The Heart Goes Last

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: Margaret Atwood’s new dystopian novel The Heart Goes Last, while initially well-designed, fails to make a lasting impression.

The book follows Stan and Charmaine, a young couple living in the midst of an economic crash. Desperate for safety and normality, they sign up for the Positron Project, a clean, structured town where inhabitants live and labor in the gender-separated prison of Positron for a month and stay in the fifties-esque town of Consilience the next. Atwood manages to patch together a world like that of 1984 and The Stepford Wives mixed with her own developments. When both Stan and Charmaine become involved with their “Alternates,” the people who live in their home the months the couple is in prison, the story becomes more complicated.

The novel focuses on the relationship between Stan and Charmaine, which becomes increasingly tangled as the plot progresses. Atwood does a fantastic job adding depth to the couple by revealing their candid, often disturbing thoughts. Even more hauntingly, the dystopian world Atwood describes so well could easily fit into the next few years.

Though unsettling, the book is, at least, an enjoyable read. Stan’s prison side job as chicken pimp, a woman romantically attached to a teddy bear, and the growing absurdity of the main couple’s situation prompt a few smiles.

Atwood’s voice is also impressive. Some of her lines provoke deep thought while others aim to entertain, and she writes so smoothly there is never a clash between the two. She is even able to catch me off guard with a couple plot twists that stomp my initial predictions away.

In the last quarter of the book, though, the story seems to get out of Atwood’s hands. The stitches that pull the novel together become more obvious and start to fray. The plot gradually loses its realism, pieces don’t match up quite right, and secondary characters lose their depth. Worse yet, the dystopian clichés that Atwood initially appears to use jokingly become more serious and groan-worthy. Near the novel’s end, the story’s humor fades and takes on a more moralistic tone.

Atwood crams the last few chapters with events meant to drive the main themes home, but, though interesting, these events seem too much like an afterthought. The final chapters don’t drive the main themes home as much as they pull these themes to the surface. By the end, Atwood bares the story’s already thinly veiled meaning to readers as though they are incapable of jumping to interpretations themselves.

Still, the central meaning is designed better than similar stories, and it is an enjoyable read.

The problem with The Heart Goes Last is not a matter of enjoyment, though. The problem is that the heart of the novel goes before the Atwood is finished, but she keeps working at it anyway, hoping a frenzy of shocks will keep it alive until the end. In truth, the story flat-lines before Atwood is willing to wrap it up.

Recommendation: Fans of Atwood might be able to overlook these issues and appreciate the author’s intent. I think fans of The Stepford Wives and more mature fans of The Giver may also value this novel. It is a likable read for a general audience, but those unable to enjoy books featuring extramarital affairs, customizable prostitute robots, and “Big Brother” settlements should stay away.

Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book–even if I didn’t review it until it was published.

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Focus on the Lyrics Friday: Poet

Happy Valentine’s weekend! I’ll be celebrating in my usual way–watching chick flicks like “Pride and Prejudice” without anyone else to enjoy it with.

*sigh*

All bitterness aside, I really do like celebrating the idea of love. It’s a beautiful thing to write and read about, and love songs are fairly popular in our society (only surpassed, I think, by heartbreak songs). I decided I’d analyze a love song this week in honor of Valentine’s.

But which love song?

The answer came clear when I watched the Grammy Awards Ceremony. (No, I’m not looking at “Stay With Me.” I think the lines “stay with me / ’cause you’re all I need” are fairly straightforward.)

I’m talking about Bastille, of course, who got snubbed as new artist of the year in favor of Sam Smith (who won four Grammys). For those of you who wonder how that was a snub, please do me a favor and focus on the lyrics.


Lyrics

Obsession it takes control,
Obsession it eats me whole.
I can’t say the words out loud,
So in a rhyme I wrote you down.
Now you’ll live through the ages,
I can feel your pulse in the pages.

I have written you down
Now you will live forever
And all the world will read you
And you will live forever
In eyes not yet created
On tongues that are not born
I have written you down
Now you will live forever

Your body lies upon the sheets,
Of paper and words so sweet.
I can’t say the words,
so I wrote you into my verse.
Now you’ll live through the ages,
I can feel your pulse in the pages.

I have written you down
Now you will live forever
And all the world will read you,
And you will live forever
In eyes not yet created
On tongues that are not born
I have written you down
Now you will live forever

I have read her with these eyes,
I’ve read her with these eyes,
I have held her in these hands.

I have written you down,
Now you will live forever.
The virtue’s in the verse,
And you will live forever.

I have written you down
Now you will live forever
And all the world will read you
And you will live forever
In eyes not yet created
On tongues that are not born
I have written you down
Now you will live forever

Analysis

To understand this song, let’s take a look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 81.

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen)
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Recognize anything?

Any band who bases a song off a Shakespearean sonnet (one that holds words in high esteem, no less) deserves a Grammy in my book. I can’t grovel forever, though; let’s look at other reasons to love this song.

1) “Obsession it takes control, / Obsession it eats me whole. / I can’t say the words out loud, / So in a rhyme I wrote you down. / Now you’ll live through the ages, / I can feel your pulse in the pages.”

The speaker, who is eaten up with his love for “you,” couldn’t bring himself to say anything “out loud,” so he wrote them down, ensuring “you” will “live through the ages,” since words last longer than people (Shakespeare’s words in particular). The idea of words preserving life is a beautiful one emphasized in the concept of epitaphs and obituaries as well as the line “I can feel your pulse in the pages.”

2) “I have written you down / Now you will live forever / And all the world will read you / And you will live forever / In eyes not yet created / On tongues that are not born / I have written you down / Now you will live forever.”

This mimics the lines “Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read, / And tongues to be your being shall rehearse, / When all the breathers of this world are dead; / You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen).” I’m glad Bastille simplified it, though; it’d be hard to sing lines like “tongues to be your being shall rehearse.” In any case, this chorus serves to emphasize the idea that writing the subject down will preserve a part of her.

3) “Your body lies upon the sheets, / Of paper and words so sweet. / I can’t say the words, / so I wrote you into my verse. / Now you’ll live through the ages, / I can feel your pulse in the pages.”

The first line plays with the word “sheets,” which can mean both bedsheets (scandalous) and sheets “of paper and words so sweet.” The subject may not be literally lying on papers, but she could be lying on bedsheets, and part of her is preserved in the paper on which the song/poem is printed. The other lines should sound familiar, since they repeat those of the first part.

4) “I have read her with these eyes, / I’ve read her with these eyes, / I have held her in these hands.”

The speaker remains ambiguous, allowing readers/listeners to judge whether he’s referring to his love, his poem, or both. He has read the poem, and in reading the poem he has read “her.” It’s also possible to “read” a person to figure out how they feel. The next line is ambiguous, too, since he can both hold “her” and the poem/song. The ambiguity of this section is its strongest feature.

5) “I have written you down, / Now you will live forever. / The virtue’s in the verse, / And you will live forever.”

I almost didn’t include this section, since it mostly repeated what had already been discussed, but then I read sonnet 81 again. The line “the virtue’s in the verse” is a nod to Shakespeare’s poem when he writes “(such virtue hath my pen).” In fact, I think the whole song is a nod to Shakespeare. I mean, the title’s not “Words,” “Poem,” or even “Sonnet 81;” Bastille titled this song “Poet.”

Just when I thought I couldn’t like this band any more than I already do…

If you want to listen to Bastille other songs that mention love and heartbreak, check out “Laughter Lines,” “Flaws” (which I already analyzed), “These Streets,” “Oblivion,” and “Adagio for Strings.” (The last one is their awesome mix-tape cover of “What is Love?” Trust me. Listen to the whole thing.)

Life is a Coma

Last night, SVSU brought The Asia Project on campus. Unfortunately, a poetry slam happened around the same time, so only 15 people showed up to watch the spoken word poetry event.

I’m glad I was part of the 15, though.

The Asia Project is a duo featuring poet Asia Samson and guitarist Jollan Aurelio. Asia writes the poems himself and performs them with Jollan’s accompaniment.

Many of the poems were deeply personal to Asia, so props to him for sharing them. He shared poems sparked by his battle with cancer, his son’s birth, his marriage, and his sister’s tragic death.

The poem dedicated to his sister, “Awakening,” was definitely my favorite.

I related to this poem, but in an unexpected way. I may be familiar with loss, but I’ve never lost someone as close to me as Asia was to his sister.

No, I did not relate so closely to the feeling of loss. I related better to the hollowness he hinted at in the end of the poem when he said, “Life is a coma we can still choose to wake up from.”

“Life is a coma we can still choose to wake up from.”

I’ve been a college student for a few months now, but I feel further away from home every day.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know where home is. My dorm? My family? My high school? My friends’ colleges? Whenever I’m at one place, I long to be at another. I’m stretched everywhere and I’m comfortable nowhere.

When one feels out-of-place, she ought to discover more about herself. With nothing around to distract her, she should be able to look down at herself and say, “This is what I am.”

When I look down, I see right through myself.

The problem is, I don’t know why. I know my purpose. I know what I want to do with my future. I know what I stand for and against. But I feel like there’s some part of myself I haven’t tapped into. It still sleeps somewhere inside me and every now and again it snores, reminding me that I’m not fully awake.

“Life is a coma we can still choose to wake up from.”

But how do we start?

I think I need to focus on the little things. I think I need to start rejoicing at the many places I call home rather than despair at how far apart they are. I think I need to write more, to feel more in tune with myself. I think I need to read more, to climb closer to my future. I think I need to pour energy into everything I do, to live life to the fullest.

I think I need to stop looking and start watching.