I love Margaret Atwood.
I remember reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in year eleven, and emerging completely shattered. Shattered in that still kind of way, when you realise that everything you thought you knew about your place in the world and hierarchy and ownership and power and bodies was as flimsy as it was naive, and everything you feared was perfectly rational.
I get that feeling less now. Probably because I have stopped trying to shove people into bottles labelled “good” and “bad,” and perhaps because I have learnt to live with that awkward feeling of being stretched like an elastic band.
And that’s precisely why I’m so obsessed with prisons and punishment, and on one level, that’s precisely what ‘The Heart Goes Last’ is about.
We developed prisons, in part, as a humanitarian response to public floggings and executions. Punishment has morphed from public ridicule or pain, to solitary reflection and redemption, to storehouses of people for labor and profit, to tools of social order and control (not necessarily in neat chronology either.)
‘The Heart Goes Last’ explores that Foucauldian understanding of prisons as tools of social engineering, and then supercharges it with profit generation as we see for-profit prisons emerge in the US .
It’s set in an dystopian, capitalist world. It begins in the middle of an economic disaster that has left hundreds of thousands of people without work, jobs or purpose. They are roaming the streets, raping and scavenging and terrorising. Capitalism still rules (just a black-market, thug-regulated type of capitalism) and from the disorder Consilience emerges as a beacon of stability, safety and rules.
Consilience is a lie, of course. Consilience is meant to be a sort of zero-sum game. It’s half prison, half freedom; where you spend half your life in the prison Positron (doing indentured labor) and half your life in the free world (doing indentured labor). You plant grapes so Consilience can drink wine. You feed chickens so Consilience can eat eggs. Sometimes you inject people with poison (it’s less clear what this does for Consilience initially).
It’s meant to be a sort of net system. Maybe it makes a bit of profit, but that’s only so that more Positrons can be developed to help more people.
We explore Consilience through Charmaine and Stan. They are not the most interesting characters. Charmaine is a little irritatingly bright. Stan is a pretty two-dimensional, somewhat blokey, mildly impatient, ‘I’ll fix it’ kind of guy. From the onset, when we’re introduced to their pretty miserable existence living in their car and scrounging to stay alive, Charmaine’s determination to stay upbeat was almost caricatured, and Stan plays the role of surly, practical male.
I think they are such caricatures precisely because we are meant to slot into the roles they occupy and try to navigate the choices Stan and Charmaine are faced with.We are expected to ask ourselves what would we do if we were faced with the choice of a brutal, demeaning, harsh and uncertain life in the ‘free world’ (as free as one is without money in a world that still relies on money) and the too-good-to-be-true possibility of Consilience?
What would we do if we had to choose between a type of happiness that relies on not asking, not looking, not hearing and not knowing; and the possibility of knowing? Particularly, when that knowing could steal your happiness.
There are moments in ‘The Heart Goes Last’ that are almost cliché. They don’t feel cliché at the time, but you look back and think of course.
Of COURSE Consilience is a massive, absurdly grotesque lie.
Of COURSE we would be faced with this impossible, absurd, IMPOSSIBLE choice. And then of course we would make a choice, because we have to.
Of course we make bad decisions, when we face bad choices.
And then once again you’re stretched like that stupid, elastic band. And no matter how far you manage to stretch an elastic band, there is always that moment when you scrunch up your face and wait for it to snap.
And it’s both frustrating and brilliant because you walked straight into it to.
Margaret Atwood describes this moment so beautifully. When accused of having a bleak view of her own species, Atwood responds “No I don’t..
“I think most people behave really quite well if circumstances are right, but when things get tough it’s harder to behave well.”
“I have a pretty stretchy view of my own species.”
‘The Heart Goes Last’ is about how far we can stretch.