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The Blind Assassin

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Blind AssassinFirst edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literature form

Literary, historical fiction

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 206,000 words

Lost between the levels

Let's see. Margaret Atwood writes her Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Assassin about an elderly woman writing her memoirs about her and her sister's lives, the younger sibling having written an infamous novel called The Blind Assassin, which recounts her trysts with a political fugitive who is writing a trashy science fiction novel about a blind assassin.

Thus are combined two streams of modern literature I dread: the book about someone writing a book and the story within a story within a story.

While these tricks have their effective literary use, I fear they are too often used to impart a false sense of depth to a story that is really quite simple. As in this case. For when you strip out the unnecessary layering in The Blind Assassin (Atwood's story of that title, not the sister's, not the fugitive's) you are left with a melodramatic mystery centering on a prominent smalltown family.

This central plot is well constructed, delivering several major revelations late in the novel. The revelations are presumably meant to be shocking, though it's likely most readers see them coming—if they're not distracted by the Russian-doll presentation of the narrative. But even the predictability of the final twists can be satisfying, as I think Atwood recognizes, having her narrator preface one big reveal with something like "as you've probably already guessed...."

Despite difficulty in keeping the stories-within-stories straight, the reader can however by the end admire Atwood's skill in bringing all levels neatly together, providing an emotional release, which by then is sorely needed.

Hidden menace

Partway into The Blind Assassin, though, you may start to wonder whether anyone is brave enough to edit Margaret Atwood.

For, even apart from the narrative complexity, this is an overwritten novel. Too many details about the old woman's life, town, stores, food, trees, whatever—they seem to be there not to move the story ahead or to deepen the characterizations, but because the details occurred to the writer, got put on paper and were never trimmed. Too many metaphors and similes that don't clarify but obscure. Too many pauses over expressions to examine them for hidden menace, as in these passages:

Built like a brick shithouse. That used to be said about women. It was meant as a compliment, in the days when not everyone had a brick shit-house: only wooden ones, flimsy and smelly and easy to push over....

To the task at hand. At hand is appropriate: sometimes it seems to me that it's only my hand writing, not the rest of me; that my hand has taken on a life of its own, and will keep on going, even if severed from the rest of me, like some embalmed Egyptian fetish or the dried rabbit claws men used to suspend from their car mirrors for luck....

That's my trousseau, I thought. All at once it was a threatening word—so foreign, so final. It sounded like trussed—what was done to raw turkeys with skewers and pieces of string....

Each observation could be improved by cutting one or more clauses, trusting to the connotations of word choice without underlining them and effectively putting "ah ha" in brackets after them. With the "trousseau" example, even the author may have thought she was going too far with the meta-writing, as she quickly followed it up with further qualifications:

Trousseau came from the French word for trunk. Trousseau. That's all it meant: things you put into a trunk. So there was no use getting upset about it, because it just meant baggage. It meant all the things I was taking with me, packed away.

(A tip for writers, by the way: whenever you feel the need for a colon, consider just ending the sentence or paragraph there.)

Among all these digressions, Atwood does also have some truly effective and humorous turns of phrase. But the overall wordiness of the novel dilutes their effect and adds to the already lengthy elaboration of the various plots. The Blind Assassin is dull reading for stretches, especially when the significance of any side excursion you're enmeshed in is unknown.

Much revered

Now, I realize nested narratives, twisted timelines and poetic side trips are appreciated by some readers who find the experience rewarding—but others find it hard work piecing it together without a justifying pay-off. And this divide seems to typify much of the reaction to The Blind Assassin.

But there is a equivalent split on the more traditional attractions of the novel. Some readers seem to think the characters memorably drawn while others criticize them as caricatures. The latter critique certainly is appropriate for the villainous supporting figures. The patronizing, chauvinist big businessman who marries one sister operates always at full bluster. The domineering, passive-aggressive sister-in-law is always in full domination mode. But this may be forgivable, as they exist mainly as foils.

However, the more central characters of Iris and flighty younger sister Laura are also problematic. Despite all the words devoted to the ups and downs—mainly downs—of their lives, they too never become flesh and blood, but remain ideas of flesh-and-blood characters. The put-upon. The misunderstood. And finally, for one of them at least, the triumphant survivor—though where Iris gets the backbone to make her final stand after a lifetime of bending is a a mystery itself.

At times The Blind Assassin feels like several promising but separate stories that the author couldn't quite make stand on their own and so welded together into one ramshackle big book. The weakest may be her third- or fourth-level exposition of the science fiction novel, written it seems when Atwood had an incomplete concept of that genre and sure to infuriate sci-fi fans.

All in all, it's a potpourri, showing off several of Atwood's admirable attributes as a writer, as well as a host of her more annoying writing quirks.

An admittedly (and inexplicably, to me) much-revered and prize-winning potpourri.

— Eric


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