Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book 128, Canada: "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood

Boy oh boy. There's news I oughta share, but I suppose that deserves a separate post. For now, however, I'll kvetch that I've lost my copy of The Blind Assassin - left it at a bus stop or train somewhere, while I was distracted playing Angry Birds. No offence to Atwood, though - the novel itself is riveting.

I'm honestly rather surprised by how gripping it is - after all, the contents aren't as political as those of the recent books I've read. Nor is this one of Atwood's sci-fi dystopian works, e.g. The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake (I have a signed copy of the latter!).

Instead, it takes place over the bulk of the 20th century, almost wholly from the perspective of the sheltered upper-class lady Iris Chase: granddaughter, daughter and wife of industrialists, sister of a legendary author named Laura Chase who committed suicide a week after World War II.

We follow Iris over the course of her life, from her birth in 1916 to her death in 1999. The bulk of the story takes the form of her memoirs, written in the 1990s as she copes with the humiliation of old age in suburban North America - lots of poetic musing, here, turning over words and figuring out their multiple meanings the way Atwood always has her protagonists do (betrayal of her roots as a poet, I suppose).

The rest is made up of excerpted newspaper articles that mark the progress of history (plus the Chase family's role in profiteering from it) and Laura Chase's novel itself, also titled The Blind Assassin, It's made up of a series of erotic encounters between a rich young woman and an impoverished intellectual science fiction writer - biographically inspired by the young socialist Alex Thomas, we later learn - and lo and behold, there are stories within that story within a story: the man weaves the woman yarns about the imaginary city of Sakiel-Norn, where virgin slave girls with their tongues cut out are sentenced to be sacrificed by the gods, only one of them is saved by an assassin, blinded from his days of carpet-weaving, who originally meant to kill her...

It's a celebration of the oft-unacknowledged roots of literary sci-fi in early 20th century trashy boys' own adventures: misogynistic dime-store paperback tales of lizard men and astronauts rescuing or slaughtering beautiful damsels with melon-breasted racks. A weird way the world of testoserone, of war (the World Wars are happening in the background) leaks into the world of women.

At first this looks like a good-sister bad-sister story, or perhaps docile-sister rebel-sister: Ismene versus Antigone, Chrystothemis versus Electra. The crazy, wild, gifted girl must always be contrasted with an boring homebody, and in the end it's these uninteresting girls who are left alive to tell the story.


It's a bluff. As the story/stories unfold/unfolds, we gradually realise that the events of Laura's novel are in fact a description of Iris's trysts with Alex, and that it was Iris, the good sister, who wrote the whole thing, attributing it to her sister after her death. This is revealed slowly enough that it's not an out-of-the-blue mindfuck; you're left guessing for quite some time whether you're being led down the wrong road by the crafty narrator.

And this means that Iris - living in her sister's shadow for half a century - has in fact willingly foregone the cult of fame, leaving her sister with a horde of followers who leave flowers on her grave and quote her in bathroom graffiti, inspired by her brilliance and the tragedy of her early death - such common tropes in the lives of great women authors: Plath, Woolf, Sanmao, Sarah Kane.


In a way, the story's a testament to the way literature can transform lives, not always for the better - it's a misreading of a novel that turns Iris's daughter permanently against her, as she believes she's really Laura's daughter. But it's also a feminist work - attesting that the lives of wealthy women have often been those of muted, sacrificial slave girls.

I'm still trying to figure out what the blind assassin - the literal one, in the sci-fi story - can be meant to represent. Death? Love? Oh, there are multitudes of essays to be written about this work.

And I might as well tell you the news: I've been accepted in the MFA program at the University of East Anglia. One of the interview questions I got was if there were any authors I wished to emulate, and the best I could come up with was Palahniuk and Atwood herself. Poetic voices, both of them - but Atwood, I suspect, has rather more depth.

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Representative quote: I've looked over what I've set down so far, and it seems inadequate. Perhaps there is too much frivolity in it, or too many things that might be taken for frivolity. A lot of clothes, the styles and colours outmoded now, shed butterflies' wings. A lot of dinners, not always very good ones. Breakfasts, picnics, ocean voyages, costume balls, newspapers, bating on the river. Such items do not assort very well with tragedy. But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge.

 Next book: J.P. Andrieux's Rumrunners: The Smugglers from St. Pierre and Miquelon and the Burin Peninsula from Prohibition to Present Day, from St. Pierre and Miquelon.

Friday, June 21, 2013


OK guys. I’m in a quandary. I’m nearing Europe, the source of the literary tradition that I’ve been raised in. This means that I’ve got lots of options for books I’ve got to choose from. Can I get your advice on what I should read for…


a) The Vinland Sagas (Viking records of their discovery of North America) OR

b) Eskimo Poems from Canada and Greenland (collected by Knud Rasmussen, translated by Tom Lowenstein)?


a) The Poetic Edda (source for many Viking myths and legends) OR

b) Independent People by Halldor Laxness (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature)?


a) Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts One and Two (featuring the unforgettable character Falstaff) OR

b) Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens OR

c) Middlemarch by George Eliot (because it’s hard to imagine I’ll get round to reading it otherwise)?

Also, should I do the different countries of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) separately, or as a whole? Leave comments, please!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Book 127, United States: "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison

You know what I've missed? Honest-to-goodness classics. Rich, crazy, multi-layered texts; timeless texts; immortal texts; texts that've been chattered about by scholars and hipsters for years, but go untouched on my library shelves (yes, our house has so many books that we call the shelves a library) just because I haven't gotten my arse around to reading them.

There are a lot of Great American Novels. According to the lists, I ought to be reading The Great Gatsby, but that's a brief little thing I might actually persuade myself to read casually. I've read Moby Dick and Lolita and Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird and Beloved already... but what about this 581-page tome, that I used to get confused with HG Wells's sci fi novella of a nearly identical name?

And honestly, this was just the ticket. A real shock to the senses after Triptych - a reminder of how recently in history black Americans were oppressed beyond hope. Published in 1952, it tells the story of a young black man from the South, unnamed, but smart enough to win a scholarship to a black university, where he has dreams of becoming a respected, upstanding member of the black community - only to get thrown out under ludicrous circumstances by the college president Dr Bledsoe (also black) and being forced to seek employment in New York City.

We've got an element of the picaresque novel going on here - he gets rejected from all the white-collar jobs he applies for, he gets into an accident in a paint factory after fighting with an old-timer black employee who mixes the paint, he gets lobotomised by the company's doctors, squats a lady's house in Harlem and then ends up as a community organiser for the Communist Party.

But unlike the innocent protagonist of a picaresque, this guy's character develops - he gets disillusioned more and more deeply with every institution he turns to, including the Communist Party (which was in fact one of the few groups that advocated for equal rights for blacks and whites in the 1950s - shades of Burgher's Daughter, here). And it's the struggle of "the Brotherhood", as he calls it, that dominates the novel - this strange place where there's equality but there isn't equality, where jungle-fever-obsessed white ladies pursue him at talks on "the Woman Question" (there's a lot to say about gender relations in here) and fellow black activists have to stand against the Africanist racism of Ras the Exhorter, who wants them lynched for working with the white man. White-dominated institutions using black people to push down black people - same strategy of divide and rule that's been used and is still used by various forces throughout history.

The writing's brilliant, of course. They talk about the jazz and the Ebonics that got transcribed in this text, but there's also honest-to-goodness textual modernism, weird dream sequences and chaotic passages that turn off more wary readers during the prologue. Ellison abandoned the old-school black lit genre of naturalism for the purposes of this work: he quotes Melville and Eliot in his opening, but his tale of an outsider, who's abandoned civilisation because of his awareness of its utter hopelessness, who must resort to new ways of speaking to record his ideas, reminds me of Lu Xun's Diary of a Madman, although it's more likely that he was influenced by Nikolai Gogol's tale of the same name. (There really are a limited number of cool titles to go around, eh?)

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Representative quote:  "So I'd accept it, I'd explore it, rine and heart. I'd plunge into it with both feet and they'd gag. Oh, but wouldn't they gag. I didn't know what my grandfather had meant, but I was ready to test his advice. I'd overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, I'd agree them to death and destruction. Yes, and I'd let them swallow me until they vomited or burst wide open. Let them gag on what they refused to see. Let them choke on it. That was one risk they hadn't calculated. That was a risk they had never dreamt of in their philosophy. Nor did they know that they could discipline themselves to destruction, that saying "yes" could destroy them. Oh, I'd yes them, but wouldn't I yes them! I'd yes them till they puked and rolled in it. All they wanted of me was one belch of affirmation and I'd bellow it out loud. Yes! Yes! YES! That was all anyone wanted of us, that we should be heard and not seen, and then heard only in one big optimistic chorus of yassuh, yassuh, yassuh! All right, I'd yea, yea and oui, oui and si, si and see, see them too; and I'd walk around in their guts with hobnailed boots. Even those super-big shots whom I'd never seen at committee meetings. They wanted a machine? Very well, I'd become a supersensitive confirmer of their misconceptions, and just to hold their confidence I'd try to be right part of the time. Oh, I'd serve them well and I'd make invisibility felt if not seen, and they'd learn that it could be as polluting as a decaying body, or a piece of bad meat in a stew. And if I got hurt? Very well again. Besides, didn't they believe in sacrifice? They were the subtle thinkers -- would this be treachery? Did the word apply to an invisible man? Could they recognize choice in that which wasn't seen . . . ?"

Next book: Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, from Canada.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Book 126, Bahamas: "Triptych" by Wendy Coakley-Thompson

Didja know that one of Hemingway's posthumous novels (he was working on it when he died) is partially set on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas? Alas, Islands in the Stream is only available in the National Library's reference section, so I ended up going with full-on chick lit.

Wendy Coakley-Thompson was born in the US and works in the US, but she's ancestrally Bahamian, and spent a bunch of her childhood there. In her foreword, she talks about reading Robert Wilder's The Wind from the Carolinas, and yearning to read more fiction set in the Bahamas. "Little did I know that I would have to write that book myself!" she giggles.

And let's be frank - this isn't great literature. It's escapist writing. All the characters are Mary Sues: the Cuban hospital financier Jonathan Cruz, his gorgeous Bahamian surgeon wife Alexandra and his Afro-Cuban-Canadian psychology professor cousin Timothy Lamb. All wealthy professionals in their 40s or early 50s; Tyler-Perry-esque people of colour. All religious and (trying hard to be) virtuous. All living the life in the tropical paradise of Nassau. All of them ridiculously good looking, more so in middle age than in their youth, with crazy sex drives to boot.

So no, I'm not getting much of an insiders' view of the Bahamas (although people do seem to be pretty well off there: it's the second-highest Caribbean nation on the Human Development Index, after Barbados). A few mentions of Conchy Joes and fish stew and seagrapes and androsia and Camp Discovery. Not great prose, either - very transparent, needy, black and white. 

Was actually tempted to stop reading and head over the library's reference section, but then the story started to grip me a little. It's a sappy business, about Jonathan getting a brain tumour, and not being able to get it up anymore, and then letting his cousin sexually satisfy his long-suffering wife because he can't anymore. It's all described with lush urgency, and Tim actually deflowered Ally when they were in their teens, and they're longing for each other anyway, and there's a huge pot-fueled threesome (one realises that Coakley-Thompson chose "triptych" because it was a classier way of saying "threesome"), and then people start dying and crying, et cetera, and then Tim and Ally shack up in the end. That kind of story, but with the characters feeling bad about all the moves they make, beating themselves up religiously, but doing them anyway, because hey, they're red-blooded Caribbean middle-aged people, and they gotta bone.

Chick lit, like I said. But there's nothing wrong with a book like this existing. My only big problems are with the fact that Ally, a fully qualified surgeon, believes in homeopathy, and that there's no real justification for Jonathan never straight up *telling* her that he's fine with her bonking on the side. Oh, and maybe there's a little too much drama in the characters' background (rape! kidnapping! baby murder! a perfect wife killed by a car crash!).

And that's it for the Caribbean! Unless anyone can recommend a good book about Bonaire, Sint Eustatius or Saba. Now we're on to the rich developed world: North America... and, not long afterwards, Europe!

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Representative quote: Before her mind could catch up, Tim leaned in and brushed his lips against hers. Every synapse in her body cried out for him. He kissed her repeatedly, and her pussy flooded. She felt her blouse opening and falling away. She felt her bra hooks opening, saw Jonathan toss her bra across the room out of the corner of her eye. Tim cupped her breasts, and she cried out. From behind hr, she felt Jonathan's hands pulling down her Capris and panties. She felt a draft of air across her bare buttocks. Instinctively, she raised her ass in the air. In her fog, she felt the tip of Jonathan's tongue invading her pussy, licking her vibrating clit with just the right pressure to make her lose it. Above her, she realized that Tim was stroking her head, her shoulders, her back, parting her ass cheeks to improve her husband's view. Tim's hands massaged her breasts, gently tweaking her sensitive nipples. The double onslaught was too much for her to handle. The orgasm snuck up on her, surprising her, shocking her raw. She collapsed face down onto the pillows, her breathing ragged into the soft cloth.

Next book: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, from the USA.