The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

June 20th, 2010

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is a bit of a handful to describe, though the book itself is pretty easy to read. The story consists of two interwoven narratives: the memoirs of an elderly woman Iris whose sister Laura commit suicide many years ago, and the novel (titled "The Blind Assassin") written by said sister. Both of these narratives tell stories-within-stories, Laura's novel more literally such as it tells of two unnamed lovers inventing a science fiction story together. It all almost works because there are parts that are spectacular. The prose at times is absolutely lovely, the lovers' scifi tale is creative and compelling, and the whole thing ends quite nicely, I think.

But the book suffers from a few pretty egregious flaws that make the overall book less-than-stellar for me. One flaw that I think is particularly common in contemporary fiction is a variation of the classic "show don't tell" adage. Authors know that they should develop their character through actions instead of descriptions, so they do so — but instead of weaving these scenes naturally into the narrative, they have some contrived side story or awkawrdly planted anecdote that "shows" some side of the character. In The Blind Assassin's case, I think this is most offensively true of Laura's character. Atwood wanted Laura to be this eccentric, unstable, determined free spirit, but I didn't see Laura's instability or eccentricity; I saw Atwood's desire for such. "See, Reader? Look at how weird Laura is, she is coloring people's faces in the photos!" "Look, she's taking everything literally! She has a different world view than the rest!" It's amateurish and still made me feel I was hearing a description of a character, not like I was getting to know Laura the person.

Contrast this to, say, Shirley Jackson's Merricat from We Have Always Lived in the Castle. That's how you write a crazy girl.


Something else that I couldn't get over was that the unnamed lovers' tale was written by Iris. Now don't get me wrong: it makes far more sense for the tale to be about Iris than Laura, and I like the idea that Iris felt so guilty about her sister's death that she published it under Laura's name. But the lovers' tale seems to be written not by Iris but by, well, Margaret Atwood. In particular, the way that "Iris" is supposedly describing Alex's thoughts just isn't a natural way for a woman to describe her lover's thoughts:

Her dress is primose yellow; her arms bare below the elbow, fine pale hairs on them. She's taken off her cotton gloves, wadden them into a ball, her hands nervous. He doesn't mind her nervousness: he likes to think he's already costing her something. She's wearing a straw hat, round like a schoolgirl's; her hair pinned back; a damp strand escaping. People used to cut off strands of hair, save them, wear them in lockets; or if men, next to the heart. He's never understood why, before.

The "she" is Iris, and the person who wrote that passage is supposedly Iris. Viewing it this way, Iris's novel is in many ways an arrogant, perverse fantasy in which Iris waxes poetic about how beautiful she is and how obsessively Alex loves her. Actually the novel would be far more interesting if this were true, but I don't think Atwood was trying to go Nabokov-circa-Lolita/Pale-Fire on us here; I think she was merely trying to tell the love affair between Alex and Iris, which makes the authorship of the novel highly unrealistic.

Another big problem with consistency: Iris's novel supposed to be this controversial, provocative novel that was declared one of the most important novels in the last 100 years (or something). Hats off to Margaret Atwood for her courage anyway. That is a ballsy statement for an author to make, and it's easy to shoot it down. But shoot it down I must: No, Ms. Atwood, your book is not good enough.

Still, The Blind Assassin has its moments. When Atwood puts her mind to it, she can really write beautifully:

There's also a story that claims the city wasn't really destroyed at all. Instead, through a charm known only to the king, the city and its inhabitants were whisked away and replaced by phantoms of themselves, and it was only these phantoms that were burnt and slaughtered. The real city was shrunk very small and placed in a cave beneath the great heap of stones. Everything that was once there is there still, including the palaces and the gardens filled with trees and flowers; including the people, no bigger than ants, but going about their lives as before — wearing their tiny clothes, giving their tiny banquets, telling their tiny stories, singing their tiny songs.

The King knows what's happened and it gives him nightmares, but the rest of them don't know. They don't know they've become so small. They don't know they're supposed to be dead. They don't even know they've been saved. To them the ceiling of rock looks like a sky: light comes in through a pinhole between the stones, and they think it's the sun.

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