Monday, August 8, 2016

The Heart Goes Last (Positron 0.5) by Margaret Atwood

Things have gone absolutely to hell. Banks are collapsing, there's little food security, homes are being foreclosed on and unemployment has skyrocketed. Stan has always been steady, especially in comparison to his career criminal brother Conner. He has a job, a reliable wife and house which repairs and values.  It's the typical middle class existence.  When Stan is fired and his wife is laid off, Stan quickly discovers that security is only illusion.  Stan and Charmaine end up living in their car, living on the tips she makes working at a bar, and spending the rest of their time being wary to the criminal element who want to take their possessions.  Everything changes when Charmaine sees an advertisement on television for Positron Project located in the town of Consilence.  If accepted Charmain and Stan will alternate between spending one month in prison and one month occupying a home with a job.  It's absolute security from the struggles of the outside world and all they have to do is give up their freedom.

The Heart Goes Last starts off as dystopian and finishes as speculative fiction.  Given the mortgage crises and the last recession, Atwood clearly chose this setting because of its relevance and reliability. As in reality, the rich continue on consequence free in opulence and privilege while the poor and the middle class struggle to survive and understand the order of the world.  The middle class lie is that if we do everything right get an education, live within our means and do a good job at work that everything will be just fine.  This is the promise and though it's proven to be a lie, when meritocracy is all that stands between you and destitution it's what you hold onto. In that sense Stan is the every man who finds himself in an untenable situation due to forces well beyond his control.

It's Charmaine who first suggests applying for Consilence.  She wants the comfort of a bed with clean sheets and all the trappings of the middle class life.  She's tired of the insecurity and the fear that someone will harm them as they try to sleep in their car. Even before meeting and marrying Stan, Charmaine had a difficult life, filled with abuse neglect and domestic violence. She was then raised by grandmother to be sweet and to only see the bright side of life.  She's almost like a Stepford wife. Consilence is just too good to deny and she's even willing to sleep with Stan in the backseat of the car to make happen.

Interestingly, Consilence encourages people to be their true selves and for Charmaine, that doesn't necessarily mean being the perfect positive wife anymore who submits to sex out of a sense of duty. In the restriction laden life of Consilence she finds herself having an affair. For the first time Charmaine can be the bad girl. The one who wears the bright lipstick and gives voice to all of her slutty desires. In captivity she finds freedom but it comes at a cost. When you give up your agency, you have no control of what someone does with your image.  What if someone want to operate on you to turn you into a subservient sex slave?

The theme of what is stability worth is repeated through the novel.  Is it better to live in ignorance and safety than have knowledge and instability?  Is personal agency valuable if it puts you at risk and makes you responsible for your actions?  Is it easier to simply have the bad things that you've done erased so that you don't have to confront guilt or shame?  What compromises are we willing to make for love and what do we owe our romantic partners?

The Heart Goes Last offers us the POV of both Stan and Charmaine; however, when Stan's point of view moved beyond his economic circumstances to me he read like a misogynist and not once is this fully addressed. Right until the end of the book, he disrespectful  and dismissive of Charmaine, and entitled when it comes to their sex life. He only seems concerned with his own sexual gratification and doesn't think about whether or not Charmaine is sexually satisfied. He spends a good deal of the book worried that his brother Conner will steal Charmaine away from him.  Stan is anything but likable and though he didn't deserve to be repeatable raped, I found his character completely unlikable.

When Charmaine's infidelity is discovered Stan is forced to into a sexual relationship with Jocelyn. Jocelyn forces Stan to act out the sexual activities that Charmaine did with her lover Phil. Atwood writes a lot of about Stan's discomfort and he's feeling of desperation. There's also a clear power imbalance between Stan and Jocelyn yet for some reason, Atwood doesn't seem to feel the need to label this as rape.  At times, Stan's predicament is even played for laughs which is completely unacceptable.  If a person cannot actively consent then it's not a sexual act, it's a sexual assault.

Atwood also engages in homophobia in The Heart Goes Last.  The first time Atwood introduces a gay characters, they turn out to be a trope of Elvis impersonators.  When Stan first meets them, he believes all of the Elvises to be gay (p. 286) but after getting to know them learns, "not all the Elvises are gay. Some are, and there are a couple of bis and one asexual, though who the hell can tell anymore where to draw the line?" (p. 295-296). As part of Stan's role as a member of the Elvises group, Stand has a special skill he must learn.
“By the way, we do coaching in how to act gay,” said Ted. “For our new Elvises. Ten tips, that sort of thing. Stan, we might have to give you some help.” 
“A straight guy playing a gay guy playing a straight guy, but in a way so that everyone assumes he’s gay – that takes skill. Think about the complexity. Though some of the guys overact. It’s a fine line,” said Rob. 
And why exactly is it essential that Stan, a straight man, learn to "act gay"?
“Okay,” he said. “I get that about the acting, but why the gay thing? I may be dumb, but Elvis was definitely not gay, so…” 
“It’s the clients,” said Rob. “And the relatives, the ones who book us for a treat. They prefer the Elvises to be gay.” 
“I don’t get it.” 
“They don’t want any uninvited hanky-panky,” said Rob. “Especially not at the hospitals. With the female patients, the ones in the private rooms. Historically, there have been incidents.” (pg 297)
Pretending to be gay means that Stan doesn't have to "fuck a hundred-year-old woman with tubes all cover her and her insides leaking out".  It's allows a graceful exit.
“You’ll just give us a call on the cell, over at the UR-ELF Nightline, and we send one of the Elvis bots. Big markup on those! Like a superdildo, only with a body attached.
Vibrator built in, optional.”
“Wish I felt like that,” says Pete. 
“Then you chat with them, pour them a drink, tell them you wish you were straight. When the Elvis arrives, you switch him on and he hums a little tune while you run over the instructions with the client: he responds to simple voice commands like love me tonight, wooden heart, and jingle bell rock. (pg 299-300)
None of these gay Elvises ever rises to the level of a fully fleshed out character. They aren't even individualized and instead function like an Elvis GLBT group whose existence is to protect Stan from being caught and helping him to hide his heterosexuality for financial gain. It's sickening and so beneath Atwood's skill that I was truly astonished and disgusted.

People of colour receive no real representation either.  There's a casually mentioned dark skinned person but that's about as far as inclusion goes.  Did all the people of colour suddenly die off when the economy crashed?  The only concrete reference is sex dolls being created to look like Oprah and Rihianna.  It's never made clear whether either woman agrees to her image being used for the sexual gratification of others. It's both racist and misogynist particularly given that the real horror the reader is meant to experience occurs when a doll is made without permission of the ever so white Charmaine.

There are some great themes running though The Heart Goes Last.  Questions regarding the value of freedom and the cost of agency are constant refrain in The Heart Goes Last.  What exactly does one do once the rug has been ripped out from under you and there are no easy solutions.  Do we owe it to our partners to always keep a positive disposition? Are our lovers responsible for our sexual gratification?  Is it okay to create child sex dolls to reduce pedophilia?  Finally, does the supposed greater good outweigh an obvious moral wrong?  These are interesting questions and I feel at some point, with the exception of the child sex bots, questions we must all individually answer at some point.

I loved that the disaster in The Heart Goes Last is grounded in an actual possibility, after all billionaire Peter Thiel advocates the rich moving into international water to avoid the laws and taxation.  It's the very possibility that the decline in The Heart Goes Last is possible that makes the book instantly relatable. The characters aren't very likable but I don't think that they are meant to be. In the case of The Heart Goes Last I firmly believe the point is that we place ourselves in the position of the characters and imagine what we would do in this situation.  At the end of the day it's an interesting thought exercise that while filled with flaws, is interesting.