Review: The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood, 2015)

May contain mild spoilers but I’m not going to tell you the ending.

I was excited to find this book, quite by chance, in the charity shop at the end of my road. I have a lot of time for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fictions. Her MadAddam Trilogy is one of my favourite books ever. So I dived right into The Heart Goes Last like a child diving into a pool on a hot summer day, without a care in the world.

I was not disappointed, much. The story on paper seems implausible. We would never volunteer to live in a locked community, to spend half our lives in comfortable prisons, to be subject to constant surveillance. Right? Right???

Stan and Charmaine, the married couple and main characters, choose security over freedom. In a nightmare America where recession and offshore finance have  reduced most of the cities to the status of post-bankruptcy Detroit, they’re sick of living in their car, fearing for their lives. So the Consilience project seems like a great place to live. But of course, in this nightmare of capitalism gone even wronger than it is now, the creepy 50’s faux-utopia hides ravenous fangs and managerially mandated nightmares. Under the pressure of this bizarre facade, Stan and Charmaine start to crack. Sexual obsession and death tangle them up in convoluted plots and their lives devolve into surreal nightmares of sexbots, brain surgery, Elvis impersonators and undercover agents.

There were moments of this book that made me gasp. Atwood really delves into how humans can do awful things under pressure. Think of the Milgram experiment, or Zimbardo’s prison. Charmaine, a character who would be trite or even irritating without the precisely measured hints to her traumatic past, is an ideal subject for this nexus of control. A sweet woman who genuinely cares about home furnishings, we see how she deludes herself into warping her sense of morality and even reality, in order to carry on living in material comfort and not rock the boat. Being nice, appearing sweet, are weapons of survival that she has learned to wield with great skill. But then again, she might just be being sensible, because people who rock the boat in Consilience tend to disappear. 

This book is written from alternating perspectives of Stan and Charmaine, so we see how each of them see each other, how they see themselves, and the contrast. Deliberately written as an ‘everyman’ type of couple, sometimes the simple language of their thoughts can feel like the writer is patronising her own characters. The common man drinks too much beer, likes trimming the hedge, and is pretty damn homophobic. He lusts after women and wishes his wife would give him more sex. The common woman is sexually withholding, finds importance in nail varnish and throw pillows, is somewhat sentimental but tries her best to pamper her husband and keep his spirits up. They are both passive victims of events, rarely making a decision themselves but caught in the webs of machinations of people who do have power. This is a pawn’s eye view of some complicated chess, and at times it left me feeling queasy. Society is conditioning people into this kind of toxic sleepwalking, and come collapse, what will we do? It’s enough to turn you into a prepper, because civilisations do have a nasty habit of collapsing.

In some ways, this is a twisted love story of betrayal, redemption, kidnap and neurological interventions. In other ways, it is a slapstick romp through a dystopia whose echoes we can already feel pooling in the present. Mega-corporations, government collusion, outsourcing of jobs and off-shoring of capital, are the bad guys in fiction as in real life. Atwood just draws the results of their predation to creative conclusions which are nonetheless still obviously moulded from the clay of our present world.

This is a book full of ideas, some of which could be books in themselves. It started life as a serial, which might explain the slightly uneven pacing. There is fun to be had here, and some thrilling thought experiments, but by the end I was left wondering why. Of course as a writer it’s great fun to treat your characters like a cruel child torturing ants, but there should be some kind of payoff. And in this case, the ending made me angry, and actually detracted from the excellence that was shown elsewhere in the book. It was an unexpected crash-landing into neurotically mawkish cliche and I do not need that in my life.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 

A dystopian romp with some great ideas, delicious in parts but slightly undercooked.

 

 

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Review: The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood, 2015)

Progress Report: 28 years

 I had plenty of goals last birthday, which was so long ago that I can’t at all remember who I was back then. Not anywhere near as cool as I am now, definitely. My goals were not ambitious, and I still failed to achieve most of them.
The good thing is that many of them became irrelevant, and I was too busy doing much better things with my time. I’m going to list these things because I’m grateful to the universe for letting me happen them. When I list them it feels like being a child on birthday morning sitting with a great stack of shiny presents.
Things I didn’t expect would have happened a year ago, which happened nonetheless.
  • I have a home, a lovely home with a lovely housemate. I love living in Derby, there are so many amazing people here. I’m kind of living independently.
  • I’m Pippa Porcupine’s Damn Fine Natural Skincare Co.
  • There is a great deal of poetry. I love performing. Still get scared but it’s good kicks.
  • There is a great deal of love. ❤ to you all.
  • Summer was amazing and I’m spinning with the seasons. From Beltane til Solstice, to Lammas and beyond…
  • The pain is the pain of cracking eggshells, reaching roots, unfurling leaves. Growth.
  • Piracy is a viable option.
  • A hat and a cackle are all you need.

 

What did I want a year ago? Modest things to be going on with. I’m a work in progress.

Get Fit

  • I’m still a traffic hazard, but don’t let that stop me from biking everywhere.
  • I go to yoga most weeks, it’s only up the road. I’ve even started doing some stretches on waking, sun saluting into the waking world. More yoga needed though, I’m getting old and creaky.
  • I still still eat a lot of cheese. Cheese is important to me and I have no wish to forsake it. I wish to maintain and encourage my love of wholesome veg based meals. Nosh them probiotics as well.
  • Apparently I’d stopped smoking a year ago. Or at least I was vaping constantly, not sure if that’s an improvement. I smoke a bit now and have no goals to change that.
  • GOAL WAS RIDICULOUS, NEVER GONNA HAPPEN MATE: Drink once or twice a week, at most. HAAAAA I can’t believe I made this goal, what an idiot. I am slowly getting sensible though, if only because hangovers are worse now.

New goals:

  • Dance more.
  • Climb up things.
  • Learn to fight.

Writing

  • My poetry pamphlet, Thou Shalt Not Suffer, was published and I’ve nearly sold out again. Only 4 left, if you don’t have one yet you should get on it.
  • I’ve written and performed a whole bunch of new poems. Some of them are pretty good. People seem to like them.
  • Write more stuff. This year I want to do 2 new books at least.
  • Get back to blogging
  • Still a goal: Daily freewriting
  • More journalling. Otherwise I forget where I’ve been and that makes map-making confusing and narrative next to impossible.

New goals:

  • Sell yourself. Make a performance video. Get booked to perform at festivals and other places that are not here.

Social/Activism

  • City-Zen is in the pipeline.
  • Get back on the volunteering.

Mental Health

  • I GRADUATED FROM THERAPY! Got a certificate and everything. DBT helped me so much, gave me skills I use every day and a solid background in Mindfulness that is a foundation for life. I met some amazing friends there and am so thankful that I got this treatment. Protect NHS mental health services please.

New Goals:

  • Carry on growing and learning new skills to live by
  • Regular meditation practice will help
  • Earth

Other Stuff

  • Everything constantly needs tidying. This does not qualify as a life goal.
  • I still want to do some art.
  • I don’t want to learn how to knit, why did I think that was a sensible goal?
  • Why did I set a goal to learn to drive when I will never be able to afford a car?
  • I never learnt violin (my violin is busted) but I did pick up a bit of tin whistle! I enjoy it a lot. Can almost play 3 whole tunes!
  • Didn’t get round to this other other goal: Get better at poi.
  • Adventures will always be a goal

 

Looking back over previous birthdays, there has been a theme that I felt life was passing me by while I failed to achieve anything of note whatsoever. This is absolutely not the case this year. While I still sometimes weep into the darkness when confronted by the absolute insignificance of my life, I can also recognise that the past year was a significant one in so many ways. Now it’s time to start giving back and making best use of this life I’ve been regifted.

There are so many people whose love and kindness and all round excellence has got me here and if I just pay that love forward the world will be brightened. It’s the least I could do.

Thank you all.

Never thought I’d get this far but it’s fucking nice here.

Cheers.

Progress Report: 28 years

2016 Review

I made goals a year ago. And then reviewed them on my birthday. There may be a sense of deja vu starting to set in. Spoiler alert: I did not yet become a cyclist, or a journalist. I still can’t knit or play the violin. I have started playing the the penny whistle though. I’m sure the neighbours love it.

So, let’s start with some positives. 2016 was a good year in a lot of ways. I started, and stuck at therapy. DBT seems to be helping. I love the people I share a group with, and the camaraderie we have in learning to live in our lives, and make lives we want to live in. It can be all kinds of hard work and sometimes you find out things about yourself you’d rather not face, but better that than the previous mess. Still a bit of a mess, but… maybe, slowly, I’m getting there. It’s an upward spiral, maybe. A labyrinth, possibly. But despite the wrong turns and confusion (and the odd Minotaur hiding in a dark corner), there does seem to be some kind of change. And a change is as good as a rest, right? I don’t feel so constantly crazy. Though I’m definitely not “cured”, whatever that would mean.

I still help out with Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity, in the warehouse. Just last night, 40+ people were there, making a heroic and successful effort to load a shipping container full of clothing and other needed supplies for Syria. I don’t feel like this is something to boast about though, more something that I’m honoured to be a part of, even in a small way.

Oh, and I did run that half marathon, and do that abseil for sponsorship money. I also ran a stall at the Padley Festive Fair? which collectively raised over £400 for the Padley Group charity, which works with some of the most vulnerable people in Derby.

I am still living in Derbyshire, and have somewhat made peace with that. So much beautiful countryside, and some really good people doing brilliant social activism and creative works. I’ve been travelling more lately though, mostly within England seeing friends, but to Italy as well for Christmas.

I got a poetry book published, and done something that I never really thought would happen: I’ve developed a certain amount of confidence performing live. I’ve actually got on stage and enjoyed it, rather than just feeling overwhelming dread the whole time. (Although the dread is still there.) This spoken word/reading out loud/actually speaking my words to real live people thing is beautiful. Sharing energy, communicating, that’s powerful. Thank you to City-Zen and Word Wise especially, for hosting such powerful and amazing nights.

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A craptastically blurry pic, but the only one I’ve got of me onstage slaying and that.

I’ve loved and lost and suffered and learned. I’m grateful for the good times. And there were so many good times. Hopefully I’ll learn the right lessons, from the bad times. Twice this year I’ve left a man. Now I’m single and need to be. Not for rancour and isolation. I just need to turn into a real person, before I can be good for someone else. I need to learn my own edges before I blur them into someone else’s reflection.

Friends are love. I’m sorry for neglecting you and missing you and the trials of living scattered across counties, countries, continents.

Thank you all for the good times. We’ve had some adventures.

I’m grateful for my family. I’m back living with my parents. I’m amazed they’ll still have me. I lose count of how many times I’ve come crashing back down to here, to rebuild in this nest. There have been many gatherings and events and meetings, not least the wonderful wedding festival of my cousin. Just, love to the whole enormous crew who I am not going to list and name because we are a sizeable tribe and you don’t want to be here al day.

This year has left me feeling depleted. I’ve known for a while I was running out of energy, burning the candle at both ends, failing to nourish and replenish and all that. There have been some truly horrible times where I didn’t know how I could possibly survive. But, I did. There have been people lost. Real people we knew, not celebrities. Although their families must be suffering the same grief as any, and damn I did love Leonard Cohen. But it’s not at all the same. I’m not going to do a list of loss and trauma and fear. But it’s always there in this life, ocean always wearing away at the sand, chaos always waiting to spin us off into the void. It’s dark out there.

In a wider context, this has been a frightening year. We watched with grief and rage as Syrian children drowned, as Donald Trump was elected, as racist attacks and hate crimes rose as fear and rage seemed to convulse a world spinning wildly between the end of one era and the beginning of the next. What the fuck is going to happen? Who knows? 2016 has been a year where running away to live in the woods has seemed like a more attreactive option than before.

Running on mania, running on fumes, then running out of fumes, running on gritted teeth and coffee and alcohol. Eventually everything crashes. So I go into 2017 with less energy than before, feeling old and foolish, but with optimism that I’ll be able to come back from this.

Nature has nourished me deeply, has been a refuge and saviour and source of deep joy. This is what I plan to delve into more deeply, to return to and explore this year and all the years.

Much love. May 2017 open for you like a flower, and may you learn what you need to, before you are forced to.

As for 2016, I rate it 3/7. 4/7 if it hadn’t killed Carrie Fisher just at the end, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse.

 

 

2016 Review