Explicitly the title of this novel is perplexing to the average American or medical professional. According to all the facts heart disease is the number one killer of Americans and it is in fact the heart that goes first, then the mind, then the bowels. So what could Atwood really be saying? Then it hits you, your pesky old friend Implicit Meaning has snuck into your mind and gotten the rusted cogs turning and the translation appears: Love is the last to go. Okay, a sentimental premise I can dig that, romantic novels are my jam, Fifty Shades all the way,.... Hang on a second we’re talking about Margaret Atwood here one of the most cynical and sardonic authors out there how could she be so superficial? Then Implicit Meaning returns forcing the dreaded thought process to begin once more and as you turn each page another layer of meaning reveals itself. You’ve just jumped into the rabbit hole my friend, hang on for dear life.
Stan and Charmaine’s relationship is less than ideal. They live amid the remains of America’s sunken economy, barely keeping their heads above water. They are bonded by survival and a car, but not much else. Both are searching for the fluorescent orange life vest to save them from the crashing tide of debt and sexual tension slowly poisoning their lives. And then in the most unlikely of places, an ancient and grimy television perched above a bar, they find salvation. The Positron Project flashes on screen accompanied by cheery colors which are almost too inviting and a beaming man advertising a social experiment in which members spend half their lives in a typical suburban home and the other half in prison. Charmaine is instantly hooked and after putting on a little song and dance for Stan they enter the prison and never look back.
After reading this introduction it immediately occurred to me that I had not stumbled upon a typical romance novel. The dystopian elements and dreary setting were a put off at first but once Stan and Charmaine entered the prison it all turned around. Infidelity, sex robots, elvis impersonators, and green men ran amok. It was like entering Atwood’s own twisted amusement park and I loved every second of the ride. However, if you don’t enjoy keeping up with a weird and wacky storyline or reading risqué material I suggest you look elsewhere. Looking past the chaos and dramatization however will reveal realistic male and female characters made brilliant by their differing perceptions. For example, when Stan is considering his own baldness at one point in the book he thinks how abhorrent a bald woman would be while maintaining male baldness is acceptable. The little details in this book are what make it a great commentary on the differences between the male and female condition and the typical peaks and valleys in any romantic relationship. The implicit meaning carries over from the small details to the big ones especially in respect to the sex robots which reveal how love can’t be artificial and instead requires a natural emotional connection between two people. But of course instead of stating her claim directly Atwood used a wacky example that requires implicit meaning to solve and in fact includes a second layer of meaning which is to add the reality of the production of sex robots in our universe to her dystopian novel. Because everyone knows the key to a dystopian setting is the infusion of realism to make the reader wonder, is our species this messed up?
So in conclusion The Heart Goes Last is a dystopian science fiction romance novel with more themes and implicit meanings than I can count. It suits a variety of readers including those looking for a laugh and a wild tale as well as the critical readers who will discover all the social and political commentary beneath the surface. And if you wish for a nod to Margaret Atwood’s credibility look to The Handmaid’s Tale which won the Booker Prize in 1986 and is considered a modern classic.
Book Review by Ben Doughty