Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Margaret Atwood - The Heart Goes Last

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of an economic and social collapse. Job loss has forced them to live in their car, leaving them vulnerable to roving gangs. They desperately need to turn their situation around - and fast. The Positron Project in the town of Consilience seems to be the answer to their prayers. No one is unemployed and everyone gets a comfortable, clean house to live in... for six months out of the year. On alternating months, residents of Consilience must leave their homes and function as inmates in the Positron prison system. Once their month of service in the prison is completed, they can return to their "civilian" homes.
At first, this doesn't seem like too much of a sacrifice to make in order to have a roof over one's head and food to eat. But when Charmaine becomes romantically involved with the man who lives in their house during the months when she and Stan are in the prison, a series of troubling events unfolds, putting Stan's life in danger. With each passing day, Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.

Comment: I bought this book last year at a book fair I always attend in the country’s capital (it should have happened already this year but covid-19 has postponed the date) because the blurb and the cover caught my attention. I had read things by the author already so I also had an idea of the type of writing I’d find and I was very curious about how the author would portray this new dystopian reality.

In this book, what was the North America has changed quite a lot in a future where recessions and the drop of currency made redundant many things and many jobs. Those who could afford it, moved into better places but the poor or the ones who lost everything were forced to survive anyway they could.
Charmaine and Stan are a couple and they live in their car after they lost their jobs and the ability to pay the mortgage of their house. They live from quick work here and there but always keeping one of them in the car, which they can’t let be taken from them.
One day, they learn of a company that is staying a great project asking people to register in an experience where they can have jobs and a house and peace as long as they sign a contract. It seems very promising and the answer to their problems and at first it really is. But as time goes by, some cracks start to show and Stan and Charmaine aren’t always aware of what is real or what could be just manipulation…

The idea of this book was very intriguing. I was quite curious to see what rules would be used, what key society norms would be changed to make this a special world to contemplate. I thought about other dystopian and other alternate reality books I had read and I was eager to see where the author would lead us with this so-called “experience” the participants would embark on, since it was clear that would be the main issue to think of here.

The story begins with the main couple in a car, living off what they could, with despair right on their heels. Their “voices” and personalities seemed likable enough at first and I imagined rooting for them until the end, hoping they would be able to fight and win against whatever enemy they had to. I think this simple start was very…deceiving, because if there was one thing I kept after finishing this novel was that no character was truly likable nor a “good person”.  In fact, I suppose this is the goal: no one is really just bad or good in life, we all have layers, limits, boundaries we might cross or not, depending on the right stimuli or the specific situation that would feel like we didn’t have a choice. Is there always a choice after all?

As the plot advances, Stan and Charmaine are placed in situations they must deal with but always with a sense of doubt on their part. I thought, had these two been what we call “good people” or “hero material” their behavior would have certainly been another. I started to dislike them, Charmaine in particular, from very early on after they join the experience. The way their personalities develop isn’t what’s new, they are human and they let themselves be driven into certain behavior because of the exposure to manipulation. However, they are the main couple and I imagined I’d feel a little more connection to them or to how they might respond to what was happening to them.

At first, I thought the whole experience they join, the whole thing about providing people with jobs, with a new sort of social life, security, occupation, learning, I imagined all these thing were to create a sort of Stepford Wives style of life, where everyone has to follow a protocol. Then I also thought of that movie with Jim Carrey, “The Truman Show” and I thought the experience was something along those lines and the people were guinea pigs in an unknown recording for the outside world. Then, another thing I compared what was going on with was the book Brain by Robin Cook where the interest of making people do certain things was more sinister and related to sex and personalities, especially  when the story went a certain direction.

In fact, all these things were wrong, the reason behind the experience Charmaine and Stan are in is actually less complex than what I anticipated. I suppose I wanted to be dazzled, impressed and a little morbidly fascinated by another weird big plan the villains would have decided on to exploit people and this they do but why is really a lot less impressive than what I expected. There are some interesting and innovative details but the whole thing sort of fizzled out for me.
Along the fact the plot wasn’t as out of this world as I imagined and the lack of empathy towards any character really turned this book into something that wasn’t as special as that and was, instead, a little ridiculous and lacking strength.
The Portuguese cover

I mean, the whole idea and execution of the idea by the villains was brilliant and it could be easily seen in real life in some (probably nor distant) future, the vices and negativity explored in the book are as realistic as we could expect. However, the path the author chose to take this novel on - even contemplating the imagination and the actual possibility of many of those things, as well as the complexity of free will and power of indecision by humans – was simply too average to really make me want to devour what would happen next. It’s as if the characters’ choices weren’t properly placed, as if they didn’t showcase the realistic angst of the whole thing.

Perhaps this was due to the writing style, perhaps the plot was based on too many vague and coincidental elements, but the truth is that this wasn’t as powerful as I hoped it would be.  Yes, there are some key scenes that do make you think but overall, there’s a subtlety that isn’t always well used to advance the plot on and, again, no real empathy with the characters. Some situations/passages feel rather like a caricature or like a comedy relief instead of the serious debate between what is good, what is bad, or what is there to make you think. I keep thinking it was a pity the plot didn’t follow the idea suggested in the blurb, which I think could have been a lot more interesting (namely the prison/freedom dichotomy and how the characters could react in one and in another as time went by).

All in all, there are interesting elements here, some scary previsions of what could happen if people lose the social and personal boundaries of their own self but as a whole, this story didn’t have the impact I felt would have in the beginning.
Grade: 6/10

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