October 2015


‘The Heart Goes Last’ by Margaret Atwood

By Claire Corbett
‘The Heart Goes Last’ by Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury; $32.99

There is an internet meme along the lines of “Dystopian literature describes a world where all the shit already happening to brown people also happens to white people!” Certainly HG Wells said The War of the Worlds was inspired by the fate of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Margaret Atwood, a great admirer of George Orwell and his 1984, showed with alarming plausibility in The Handmaid’s Tale how the theocratic Iranian revolution would look if transposed to North America. Atwood objects to such tales being described as science fiction; she wants us to see that dystopia is always about the here and now.

So as we teeter on the brink of Global Financial Crisis 2.0, it is chilling to read Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last. The destruction of the middle class isn’t a projection; it is happening now. Stan and Charmaine are living in their car after Stan loses his job at Dimple Robotics. “Not enough jobs, too many people. Or not enough jobs for middle-of-the-road people like Stan and Charmaine.”

Seeking to escape the terrors of street life, they are offered the classic totalitarian bargain: they can have employment, a home and safety in exchange, of course, for their freedom. The gated community they enter is both 1950s-style suburbia and sanitised prison. Here the population takes it in turns to live as inmates and guards.

Atwood knows that we know other profit centres must be powering this clean, cheery “experiment”, and they are as sinister as can be imagined. The novel’s narrative engine is the relentless, amoral and creative drive of capitalism to turn all that is human, including bodies and feelings, into commodities.

Lest this sound too grim, much of the writing is sparkling, funny and moving, especially, in another echo of 1984, its play with sexual desire as the one subversive force that might crack the edifice of power. With its joyfully dirty sex, The Heart Goes Last is virtually the mirror image of The Handmaid’s Tale, the Brave New World to its 1984. This consumerist society is just as repressive as old-style totalitarianism or theocracy, with the same destruction of privacy and demand for upbeat conformity, but with more catalogues of flowered sheets and bath towels.

Atwood keeps the narrative suspenseful, with a final twist that makes us realise the novel is also an enquiry into the nature of free will. “You’re supposed to be upset,” thinks Charmaine, watching other people suffer on television, “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.” The brilliance of The Heart Goes Last is that it gives us the upset and the laughter, the comedy of thinking and the tragedy of feeling.

Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett is a journalist and the author of When We Have Wings. Her new novel, Watch Over Me, was recently published by Allen & Unwin.




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