Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Redux #26 - "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood

I'd been thinking about reading something by Margaret Atwood for awhile, probably The Handmaid's Tale, when the Pajiba/Cannonball Read Book Club announced that their next book was The Blind Assassin (2000). I had never heard of it and had no idea what it was about (probably because I was in the very insulated and self-absorbed bubble of college in 2000), but I was happy that I'd have some companions and insight for my first foray into Atwood.

Iris Chase is an old woman, looking back on her life and the death of her sister, Laura, who drove a car off a bridge right after World War II in 1945. The book skips between Iris's memories and "The Blind Assassin," the novel authored by Laura Chase and published after her death. It is assumed that the events in the novel are based on real life, but the reader (of Atwood's book) doesn't know exactly how the story of "The Blind Assassin" and Iris Chase's reality relate. At times the storytelling reminded me of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, primarily because you have a narrator looking back and giving a detailed account of his life and family. I have to admit that although I did like The Blind Assassin, I still prefer Middlesex (it was one of my favorites last year). Atwood sets up the story like a mystery, and most of the time I was reading because I needed to find out what happened to them. But she kept teasing and stalling and I sometimes felt a little manipulated.

However, there was a lot to like about The Blind Assassin. Just the interplay between the many different stories and levels of reality is impressive. Not only did Atwood come up with the storyline of her characters, but then she wrote a novel with those characters as characters, as well as a number of science-fiction stories within that. One memorable scene for me was during "The Blind Assassin" when the characters take turns putting their ending on the science-fiction version of 'The Blind Assassin' (this is already getting complicated). Iris's character tries to turn the story towards a happy ending--something she would like to find someday. But Alex Thomas quickly changes it back to something more "realistic." The theme of storytelling and the power of the storyteller is woven throughout the story. I'd be interested in reading just the inner novel of "The Blind Assassin" to see if it holds up as a story by itself. It's hard to imagine it without knowing the (more) real lives on which it was based.

I also noticed a fair bit of misogyny seeping throughout the novel. Having heard that Atwood is a feminist, I can only assume this was very deliberate. The attitudes of Iris's father, school tutor, and especially husband, created a world where she was thought less of than a child. She wasn't told things (for her protection, of course), she couldn't make any decisions, and she had almost no freedom. It was so suffocating and so depressing that it was hard to even read. And that's not even taking into account what Richard did to Laura! Yet in some ways Laura was strong enough to break away while Iris couldn't until after Laura was gone.

Even Iris and Laura's love, Alex Thomas, was constantly hating on women. He called her a "cunt on stilts" when he saw her walking on heels across the park. He labeled his female characters BB for "big breasts" or "bird-brained" (if I remember correctly). And their relationship was one filled with hurt and jealousies. I often felt like they were fighting for power. Iris had to pull anything nice out of him, and he was often rather mean to her--but perhaps driven by frustration of the whole situation? Iris, for her part, would often stay away from him for weeks at a time. I'm curious whether people think about their relationship. I do think they both really loved each other, although they are certainly not a blueprint for a healthy and happy couple. Was there any meaning to the fact that Alex Thomas edited out the entire story of the couple in his version of the story that got published? That story had so much meaning to Iris that she looked for it everywhere on the magazine stands. Did it mean anything to Alex? Is that why he cut that part of the story? Or was he just again being the more realistic one, realizing that those two people were insignificant in the whole of the story. Alex Thomas also apparently came back from Spain before going off to fight in World War II, but he never got in contact with Iris again. I wish I knew more what he was thinking.

I liked this book and I'm glad I read it. I have to admit, I was a little frustrated at times, wanting Atwood to stop drifting around and to get on with the story. For example, I was dying to know what had happened to Laura at the mental hospital. Iris finally goes to visit Reemie, but she doesn't get any information! Reemie says she doesn't want to mention it in front of her daughter and Iris just leaves! That was very annoying and, I think, unrealistic. I was wondering just one more thing, though. Alex Thomas writes a list of obscure words in a notebook when he's hiding in the attic at Avilion, and those words come up again at the end of the book. So, is there any meaning or significance to this or why did Atwood put it in the story?

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