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.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

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.

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