The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood has all the peculiarity of fuchsia lipstick, asexual teeth, PR teams, hidden cameras, teddy bear fetishes, Elvises at a retirement home, organic (although spoiled) chickens, special-order Possibilibots (sex robots), smarmy CEOs and just a few other warped obsessions.
Stan and Charmaine are a couple living in their van during a social and economic catastrophe. Stan is out of work and Charmaine bartends at the seedy PixelDust with her two energetic hooker co-workers. Day-to-day life is rough scavenging food in dumpsters and evading car thieves. The police are only for rich people and basic survival is progressively challenging. Stan and Charmaine’s relationship is faltering under the stress. Sounds like an Atwood storyline!
Charmaine sees an ad on television for The Positron Project. The Project is accepting new members in the walled community of Consilience—with a catch: For one month the couples will be provided jobs and a house, and on alternating months the couples will be prisoners in Positron prison.
Consilience (“Cons + Resilience. Do Time Now, Buy Time for Our Future!”) is fifties-themed, which seems to match Charmaine’s interest in pastel colors and painstakingly clean houses. Charmaine’s sticky sweet demeanor is not one-dimensional though, as she frequently flashes back to a disturbed and abusive childhood. She also has an important job in the prison as the Chief Medications Administrator. Charmaine maintains a cheerful face, but her self-talk is darkly humorous.
Charmaine stands up abruptly, knocking over her cup. “Please get out,” she says as steadily as she can. “Right now.”
Go on, says her little inner voice. Bash this teapot over her head. Cut her throat with the bread knife. Then drag her downstairs and hide in the body in your pink locker.
But Charmaine refrains. There would be telltale bloodstains on the rug…
Stan works scooter repair outside the prison and as the Poultry Supervisor within. Eventually he will work in Possilibots and maybe front as an Elvis. He cusses a lot and loses his temper over toenail polish. He and Charmaine both come off as dense characters, but they somehow stumble through Consilience always aware of how to play a situation. That said neither character is particularly likeable. In fact, none of the characters in The Heart Goes Last are likeable, although perhaps that is intentional.
Charmaine becomes entangled with a particularly charismatic and sensual man. Life is going well until Charmaine’s secret is exposed and Stan suddenly becomes compulsorily involved in Charmaine’s mistake. Stan is meanwhile blackmailed and essentially raped by the frightening Jocelyn (with death threats). These associations only lead to lower and shadier involvement in a game that will uncover the truths about The Positron Project.
I would like to say there are some profound allegorical messages about the privatization of prison systems or implications of economic/social collapse and resultant anarchy…but I’m pretty sure this book is just a frantic whirlwind of sex.