‘The Heart Goes Last’ (by Margaret Attwood)

Questions from Masters Degree assessment

Make a list of the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. What might you learn, in your own writing, from the strengths? How would you handle the novel’s shortcomings?

Strengths – Funny, inventive.It gets me thinking that sometimes it works when you think outside the box in terms of plot etc.Simplistic writing, not flowery or complex , which works with the feel of the piece.
Weaknesses – Overly long, finishes outside the community when I feel it would have been stronger finishing within it, too many interconnected strands so it is easy to get lost within them.I would have simplified the plot, added more detail for the plot elements which were important and reduced those which were not.I also didn’t feel that the subsidiary characters were always believable.For example, Jocelyn didn’t seem at all feasible as a surveillance character, and the love affair between Phil and Charmaine was patchy and not all that believable either.
 
The Heart Goes Last combines a third-person narrative perspective with free indirect voice. This perspective alternates between Stan and Charmaine, keeping the reader close to one character or the other at different points in the narrative. Why might Atwood exploit this approach in her novel?
Free indirect voice in many ways merges the voice of the author and the protagonists, which inevitably gives an element of intimacy to the rendering of the two main characters in this case.  So, is seems clear that the free indirect voice was chosen at least partly for this reason. 
Add to that, the change of emphasis between Stan and Charmaine, and it seems that the reason behind this is the ability to get into the characters’ heads and see events from each of their individual viewpoints.This is especially important because there is a lot of secrecy regarding work, inner thoughts, affairs and so on.Without using this tool it would have been really difficult to get an overall picture of what was going on with each of the two main protagonists, and the story wouldn’t have been disclosed as effectively.
How effectively are Stan and Charmaine’s ‘voices’ distinguished from one another? What techniques or approaches does Atwood use to make Stan and Charmaine’s sections distinct from each other? Could Atwood have made more effort in this regard, in your opinion?
Stan’s inner voice tends to consider quite a bit of exterior related stuff, for example, he’s tied up with political situations, the future, considerations of philosophies and social issues etc.  Charmaine’s inner voice is more contemplative and every-day.  Because I didn’t really appreciate the differences in style between the two voices (though I did between the two characters) I guess that this indicates the author could have made more effort to differentiate.  However, it wasn’t until I read this question that I realised this is what had happened, so it didn’t detract from the story from my point of view.  The authorial style within the book was consistent and the characters were differentiated, so that worked. 
 
Do you consider The Heart Goes Last to be a ‘stranded’ novel, like some of the other texts we’ve studied on the unit (NW, Arlington Park)? What similarities and differences can you identify? What advantages and limitations do these various forms of stranding offer to the novelist?
To some extent, many novels are stranded novels, as the reader is controlled by the author regarding what they can see and where they can travel within the created world etc.  Some books are more stranded than others.  NW – stranded within an estate which is hard to escape from even when you have, and stranded within one’s own unsatisfactory lives.  Arlington Park – stranded within comfortable confines, but just as much locked in as others.  Road – stranded within an almost limitless physical environment, but within the limitations of availability of food, of safety etc.  This book?  Stranded in the car, stranded in Consilience, stranded again in the world of the Positron Survivors support groups etc. 
 
Is that all we are? He thinks. Unmistakable clothing, a hairstyle, a few exaggerated features, a gesture? How credible are Stan and Charmaine, their desires, their ambitions, their relationship? They are clearly presented as fallible by Atwood. Do their flaws make them difficult to like? Did your opinions of them change as the novel progressed?
That definition ties in with the way a writer might begin to create their characters – with a few defining and interesting features.  However, these features are not what makes a character – a character is made more rounded and more believable with the addition of flaws, quirks, and unusual character traits.  Stan and Charmaine initially seem to be likeable characters, and I fully understood how they both ended up where they did.  Their reasons seemed perfectly understandable.  Once they settled in Consilience I stopped caring as much about them, because their lives seemed not as real and as interesting.  By the end of the book I really couldn’t care less about the marriage and other events.  The only thing which I did care about was that Charmaine hadn’t had the brain adjustment forcing her to love Stan.  It had come naturally.  That was quite sweet.  It was also good that Charmaine, who appeared not all that strong at the beginning of the book, strengthened as time went on, and became a little more liberated.  But I have to say that I didn’t really care about the characters even though I quite enjoyed the book.  Charmaine’s initial acceptance of their new life at Consilience is quite believable too.
What purpose do the frequent reminiscences about Grandma Win serve in the narrative? How does she affect our understanding of Charmaine, for example?
Grandma Win is a hearkening back to better and easier times, when the minutiae of life were as important and the bigger issues.Pg 377 “It’s better to close the lid when you flush: Grandma Win told her that.Otherwise the germs fly around in the air and go up your nose”.These are such small issues, in comparison with what else is going on in the world of this novel.
“Smile and the world smiles with you, Grandma Win used to say.Cry and you cry alone” (pg 129).Grandma Win represents a simpler time, when truisms did apply.Perhaps it works so well because Consilience is also outwardly looking backwards to simpler times (1950s/60s America) though it fails because it isn’t real and because it isn’t true to the implied aims.
But also, Charmaine’s references to Grandma Win make her seem more human and more likeable as a character. I could understand why this element of her character might be perceived as an annoying naivety, but I felt it also gave a good narrative tool as she was obviously more easily caught up in what’s going on around her, and more easily taken in than other characters might have been.
 
Comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness. She prefers the more dramatic shows where everyone’s getting kidnapped or raped or shut up in a dark hole, and you aren’t supposed to laugh at it. You’re supposed to be upset, the way you’d be if it was happening to you. Being upset is a warmer, close-up feeling, not a chilly distant feeling like laughing at people. (17)
Taking the above quotation as a starting point, how would you characterise The Heart Goes Last? What is the overall mood of the novel? Is it a work of comedy, tragedy, something else? Does the increasingly slapstick tone of the novel detract from your experience of reading it, or from the novel’s more serious messages?
I wanted to say that this was a work of black comedy, but that isn’t strictly true.  Black or dark comedy usually makes light of or fun of a subject matter that’s either taboo or untouchably serious.  Well, this book doesn’t really do that.  Neither is it a typical bleak apocalyptic horror novel, a technology-based futuristic book, a romance etc.  In other words, it is difficult to classify.   
The Marilyn Monroe lookalike who has been programmed to fall in love with the first thing she encounters on waking (a teddy bear), the Elvis impersonators and so on, also bring to mind a 1920s farce, and I think that’s relatively near the mark.M John Harrison reviews the book online for The Guardian and says “Jubilant comedy of errors, bizarre bedroom farce, SF prison-break thriller, psychedelic 60s crime caper: The Heart Goes Last scampers in and out of all of these genres, pausing only to quote Milton on the loss of Eden or Shakespeare on weddings. Meanwhile, it performs a hard-eyed autopsy on themes of impersonation and self-impersonation, revealing so many layers of contemporary deception and self-deception that we don’t know whether to laugh or cry”.Farcical comedy of errors with elements of crime and prison break in a dystopian setting.Not straightforward but it does work, despite itself.
 
Is Atwood’s novel a work of genre fiction? Literary fiction? Both? Explain your reasoning.
Wikipedia’s definition of genre fiction is: “Wikipedia’s definition of literary fiction is”…
So, the question we’re being asked is whether this book is more about sharing a story (genre) or about giving us a message (literary).Upon initial reading I did feel that the message was stronger than the story, but the story itself does definitely stand up in its own right, despite its flaws.Two people begin the story in a dystopian world, living in their car.They are drawn towards an alternative which is half prison and half utopia, and that is the option they select.I suspect most dystopian and post-apocalypse novels contain this combination of literary and genre, but by their very nature, the message is just as important as the story.
 
We have already seen how Cormac McCarthy reveals the world of The Road elliptically (indirectly, suggestively rather than through exposition) and the effects that this has upon the novel. How directly, or fully, does Atwood reveal the conditions of, and causes for, the status quo in The Heart Goes Last?
I did not note that Atwood reveals the causes of the fictional word state particularly in this book, but the conditions resulting from the breakdown are fairly well explained.Personally, though, I always prefer when there is little or no explanation.For example, in The White Horse by Alex Adams, I found that the lack of explanation for the state of affairs in the world was actually beneficial.I preferred it, as I did with The Road.Too explicit, and it runs the risk of losing reader interest because the reader would then concentrate their criticisms and efforts on stuff like saying, well that could never have happened.

On a related point, how convincing did you find the fundamental contrivances of the plot: the Positron scheme, and so on. How convincing was this vision of post-recession America? Does Atwood do enough ‘world building’, in your opinion (Positron, Consilience, Las Vegas?)

Las Vegas is not well detailed, but that’s understandable as it is a place of which most people have their own opinions.Love it or hate it, LV has a reputation of freedom and excess, so seems a fitting place of emergence after the discipline of Consilience.
Consilience – according to Google, is “an agreement between the approaches to a topic of different academic subjects, especially science and the humanities”, and it was a well chosen name. Consilience is the name of the commune town with a 1950s ethos and atmosphere that has been deliberately created (as this was a ‘happy’ era for many).So, Consilience fits with all of that.
Interestingly, a positron is “I feel these names are really well chosen and appropriate for the places and concepts involved.The names fit whether we’re aware of their meanings, or not.
 
How did she get into the Surveillance business? he’d asked her, for something to do at the breakfast table.“I was an English major … It’s where all the plots are. That’s where you learn the twists and turns. I did my senior thesis on Paradise Lost.” (110)  How did you respond to the pace of the plotting in The Heart Goes Last? Is it evenly paced? Did you find the story to be as compelling throughout?
I am not sure about the pace of the plotting.  At times it seemed too speedy – for example, the transition between living in the car and moving to the town, and at other times, it just seemed to go on and on and on  – the period of time when Charmaine was in the prison for an extended period of time, for example, didn’t work for me, and I lost interest in the story for a while. 
What is the novel about, in your opinion? Does it seem to have a clear ‘theme’? Is it overstuffed or confused?
I felt the basic theme of this novel was quite simple.  It was a choice between a dystopia and a pleasant prison, and the choice wasn’t always cut and dried.  However, I do think that there was a lot to it.  The love affairs, the weird sex robots, the escape, organ harvesting, Charmaine and her administration of lethal injections, etc etc etc.  I do feel the plot would have benefitted from being somewhat streamlined and simplified.   
 
What did you make of the ending of the novel? Are the loose ends tied up too neatly, in your opinion? Did you find anything problematic in the ending?
The injections which Charmaine administers ensure that the heart is the last organ to stop functioning.  I actually feel that Atwood wrote this book without much heart, especially towards the end.  It was one of the first things to go.
I remembered most of the novel a week after reading, but didn’t remember the ending.I had to re-read it, and when I did I wasn’t surprised that it hadn’t stuck in my mind,.The voluntary re-imprinting just seemed unfeasible, the fact that Conor was involved all along, equally so, and the character of Lucinda Quant felt as if she’d been added to the mix earlier on just so she could assist at the end.It was an eminently forgettable ending.
I would have much preferred the book’s conclusion to have been more open ended, with Charmaine and Stan still Positron-based, and considering options for the future.
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Lesley Atherton - Author

I'm an author of novels, short novels, and short stories, and have contributed to quite a few anthologies. I'm also Director of Scott Martin Productions, Publisher.

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