The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
I really loved this book. It made me remember how it felt to read Oryx and Crake (also by Margaret Atwood), not because they are the same or sequels, just because it was like getting to catch up with a good friend again. It has been a while since I read Atwood, the last was Year of the Flood and that has to have been 3 years ago. I personally loved the re-emergence of the headless chicken for meat image. What I missed since my last reading of Atwood’s work was the complexity, the twists and turns, and the way that I could not get this book out of my head after I read it. I had to tell everyone about it, even those who I knew did not want to read it, but I just had to talk about it. But enough about how similar this book is to Atwood’s other works.
From the back of the cover, or the insert on Amazon, the reader knows that this is a story about a couple in a futuristic America where there is widespread poverty, and their experiences in Consilience. There were many moments where I thought that this book echoed similar locations and settings as other books: Stepford Wives, Never Let Me Go, and Vn, among some of them. But this did not make it seem tired. It merely placed this work in the middle of a group of other works which have all seen the potential of the future. They learn, just as we do, that Consilience is not all it is meant to be and how the plot unfolds. The plot continuously challenges the readers to interrogate their own feelings and to look closely at the flaking veneer of Consilience. We are privileged to the inner thoughts of Stan and Charmaine and can investigate through their eyes (only to the degree we are allowed). I really appreciated that we are privy to the narration of Stan and Charmaine instead of picking only one protagonist. This strategy allowed a much more complex picture of the world and allowed the readers to get to know the flaws of each (which were quite similar at the end: their unhappiness at the roles they each played in their relationship).
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I just need to talk about how brilliant the title is. While you could take the easy route and say that this book challenges the human heart, it seems to me to be a triple entendre. Not only does Charmaine remark that the heart goes last in terms of one’s feelings, “They wanted her to use her head and discard her heart; but it wasn’t so easy, because the heart goes last” (180), but it also has to go last in terms of organ harvesting. Charmaine remarks during her job that “Then he’s unconscious. Then he stops breathing. The heart goes last” (69-70). Finally, the last meaning is that the heart is the last thing that the engineers must change in the brain rewriting process before someone has to love you. The engineers can customize a robot to be a physical substitute, but it can never replace the actual person. The only thing that the engineers must do is to re-engineer the heart of a person.
An issue I have alluded to already is the unhappiness Stan and Charmaine feel in their relationship with their prescribed roles. Both Stan and Charmaine are trapped by the roles they have given each other and instead of communicating, they act out in different ways: Stan’s obsession with Jasmine and Charmaine’s affair with Max. The reason that Stan falls in love with Charmaine is because she presents an escape from the type of women he has known before. The reason the footage of Charmaine, as Jasmine, is so shocking, but also arousing to Stan is because it represents his secret desire of the way he wants Charmaine to act. But this is Charmaine’s desire as well. Her time with Max, no matter how much she tries to deny it, was a way for her to escape the role she has to play with Stan. They are imprisoned by their expectations and lack of fluidity. Charmaine cannot accept the possibility of an identity which merges Stan’s image of herself and Jasmine. Because of their mutual ‘inescapable’ situations, perhaps that is what makes the end seem like a serious of twists after another. First when Charmaine is not saved by Jocelyn and instead undergoes the brain surgery and imprints on Stan. It is believable to the readers because Charmaine, ever since her revelation, has been trying to convince herself that she was happy with that former life with Stan. Stan also gets what he wants, the best of both worlds. He has a woman who acts like Charmaine, proper, yet when he wants she is like Jasmine: Madonna and the whore.
Secondly when Jocelyn tells Charmaine a year later that Charmaine was never operated on and thus she has been acting under a guise the whole time. The reader wonders: Will she tell Stan? Will she behave differently? Because of the narrative style, we have been privilege to a large degree of her thoughts (albeit there are certainly more we never read) and this causes us to wonder how important the powers of suggestibility and belief are. At the last chance Jocelyn offers Charmaine the power to accept her changed identity, to tell Stan, or to leave. Despite the surgery, Charmaine has had doubts before, “Is it right that the happiness of her married life should be due not to any special efforts on her part but to a brain operation she didn’t even agree to have? No, it doesn’t seem right. But it feels right. That’s what she can’t get over – how right it feels” (294). Recognizing her own lack of consent, Charmaine wonders about how ‘true’ her love with Stan is. So if Charmaine is not really brainwashed it becomes hard to distinguish the truth in her words.
Jocelyn does not simply free Charmaine, she gives Charmaine the ultimate power to free herself: will she simply keep pretending, or will she break free and embrace both herself and the world? It was easy for Charmaine to love when she believed she had to, or when she believed love was a simple compulsion. Now that she is given the choice, what will she do?
This book raises so many issues in minute ways, but some that stand out are the power of suggestibility, what do we believe we want in relationships in terms of roles, what is right, and when do we realize the ways we have been denying that nagging feeling inside. Are we in relationships now where we are constrained by our role and unable to break free?
Who is this book for? I think that this book is for anyone who liked any of the books I mentioned in the post, but also for people who are interested in exploring the nature of choice, the ethics of brainwashing, and/or the exploration of gender roles.
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