When I do poetry readings (which I have now done several times), my poem that gets the biggest laughs is ‘Sex Tips For Literary Bad Boys’. It is a tongue in cheek piece about the ways in which hetero literary men often fail to engage with female writers, except in the most cynical of box-ticking sleazy ways. There are a couple of lines about the predictability of men citing Virginia Woolf as their favourite female writer (I am self-conscious enough to know using the phrase “authoress” removes the realism and self-effacing nature of the piece), which is then followed by “And Atwood’s almost as / Obvious / As Woolf”. The Atwood I’m referring to is, of course, Margaret Atwood, whose work I have written about on this blog before, focusing on disturbing The Handmaid’s Tale and the disturbingly underwhelming Angel Catbird. This time, returning again to that so-obvious male favourite literary femme, I’m looking at The Blind Assassin, Atwood’s very long winner of the 2000 Booker Prize. Of course, I loved it, though its bizarre and overcomplex structure made me quite frustrated until well over halfway through.
Overcomplex is a word I have selected there on purpose. I have not chosen complex, but nor have I chosen challenging or difficult. The Blind Assassin, in basically classic Booker winner fashion, is more complex than it needs to be, but falsely so: the structure here doesn’t cause any confusion or any ambiguity in terms of plot, but until it is neatly tied together a little over halfway (though only implicitly, the “truth” of the narrative is held back definitively until after the 600 page mark), the leaps between the parallel narratives are quite irritating because – until the connections are made clear – one narrative is far more compelling than the other.
The “present” of the novel is the late 1990s, where Iris Chase Griffen is living out her last days in the small (fictional) town of Port Ticonderoga. She reminisces about her childhood, then her quickly problematic marriage and the psychological collapse of Laura Chase, Iris’ younger sister, who we learn (right at the start of the novel) killed herself by driving a car off a bridge in the late 1940s. These parts of the novel bounce between evocative memories – not always chronological – and moving, forwards-driven passages about the destructive effects of ageing and attempts to maintain a dignified existence despite declining health. Iris is writing notes, either to herself, her friends or her estranged granddaughter, and it is these “found texts” that form the first person sections of the novel.
The majority of the novel is written in Iris’ voice, but these sections are interspersed with collagelike parts that contain imagined news and magazine articles detailing major events in the novel as they would have been reported in the press, as well as extracts (possibly complete, in total) from a novel within the novel, also called The Blind Assassin. This novel was posthumously published by Laura Chase, and tells the narrative of an affluent young woman having a clandestine affair with a pulp sci-fi writer slash communist agitator. Neither the man nor the woman in this fictional novel is named, but the narrative of these segments carries forward their regular meetings and trysts – though does not admit where and when the relationship began – as well as a private sci-fi narrative they chat through post-coitally. In these segments, both halves of the narrative are exciting and complex: the fictional story within the fictional novel within the real novel (a work of fiction) is engaging, as too are the asides and rewrites and edits that are made as the lovers forget, remember, disagree or alter the story from 1930s booty call to 1930s booty call. The personal narrative the fictional novelist writes in imaginary The Blind Assassin is deeply moving, too, especially as the affair nears its inevitable tragic conclusion.
In writing in the style of a fictional late modernist, Atwood evokes desire and affection and fear and regret and love. For the first half of the novel, this is where there is life in the text: in the more numerous sections in Iris’ voice we see only the pain of old age and the painful ignorance of childhood. Only in these extracts from The Blind Assassin – as well as the out-of-order press clippings (almost like Albert Angelo, allowing a reader to see “what” is coming but without the context to understand the significance or reason why) – is there pleasure and unpressed living. Old age makes life increasingly difficult, and the naivety of childhood leads to unpleasant faux pas. Iris and Laura do not have a happy childhood: their mother dies (after having a miscarriage) when they are young and their father – once a successful button manufacturer – slowly drinks himself into the grave as he fails to deal with the financial and political repercussions of the Great Depression. Iris is married off to a business rival, but this is not enough to save things. As the memories arrive at adulthood and Iris’ terrible marriage is explored in more and more detail and the reader gets to understand better the “real life” inspiration for the fictional version of The Blind Assassin, the novel lifts and I found myself almost constantly on the edge of tears.
The Blind Assassin is about class and politics, about desire and regret and disappointment and repression, but it’s also about storytelling (as, people often allege, all stories are). In choosing to chop up the narrative into so many numerous threads, as well as world-building asides, Atwood creates a novel that seems more complex than it is. It is a richly evoked historical world, and a set of people and their lives described vividly, however – perhaps like Cloud Atlas – it is “complicated postmodernism” for people who don’t really read much that is complicated. It is a book that has clearly had a lot of time spent on its form, on its structure, and though it works very well, this level of complexity may not have necessarily been worth the effort, because what works beautifully here is Atwood’s depiction of the high points and low points of a very believable life. It is Iris’ disappointments and her pleasures that sing here, it is the descriptions of loss and lust that are most successful, and I couldn’t help but feel, reading this massive book, that the beauty and the skill and the art of it could have been conveyed with much less work and much fewer pages.
I dunno though, I just don’t really like long books and this is undeniably an impressive novel that’s well worth a read.
It’s great, of course it is. But it’s long.
Some non-fiction next.