Margaret Atwood is a prodigious, talented writer and one of my favourites. But reading her latest novel The Heart Goes Last, I was filled with a disquiet, an unsettled feeling. In a kind of unexplained near future, America is in ruins: as the economy has crumbled, society has fallen apart, run by criminals and fear. Charmaine and Stan are living in the car and surviving on cash tips when a light on the horizon appears: an ad for a social living experiment called Consilience. They get stable jobs, a home of their own, a safe suburban community, but each month they must swap their home for a prison cell. Charmaine misses linen and a kitchen, Stan is thrashing around at his lost identity, his lost masculinity. To sign up to Consilience is to sign up forever – but with all these benefits, why would you ever want to leave anyway?
We are immediately pulled in to the constant, daily fear Charmaine and Stan live with, the practical frustrations and the very real dangers. This way, the Consilience experiment seems reasonable. The restrictions placed on their freedoms, the monthly prison stays, seem understandable, an appropriate compromise. When the world around you is a nightmare made reality, it is perfectly conceivable to ignore the small warning signs of this dream world. And what might this warning sign look like? Pure, perfect propaganda:
“CONSILIENCE = CONS = RESILIENCE. DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE.”
And so Charmaine and Stan sign up almost immediately. They have a home, a kitchen, linen, a garden, good jobs; and each month they part ways to work in the prison. While there, their alternates live in their home, have sex in their bed, use their kitchen. Never meeting, Charmaine and Stan and this unknown couple share a home, swapping around each month.
This is the best kind of dystopian novel. Utopias and dystopias grow “from desire and fear … cry out for our sympathy and attention, however impractical or unlikely they appear”. And the novel form works because to live without the alternatives in contemporary society was to remove from record the dreams and nightmares of the human subconscious. To live without such a record was to live in a bland, thin world.
I think my unsettling feeling, the disquiet, the discomfort that I experienced while reading The Heart Goes Last comes from how readily I too accepted the reasoning, the little compromises, the gradual but definite loss of liberty. You get to the end of the novel and you realise:
“Prison abuses! Organ harvesting! Sex slaves created by neurosurgery! Plans to suck the blood of babies! Corruption and greed, though these in themselves are no great surprise.”
You went along with it all too. The tone is so constant, reassuring, ongoing; Atwood has written this book in such a way that you just accept the systematic but assured totally morally abhorrent activities that have occurred. So much of it comes down to: well, compared to the rest of the world, we’re just fine! This ethical relativism is pragmatic, understandable, realistic; but in this situation the result is horrifying, extreme. And this is how the great horrors of the world are perpetuated: an ongoing, apparently reasonable, chipping away at what we are prepared to accept.
So read The Heart Goes Last and see how you feel. See how you feel about how much we should sacrifice for the perfect utopia; and where the line is when what we sacrifice means the utopia has transformed into a dystopia. It is a compulsive read, incredibly manipulated, written with such talent; Atwood wordlessly reflects back on you and your moral relativism.