When a prosperous planned community offers an escape from post-apocalyptic misery, they don't question the details. That's just as well, since the details of Consilience don't follow any rational logic. The thriving city is built around Positron Prison, and residents like Stan and Charmaine are expected to alternate months as support staff and prisoners, with each group providing work and a rationale for the other. Consilience promises a meaningful life of luxury, in complete isolation from the outside world.
There's some Swiftian satire to the idea of prisoners and guards being fundamentally interchangeable, and a hint of societal critique in a prison system that exists solely to financially support its employees. And Consilience is a familiar kind of dystopia, a 1984-esque panopticon where a hidden leadership isolates its citizens, spies on them and manipulates them through cheery propaganda. But while Atwood draws on fears about surveillance states and prison-industrial complexes, both are just a soft-focus backdrop to Stan and Charmaine's outsized adventures in a world of brain reprogramming and Elvis sexbots.
Atwood originally wrote the book as "Positron," a four-part serial released via the now-defunct website Byliner. In interviews about the story, she often evoked Charles Dickens as the ultimate serializer, paving the way for subscription-driven online publishing. But it's often clear where Dickens was being paid by the installment, and where he inflated his word count through windy descriptive passages. Atwood veered in the opposite direction. The Heart Goes Last is slick and fleet, closer to Voltaire's Candide than Dickens' Bleak House. In dystopic novels like The Handmaid's Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood explores real-world issues that deeply concern her. Here, she's less invested in the real-world inspirations for her society than in the ways paranoia and control affects the sexual obsessions of two ninnies.
The Heart Goes Last's deepest investment isn't in Consilience's hideous secrets. It isn't even in Stan and Charmaine's inner lives — both characters have interior monologues like repetitive tape loops. The book is mostly interested in their sexual obsessions, and the way they fetishize each other only once they're separated. But their predictability doesn't do much to ground an unpredictable narrative, or give readers a worthy point of view. As other people plot against Consilience, the protagonists become hapless bystanders in everything from their marriage to the larger story.
Their lack of initiative or capability makes this book deeply frustrating, especially by comparison with Atwood's usual thoughtfully textured stories. The Heart Goes Last is packed with the kind of morally and socially complicated ideas that usually intrigue Atwood, and it's impossible not to wonder what she would have done with these ideas in a more heartfelt book, or one that used the serial-installment model to stretch out and explore more of this lightly sketched world. The humor here is wry almost to the point of invisibility, and it's no replacement for Atwood's usual unique insight into human nature. So many people could have written this bouncy, surface-driven novel. So few people can do what Atwood does at her best, when she cares more about her characters' minds than about their hormones.
Tasha Robinson is a freelance writer and a former Senior Editor at The Dissolve and The A.V. Club.