Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwoood

This novel won the Booker Prize in 2000, and Margaret Atwood is one of the grande dames of contemporary literature. . .which is the long way of saying that this was one hell of a tedious book and I wouldn't recommend it to anybody I can think of.

How's that for succinct?

The conceit of the book is that the narrator--an 83 year old woman named Iris Chase Griffen--is writing out the story of her life. Interspersed with this narrative are chapters from a (fictional) novel called The Blind Assassin, published in 1947-ish, written by Iris' sister, Laura Chase before she died in an automobile accident. Also interleaved in these two narratives are newspaper clippings of major life events of the main characters.

What little actual suspense this book holds is what connection the fictional novel of Blind Assassin has with the "real" people of the novel. I figured out the Big Secret about a quarter of the way in, which is not much of a secret to anyone who has read much of anything written in the last ten years.

So, here comes the plot spoiling. The Chases are the wealthy family in town, and the girls are raised in isolation, as "befits their station." When the Depression hits, the family loses all its money, and the town becomes inflamed by "communist agitators," including a man named Alex Thomas, whom the girls meet. Before losing everything, Iris's father marries her off to his business rival, Richard Griffen, and the businesses consolidate. Her father then drinks himself to death, so Laura (then 14) goes to live with Iris and her husband.

Iris has an ongoing affair with Alex Thomas which lasts until he is killed in WWII. Richard has an ongoing affair with Laura, then has her committed into a sanitarium subjected to electroshock therapy when she becomes pregnant. He has the baby aborted as well. Iris in unaware of much of this, because Richard confiscates any mail that comes to her. Laura gets out and goes into hiding until the war is over. She re-contacts Iris, who tells her that Alex Thomas is dead and that she was his lover. Laura takes Iris car and drives herself off a bridge. Iris then writes this novel as her revenge against Richard, claiming that Laura wrote it. Richard kills himself when his treatment of Laura and the sanitarium become public, ruining his political aspirations. Iris then lives another 60 years where almost nothing happens and then she dies.

The only lively writing in this entire pretentious mess is in the fictional novel. The "novel" itself is merely a chronicle of Iris's affair with Alex Thomas--all their assignations and the story he makes up for her. It is a genre tale about a barbaric civilization, complete with blind assassins and female sacrifices who have their tongues cut out. The two lovers have nothing in common, and don't seem to even like each other very much. Alex is bitter about all class distinctions, and Iris can never do anything right. All they have is the sex. They don't even agree about how the story should go.

So this is the plot of Atwood's novel. It is jumbled up, and padded out with all kinds of boring details about Iris' life, both past and present. We are treated to numbing descriptions of how far she walks for her health, and how much she doesn't eat. We get details about what clothing women wore. We get small town newspaper social columns full of the vacations taken by people who are literally nothing more than names. We get Latin exercises. Lots of minutia, no character development. Alex Thomas is completely unattractive--he seems to be the only person either Iris or Laura have ever met, otherwise, there is no reason either of them should be drawn to him. Laura is constantly described as "different," but it's hard to see how.

I passed a lot of the book entertaining myself by noticing how Iris was like the imprisoned and voiceless sacrificial virgin of Alex's story, and by trying to figure out who was like the blind assassin. There is a lot of writing about who can see, who is seen. Iris fears that people stare at her, and she dislikes being in a spotlight; her name is evocative of sight, as it is a part of the eye. Otherwise, the book is remarkably dull.

One blogger I found described the book as being the story of Iris' life with all the interesting bits taken out. After she published the book, and Richard died, she lost her daughter (Alex's as well) to Richard's pushy sister, and her daughter's child as well. So, we are supposed to believe that this woman has lived 60 years since the end of WWII . . .doing what? Regretting her life? Being a victim? Merely waiting to die? But suddenly she decides she needs to write it all out (in a boring and convoluted way) for her granddaughter to find?

There is some clever writing, but not enough to justify such an enormous waste of time. Thank god this was an audiobook, so I listened while doing other, more productive things. My recommendation? Don't bother.


mazeway said...

Phew, thanks. I started this thing about two years ago, tried to read it again twice and gave up. I used to love Atwood back in me ol' college days, but eesh.

Mackenzie said...

I personally loved this book. I don't get the novel-in-novel scheme though, and the significance of the words "blind assassin."

Zen Fire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zen Fire said...

wow, how anyone could so totally miss the important points in the story, including how it relates to the books title is mind boggling. Mackenzie: Iris is the blind assassin. Richard only liked underage girls.Laura was molested by him and she said nothing because she thought she was protecting Iris and her child by being quiet. Then, she finds out that while all that was happening to her, Iris was with Alex, and having Alex's child, while Laura's child was murdered by Richard, and then denied as having existed as well.
Iris is no longer blind about it all, and needs to let the truth out.

Zen Fire said...

Iris's indifference to Laura and what was going on with her, perhaps because of Iris's self-involvement, or her preoccupation with Alex. In any case, it leads to Laura killing herself when she realizes that her self sacrifice and all she lost, was all for nothing.

Zen Fire said...

The story in the story is the only way Alex and Iris communicate, as they cannot share each other's lives, or circles, or even safely talk about them to one another. When Iris write's the book that is published as Laura's she includes Alex's stories, as part of it, because as she comments early on,it was a very small book, and it immortalizes Alex as well as Laura.