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The Heart Goes Last

October 26, 2015

Because I haven’t read much about for-profit prisons, the satiric target of Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Heart Goes Last, wasn’t clear to me at first.

The novel begins with a married couple who have been living in her car after a sketchily-described American financial bubble has burst:
“Then everything went to ratshit. Overnight, it felt like. Not just in his own personal life: the whole card castle, the whole system fell to pieces, trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheets like fog off a window. There were hordes of two-bit experts on TV pretending to explain why it had happened—demographics, loss of confidence, gigantic Ponzi schemes—but that was all guesswork bullshit. Someone had lied, someone had cheated, someone had shorted the market, someone had inflated the currency. Not enough jobs, too many people.”

The couple see a TV ad for the “Positron Project” in a town called “Consilience,” and they go to the parking-lot collection point advertised to see if they can qualify as new members. They find out that Positron is the prison. The name “technically means the antimatter counterpart of the electron, but few out there would know that, would they? As a word, it just sounded very, well, positive.” Consilience is the town, a name made by combining “cons” with “resilience.” The deal is that half of the population of the town is in prison for a month, and the other half goes into the prison for the next month. While in the town, they live in houses that are occupied by their alternates while they’re in prison. They are told that “the prison cells themselves have been upgraded, and though care has been taken to maintain the theme, considerable amenities have been added. It’s not as if they’re being asked to live in an old-fashioned sort of prison!” When offered the chance to join the Positron Project, the couple, Charmaine and Stan, leap at the chance to quit living in their car and start working at jobs that can give them “a meaningful life,” the Project slogan.

Their jobs turn out to be poultry facility supervisor for Stan, and Chief Medications Administrator for Charmaine. Stan’s work is getting better, because fewer of the real criminals, some of whom wanted to have sex with the chickens, are coming by the poultry facility. When we see what Charmaine does on the afternoon of a “Special Procedure,” we see why there are fewer of the real criminals. She has been told that the men she sees attached to the bed, and who she injects with a chemical that she believes gives them five minutes of ecstasy before it kills them, are “the worst criminals, the incorrigibles, the ones they haven’t been able to turn around.” Charmaine observes that “the heart goes last.”

About halfway through the book, we discover that Jocelyn, wife of the man Charmaine has been meeting for sex and their alternate in the shared house, is one of the founding partners of the Positron Project. She says she believed in it, and in her partner Ed, at first. “But then Ed brought in a different group of investors, and they got greedy.” She says that when prisons “started to be run as private businesses, they were about the profit margins for the prepackaged jail-meal suppliers, and the hired guards and so forth” but now they’re about “the income from body parts” and “babies’ blood.” This is where the satire gets exaggerated, so readers will see what privatizing prisons can lead to.

Jocelyn inveigles Stan and Charmaine into helping her fix the mess she believes Ed has gotten their private prison idea into. In order to smuggle Stan out of Positron, Charmaine is required to administer the special chemical to him, and at first she really thinks she has killed him, although she also believes she had no choice:
“She hadn’t meant to kill him. She hadn’t meant to kill him. But how else could she have acted? They wanted her to use her head and discard her heart; but it wasn’t so easy, because the heart goes last and hers was still clinging on inside her all the time she was readying the needle, which is why she was crying the whole time.”

Stan is smuggled out as an Elvis sexbot, mixed in with a shipment of other sexbots, from the prison. Charmaine is later smuggled out as a potential “brain intervention” candidate, because Ed has taken a fancy to her and wants her to “imprint” on him when she wakes up so she will be his sex slave forever. Jocelyn lets Charmaine believe that the “brain intervention” actually happened, but that she imprinted on Stan instead of Ed, who has finally been taken away to atone for his crimes. At the end of the novel, though, Jocelyn tells Charmaine the truth, which is that she is Jocelyn’s own version of Miranda from The Tempest. And Charmaine, typically, doesn’t quite understand what that means.

The Heart Goes Last is a rollicking satire, but not as subtle or as devastating as Atwood’s satire can be. It’s as if she woke up one morning and said to herself “here’s a thing I could amuse people with, and it’s for a good cause, too!” Plan to enjoy it, but don’t expect too much of it.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    October 26, 2015 10:30 am

    Oh brother.

    • October 26, 2015 4:26 pm

      It was fun. I like any kind of satire. Plus, Elvis sex bots!

      • freshhell permalink
        October 27, 2015 7:21 pm

        That all just sounds so bizarre to me. I love Atwood but this one…I don’t know.

  2. October 26, 2015 2:05 pm

    I guess I don’t have to feel devastated anymore about being denied on Netgalley for this one :).

  3. October 27, 2015 4:40 pm

    I’m glad to know it plays out entertainingly. I read the first portion up it up through just after Stan escapes as a sexbot when it was being serialized on Amazon. And then it stopped and now here it is as a book. I’ll get around to reading it eventually I’m sure but I know it is not her best so I am not in a hurry.

    • October 28, 2015 11:48 am

      Stan’s escape comes about 3/4 of the way through the book, so you don’t have that much more to go!

  4. October 28, 2015 11:46 am

    The reviewer for Shiny really didn’t like it, so I was a bit put off. But satire can be a funny thing anyway (funny strange, rather than funny amusing) and too much of it can seem clunky and heavy-handed. I’m glad to know it does have merit, but I may just reread The Robber Bride!

    • October 28, 2015 11:53 am

      I’m a big fan of satire (wrote my dissertation about it), and I tend to like the ones that are hard-hitting, like The Handmaid’s Tale. This one seems a bit lightweight, especially compared to Greenfeld’s The Subprimes (which I reviewed last May 6).

  5. October 28, 2015 8:59 pm

    I tend to be a little tone-deaf for satire. I sometimes like it, but when it goes over the top or seems too silly, I find it hard to enjoy or appreciate. This book was one of those instances. I read about 100 pages or so and couldn’t find the will to go on. But I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think, though, it will be hit or miss, even among Atwood’s fans.

    • October 29, 2015 8:40 am

      This was definitely over-the-top. It would be hard to satirize privatized prisons without that, of course, since I’m far from alone in not thinking or reading about them that much up to this point.

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