The Blind Assassin: Blunt style, artful image
Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.
Tasha Robinson: Margaret Atwood's writing style has never been my favorite thing about her work, but I'm often caught by how blunt it is—how given she is to short, sharp sentences and simple vocabulary. It makes for an odd contrast with her twisting, multilayered plots, her complicated chronologies (Blind Assassin is far from her only novel to jump back and forth in time), and her elegant use of metaphor. This latter impresses me most with her writing. While she certainly knows how to make an impact with a painful plot twist, she often does the same thing on a micro level at the end of a paragraph or section or chapter with a striking image like this one, an observation of Iris' after Laura steals her car:
A June bug was blundering against the window, drawn by the light. It bumped over the glass like a blind thumb. It sounded angry, and thwarted, and also helpless.
Time and again, Atwood ends a section of the book with an image like this. They're never elaborate, constructed metaphors: They're always quick hits, usually not more than a sentence to set up a real-world object or event, and then a second sentence to draw the parallel. Here's one about the bruises Richard leaves on Iris' body:
Sometimes—increasingly as time went by — there were bruises, purple, then blue, then yellow… I sometimes felt as if these marks on my body were a kind of code, which blossomed, then faded, like invisible ink held to a candle. But if they were a code, who held the key to it?
Images like this one seem particularly appropriate in establishing Iris' voice—the voice of someone with limited formal schooling, but deep emotions, someone who would naturally write in a straightforward, clipped way, but be given to flights of emotional fancy. (And who would, being something of a self-absorbed, withdrawn egotist, see herself and her situation in everything around her.) Did any of these images particularly stick for you, past the moment of reading them? What do you think about Atwood's writing style, and how do you think it works or doesn't within the confines of this particular story?
Donna Bowman: Atwood's style works perfectly for me here—not because it's perfect, in the sense I would usually use the word, but because it's such a keen way to deliver a sense of Iris' character. Once we know that all the words in the book have come from her, that it's been her point of view all along (rather than shifting away to Laura in The Blind Assassin sections), those little images and the mingled spite and shame with which she deploys them take on a whole new meaning. I found them disconcertingly "authorly" in the early going, especially for a woman who claims she is just trying to set down her memories; wouldn't a sparer, less ornamented style be called for, I thought? But gradually I came to see them as Iris simultaneously trying to prove herself (as a vibrant observer inside a worn-out and discounted frame, as an author in her own right with artistic skill) and to raise the questions that lie beneath her life unanswered -- and unseen, until she unearths them for the reader. Your second example, Tasha, stands in for many such moments for me, where Iris doesn't have the answers and sometimes doesn't even have a theory. She knows people read The Blind Assassin and thought they understood Laura Chase; she knows that when they read her book, they are unlikely to be able to grasp her, given that she can't grasp herself.
Rowan Kaiser: I'm a big fan of short, sharp sentences and simple vocabulary, although the commenters who made fun of me for using "diegetic" in a comment may disagree with that. I didn't really notice the writing, which is a compliment in this case. In retrospect, from a pragmatic standpoint, the writing was my favorite thing about the book. Too much fantasy and science fiction as a child has left me with some difficulties in coping with smaller-scale plots, and since The Blind Assassin lacked much of any kind of plot at all up until the marriage, the skill with which it was written held my attention.
Of course, my favorite parts were the "Blind Assassin" chapters, but even those had a literary conceit—they weren't pulp, they were how pulp was written. Atwood manages to bring some of this out through her effective control of voice—the elderly Iris sections are direct in the way Tasha mentioned—and she's equally adept at keeping what she wants to be a secret through that style. Likewise, the "Blind Assassin" chapters are much less direct, because they're obviously trying keeping a secret.
One sentence that did grab my attention, from the first page of the "Hand-tinting" chapter: "To pronounce the name of the dead is to make them live again, said the ancient Egyptians: not always what one might wish." It is its own paragraph, set apart from everything else, and both a compelling phrase on its own and a strong statement of The Blind Assassin's themes.
Ellen Wernecke: Here's a passage I remembered from the first time I read The Blind Assassin that jumped out at me again on this reading, from "The steamer trunk" (about the false dilemma of what to do with Laura's literary remains):
"The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it."
Apart from its elegance, this passage encapsulates for me the role that Iris' style is playing in her writing the narrative—the ambivalence that keeps her going. The act of writing it assumes that someone will eventually find it (and the truth)—and I think you're spot on, Donna, that she is trying to prove herself in a way, but the family secrets exposed are still painful. Let's not forget that Iris chose not to publish "The Blind Assassin" because of how it would affect her family, specifically her daughter, and yet lost her anyway. The driving emotion behind her voice is "I don't care who this hurts… or do I?"
Zack Handlen: Huh. I would not call Atwood a "blunt" writer at all. Maybe I was taken in by the elegant metaphors, and looking back now, I can see how it's possible to categorize the style as less elaborate than they might be. But I'm confused at the idea that "blunt" and "elegant use of metaphor" can be used to describe the same text, or to categorize Iris' writing as coming from someone with "limited formal schooling." To me, the words here were precise and unadorned, even while the imagery Atwood used nearly always stopped just short of directness. I think that's what struck me the most about her style here—this is a book that always seems on the verge of great and horrible confessions, but always skating up to that edge without ever going over. I suppose you could accuse me of mistaking style for intent, but I thought the writing flowed well, which isn't something I associate with bluntness. (Which can also be effective, of course. but when I think on those terms, I usually think of writers like Vonnegut, who didn't bury his intentions or shy away from them.)
Maybe it's just that I've been reading too much bad fiction lately, but I found Atwood's style refreshing, and it's one of the things that maintained my interest in the book even during some of the longer middle sections where nothing really seemed to be happening. If I had a criticism (and I realize no one's actually criticizing Atwood's prose here, but it just got me to thinking on those lines), it's that the novel shoves nearly all of its most powerful dramatic moments to the front and back. This makes perfect sense in character, as Iris seems to be so reluctant to directly address the conflict that prompted her narrative that she would hold it back as long as she could, but it hurt the narrative's momentum for me; at times, it just seemed like a lot of lovely metaphors and implications, but not much else.
Todd VanDerWerff: Yeah, I'd never call this book blunt. It spends almost all of its length trying to work up the nerve to expose us to certain emotional truths, and even the individual moments seem slightly too much, a long string of almost-catharses that don't give way to actual catharsis until we're good and ready for it. Don't get me wrong: I think this is a strength of the text. The ways that the characters continue to disappoint each other beyond the grave haunt the novel throughout, and I think Atwood's ability to shy away from coming right out and saying things helps in this regard. I was particularly impressed by how she could insinuate the same three or four traumas without making it boring. (Well, maybe the Sabrina stuff grew a little tedious, but that's for others to talk about.)