The Blind Assassin: Bringing the characters into focus
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: Toward the end of The Blind Assassin, narrator Iris Chase apologizes because, over the course of the story, she's failed to portray her husband Richard Griffen "in any rounded sense. He remains a cardboard cutout. I know that. I can't describe him. I can't get a precise focus." But the same could easily be said of any of the characters in this book. Alex is seen largely through a veil of fictionalization, of what Iris presumably thought he might have been thinking. Any motives he had are largely presented metaphorically, through the science fiction he writes. Laura is deliberately obscured for us throughout the book, both because Iris never really gets a grasp on what's going through her head, and because Atwood slyly lets us believe throughout the book that she's the actual author of the acclaimed romance we get snippets of throughout. She's a very different person as the lovelorn author we think she is than as the blank child she becomes at the end of the story, when the truth finally unfolds. Iris, I would say, similarly doesn't see herself clearly until old age; given that both sisters seem to walk through life in a trance, they aren't particularly good at comprehending themselves or others.
This for me is one of the most fascinating things about The Blind Assassin. Atwood's writing style tends to be blunt (we'll talk about that tomorrow), but full of cleverly twisting metaphors (ditto), and that style perfectly lends itself to a story about a woman who can only see her actions without understanding them—even at the end, we never get her perspective on her affair with Alex. She never says anything about it directly: We're left to guess based on the novel she wrote about him. Winifred and Richard are cardboard villains; many of the rest of the characters are seen largely through the naivete of childhood.
So what's left, in the end? How much of a grasp did you feel you had at the end on who these characters were? How much sympathy did you have or not have for their situations and their actions? And in particular, how did you feel about Laura throughout this book? Did the ending change that?
Donna Bowman: That short passage apologizing to the reader for Richard's two-dimensionality is one of the most striking in the book, so I'm glad you've chosen to focus on it, Tasha. When I first read it, I resented it. In the immediacy of first encounter, it hit me as too convenient a way to have the author get herself off the hook for failing to bring her characters to light. But then I reflected on the theme of authorship in the novel, how the characters regard themselves (doubly-fictionalized) and the stories of which they encourage the telling. Iris is constantly criticizing herself for being a cardboard character to those who have to deal with her; they see an old lady with typical foibles and eccentricities, and she's powerless to correct them. Not to mention that she acts like that old lady quite consistently.
Where I guess I disagree with you is whether Laura remains a blank (after her career as "noted authoress" has been erased). Even though we never see through her eyes -- that view is yanked away from us with the revelation about Iris's involvement with the book -- I think we see enough to know that Iris was unfair to her. That, to me, shows that despite her mystery she has dimension and complexity. The other character I feel we get to know well is Iris's father, whose loyalty to his workers and coded speech at the picnic really endeared him to me (although his tragic arc was all too predictable).
Zack Handlen: Well, it's in the nature of first person narratives for characters to seem filtered or incomplete, but I thought it was possible to at least get a sense of all the important figures here. It's difficult for me to be overly bothered about not knowing Richard, given his actions (I guess I'm something of a literary moralist--but really, unless we assume Laura was lying, "multiple sexual assaults of a 15 year old girl" are rather hard to justify); or maybe it's more that this isn't really his story, and I thought he was clear enough that I honestly didn't really get the need Iris felt to excuse her description of him. I wasn't really that interested in Richard, perhaps because, like you said, Tasha, he was a "cardboard villain." I think I was more interested in Winnifred than Richard, if only because Richard barely existed. Winnifred's fury, her rage at Iris, made me wish I could've seen more their interactions once Iris decided to reveal herself and stop playing the fool.
Which, come to think of it, is... well, it's not a complaint, exactly, but it is a minor frustration. Tasha, you said that Laura was a "blank," but I agree with Donna. In fact, I'd go further; Laura was far easier for me to identify with and understand than Iris, because Laura's opinion of the world was so direct and undiluted. Iris spends so much of the novel hiding behind the illusion of her sister's genius that when she's finally revealed, I was both amazed, and and wondering just how much of the story would look if I'd known the truth all along. So, like I said, not a complaint, but I'd say the character I knew the least by the conclusion was Iris herself. Laura was fascinating, but she was so obviously herself; the lie that she'd written Assassin fit with what we knew of her, in its lyric romanticism and knack for fantasy. When I realized she wasn't responsible for the book, it didn't really change what I thought of her. But it made Iris someone else entirely, and I'd like to've known more about her.
Ellen Wernecke: Zack, I agree with you that I would have liked to know more about Iris, at least in the context of that final revelation -- but you lost me when you said you identified with Laura. True, we're seeing her through the frame of Iris' youth and adulthood, a viewpoint that perhaps overemphasizes her childlike attitudes toward everything. She's impulsive, literal-minded, and even if not a damage to herself (as Richard and Winifred claim) not exactly responsible.
Then again, in her account of her life, she probably wouldn't describe conversations as ending with her own dopey questions. This is the vindictiveness of Iris' having to protect that secret for all those years, watching her sister getting the praise that could have been hers. But despite that lens, I felt fairly well acquainted with most of the characters in this book, except Reenie and Myra -- the two with whom Iris was actually on good terms. Reenie's judgments make it onto the page, but not the reasons she continued to work for the Chase family (an extremely dysfunctional household), and I wondered about whether she sensed the maternal role that Iris clearly wanted to have her play. And while Myra is, in a lot of ways, the last remaining tie to that era -- other than Sabrina whom we never meet -- we don't truly understand her stake in keeping one lonely old woman on her feet. I think it's because Iris herself doesn't understand, and would be willing to attribute any other gaps -- including her seeming insensitivity to Laura's insecurities around her wedding -- to that idea.
Rowan Kaiser: None of you have mentioned Alex yet, who I thought was one of the more interesting characters of the book. He seemed to tether the sisters to the real world, where Reenie protected them from it and Richard tried to make himself the filter they had to use to reach the world. Alex was the one person who actually treated the girls, later women, like people, instead of putting them on a pedestal.
By humanizing the narrator, Alex becomes one of the most human and charming characters in the novel, which is ironic, because like most of the others, he's not really a good person by most standards. He lives off his friends, apparently giving little-to-nothing while expecting much much more. His initial kiss with Iris is closer to sexual assault than anything romantic. He successfully convinces Iris and Laura that he had nothing to do with the arson at the factory, but that whole question is left open outside of the narrator's certainty. And his interaction with Iris seems to be mostly cynicism and insults combined with backhanded compliments and a bit of storytelling.
I liked him. With so much nonsense from Reenie and Richard and Winifred and Iris herself about keeping up appearances, his willingness to cut through the bullshit was a breath of fresh. Only Laura really compared, but she felt so colored by Iris' specific projections that it was more difficult to grasp her as a person. (Hey, if I were writing a memoir focused on my sister, it would probably be similarly biased.)
TR: Alex does treat Iris and Laura as people, true, but it's hard for me to get enough of a grasp on him as a character to theorize how he sees them, and whether he's just another person using them—for protection, for charity, and later, for sex. Of all the book's significant characters, I think he's the hardest to focus on, given that we see him largely through Iris' book-within-a-book interpretation of him, which seems likely to be flawed, especially as in her (probably guilty, maybe resentful) view, he's endlessly sullen and resentful about the hold she has on him, about her superior social status and financial stability. If her portrayal of Alex is meant to be accurate, I certainly don't find him "human and charming," I find him petulant and needy, and a little too focused on dragging Iris down to what he self-hatingly thinks of as his level. He has no desire to put her on a pedestal, I would think, because that might take her out of his reach.
RK: I may be in danger of establishing myself as WUiB's resident cynic (after my interpretation of Watson's Apology as a celebration of marriages that don't end in murder), but I liked Alex's resentment and neediness. These characters, like most people, are manipulative and selfish and disdainful. Alex put that out into the open - at least he wasn't a hypocrite. In a world filled with venality, that's a certain kind of integrity.
Todd VanDerWerff: I want to talk a little bit about the characters who come BEFORE the bulk of the novel's actions. I'm a big fan of sprawling family novels, where we get to know several generations of a large family, and I liked the sense we got here of people that Iris couldn't have known all THAT well but still gave us a good sense of nonetheless. As someone trying to compile some degree of family history at present, I like the way that Atwood presents Iris' understanding of her parents and grandparents as clearly filtered through what other people have told her but also gives a sense that this is a close approximation of what these people were actually like. In particular, I love the drawing of Iris' parents, the two people so damaged by a war that neither could have anticipated being so horrific. I loved the passage where Iris' father fights to have the monument in Port Ticonderoga portraying a weary soldier, rather than a victorious one. Here's a man who could have had anything, but ended up having nothing, and yet he's still fundamentally a "good" man on some level, despite the constant cheating on his wife. He's a fascinatingly complex character, portrayed almost completely from a distance, and having him there in those otherwise slow first 100 pages lets readers know Atwood is firmly in control of this material.