Introducing The Heart Goes Last, Paula Shields said that the characters don’t know they’re living in a Margaret Atwood novel. On a second reading, she said, she began to think that we’re all living in a Margaret Atwood novel.
The Heart Goes Last: Stan and Charmaine are a couple who have been reduced to living in their car by the economic crash. When they see an advertisement looking for people to take part in a social experiment that will guarantee them work and a place to live, they think they have it made. But the Positron Project is an alternating prison system cycle: live at home one month, go to prison the next.
Things go wrong. Obsessions develop, secrets ensue.
Asked about the novel’s starting point, MA said that she’d been half-in and half-out of the idea for a while, thinking and reading about prisons (since Alias Grace): what were they invented for? When? How have people thought about them at different times? Quite differently, it turns out.
PS said that when she googled Prisons, the first returns were ‘for Profit’, which surprised her. She was relieved that an Irish search referred to services.
MA said that the US Constitution prohibits forced unpaid labour (slavery) but that law doesn’t apply to convicted criminals. It’s easy to see that there is potential for a sizeable profit margin there. The worry is: if people are making money from something, they’ll need a constant supply of young people to keep it going, people in their prime.
PS: Why is it set in the US and not Canada?
MA used to think those kinds of dystopian scenarios wouldn’t happen in Canada. She’s not so sure about that any more.
She directed us to the epigraphs at the front of the book, they offer a kind of key signature for the novel. The first is a quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (“Pygmalion and Galatea”); the second is an extract from Adam Frucci’s blog Gizmodo: “I Had Sex With Furniture”; and the last is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This is where things began to get alarming and entertaining in roughly equal measure. MA told us that a robot with a convincing skin has been launched in Taiwan; this robot comes with instructions not to have sex with her. She (MA) talked about new trends in furniture, with sex apps. I mean, she said, would you have that in your living room? Everyone roared laughing but a few of the faces around me showed definite signs of unease.
She talked about the trickery at the heart of MND that creates a love scramble, where people fall in love with people/beings disguised as other people/beings. This is hilarious for Oberon and Puck, who set the whole thing up, but a nightmare for the characters who enact it. She reminded us that these things are not as fantastical as we’d like to think. Look at Comic Con, for example, where people dress up as people/creatures who don’t exist and go off to meet other people dressed up as different people/creatures who don’t exist. She was at a book fair in Leipzig recently where very tall Germans walked around wearing antlers and blue wings. It’s not just me, she said. Look at Las Vegas – you can get married there by a clerk dressed up as Elvis. You don’t even have to get out of your car. There’s no need to make anything up – it’s all already out there.
She talked about surveillance, and how there is general laughter at conferences when anyone tries to give a talk about internet security. It’s such a touchingly naive concept, online security. PS asked, have we given too many rights away?
MA: We haven’t given them away. They’ve been subtracted from us.
She said the first time she saw a mobile phone as pivotal in a movie was in The Da Vinci Code. The second was in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when Rooney Mara/Lisbeth takes out her sim and crushes it to powder so she can’t be tracked. She pointed out how much we learn from novels that aren’t considered high art. How things have changed. She asked if anyone remembers Dial M for Murder (I do – vividly), where the entire plot turns on a telephone ringing on a desk. It wouldn’t work now.
Asked what advice she would give to her younger writer self, she said: Learn to touch-type, you idiot. You should have taken those secretarial courses.
Up next in the DLR Library Voices Series (curated by Bert Wright and Marian Keyes): Edna O’Brien talks to Sinéad Gleeson on Tuesday 27th October at 8:00pm
Here’s a nice crossover image: