On Margaret Atwood, growing up, and how to envision the future

In the post-recession age, there are no guarantees. I was a senior in high school in 2008 when it began. My classmates and I knew that something was changing, but I don’t think any of us could have predicted the instability of the job market we would face in the following years. More than that, I don’t think we understood how different our lives would be from those of our parents. Gone was the dream of a house with a yard and a nice car. Instead, we live at home, often making ends meet through temp jobs; or, if we’re lucky, maybe we can afford to live with two roommates in a big city. Maybe.

But now imagine if things could be different, and you could have everything you wanted: a home, a job, a partner, and as a bonus, your mode of transportation is environmentally friendly. What if to get somewhere near this vision of the American dream, you only needed to put up with a few slight inconveniences such as only music and films from the 1950s. You may miss Apple Music, but with some measure of stability, it’s a small price to pay, right?

But there’s a larger catch: for six months out of the year, you must leave your home and spend your time working in a prison.

This is the world that Stan and Charmaine find themselves in within Margaret Atwood’s latest book The Heart Goes Last. She previously wrote around the world of Positron—with its sheltered community and prison system—in the Positron Series, which were published by Byliner. The Heart Goes Last dramatically expands on the series, drawing readers into an often terrifying and twisted world where nothing is as it originally appears.

With the economy collapsing and having to call their car home sweet home, anything sounds better to Stan and Charmaine, even a social experiment named Positron. When their application is accepted, they leap at the chance to join, Charmaine especially, even if things seem slightly off.

Frozen in a quasi-1950s atmosphere, Doris Day’s songs and films become the background soundtrack to Stan and Charmaine’s lives, as they spend one month at their jobs, and the next working in the prison. It’s a quiet, but safe life, for a time, until Stan discovers an illicit note under the fridge that changes everything.

Stan and Charmaine are hardly alone. Their home is shared with another couple, who occupy it on their month out of prison, and vice versa. And while Charmaine often refrains from having sex with Stan, it slowly revealed she is carrying on an affair with the alternate house resident.

Suddenly, nothing in Positron is quite as simple or peaceful as it seems. There is a nefarious plot in the making, and Stan and Charmaine are at the center. In fact, everything comes to depend on them and their choices.

It is easy to sympathize with Charmaine’s plight. Coming from a difficult childhood and an unstable home, presumably filled with sexual violence, her clinging to her Grandma Win’s kitschy sayings and her adoration of Positron is understandable. It provides her with the structure she has lacked her life, and her ability to compartmentalize while comforting others is praised, lifting her into an unexpected and nefarious role within the Positron prison system.

It’s her vulnerability that ultimately leads to her affair with Max, her home’s alternate resident, which quickly becomes a power play of imbalances and sexual manipulation. Though Stan presents a more difficult challenge in terms of sympathy, the consequences of his wife’s affair extend to him, and he finds himself battling with the higher powers of Positron.

The Heart Goes Last is a difficult book to review, simply because so much relies on upending the reader’s expectations. From the beginning, we understand that it will be a dystopia. Being conceived by Atwood, it will deal with sex and desire in a frank and significant way, and quite possibly, veer a little too close to being similar to our own world.

While I hope that none of the outcomes of Positron ever find their way into our lives, the overarching narrative, by the end, is about trust: how do we trust those in authority over us? How do we trust each other, in friendships or in marriage? And most importantly, can a connection be formed between two people without this trust?

The Heart Goes Last seeks to answer this question in some profoundly unsettling ways, but this is the point. Dystopian fiction transports the problems of our world into an unfamiliar reality, showing how these issues could be solved in decidedly dastardly ways.

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