The Blind Assassin: the story unfolds
Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. This concludes our discussion of this month’s selection, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. A live online chat will follow today at 3:30 p.m. CST—watch this space for a link. And don't forget that voting for next month's selection ends today at midnight CST.
Tasha Robinson: The Blind Assassin unfolds in a variety of ways: In the present, in the past, through a novel, through a metaphorical story being told by characters within the novel, through news clippings which serve as more of an ironic commentary on what didn't happen to the characters. Which of these elements worked best for you? Were you ever impatient with one of these methods, or particularly eager to get back to the others? I admit that by the end of the book, I was skimming the news stories in particular; I felt they became less substantiative as the book went on, and I wanted to get back to events, instead of ignorant outsider reporting on events.
And what surprised you most or least about the story as it unfolded? The first time I read this book, I'd guessed by about halfway through that Iris was the author of the book-within-a-book, and was Alex's lover; that one didn't come as a shock at all. What I didn't see coming, though, was the actual content of the notebooks—their heartbreaking paucity and elliptical tone. Atwood provides plenty of subtle (and sometimes unsubtle) clues about Iris' relationship with Alex and Richard's with Laura, but even so, I'd expected the notebooks to provide all the missing details about what was on Laura's mind and in her heart. In a way, they did—and they certainly told Iris what she needed to know—but Atwood's refusal to spell everything out was more shocking to me than any revelation in the storyline itself.
Rowan Kaiser: One of the things that interested me about the story was the way that one half of the story was told backwards-to-forwards, while the other half was told in a conventional chronological narrative, and over the course of the novel, how they flipped. At the start of the book, we're given much of the big story in the news clippings and "Blind Assassin" chapters: Laura dies bizarrely, Richard dies bizarrely, there's an illicit affair, and Iris mentions in passing that Laura isn't quite the author everyone perceives her as. Meanwhile, in Iris' memoir narrative, she describes (from a plot perspective) a fairly dull growing up story.
Halfway through The Blind Assassin, that all changes, thanks to Iris' marriage to Richard. Suddenly the memoir aspect of the book contains the bulk of the plot. The "Blind Assassin" story in Sakiel-Norn loses its momentum, as Alex starts putting together other stories, while Iris' constant foreshadowings about Richard and Winifred start coming to pass, and more clues take shape as to which of the sisters is having her fling with Alex. The mirrored structures work really well in making a book that, to be honest, doesn't have much of a plot given its length, and giving it a narrative drive.
Zack Handlen: I agree, Atwood's reticence is one of the novel's strengths. On one level, it makes sense in-character that Iris was spend so much time talking around the real meat of her "confession"; this is obviously painful for her, so painful that it's dominated her entire life, and to come out and say, "My husband was raping my sister while we were married, and my ignorance allowed him to shove her into a mental institution; also, I inspired her suicide" is something that takes a lot of effort to build to. Which is why we get all the conversation about her life in the present day, and her family history—interesting, and not a bad story, but not entirely relevant, not even in a "how did we get to be here?" sense.
At the same time, from Atwood's perspective, the actual meat of the mystery here is upsetting, but nowhere near as shocking as all that build up seems to suggest. So it makes sense that she just keeps jabbing it at you in moments, and not in any big revelations. I'd realized that Richard assaulted Laura long before Iris found her sister's journals, but I still didn't immediately understand the connotations of the notes in that final book; I had to read it a couple times before it really hit home, and when it did, it was much more powerful than a simple description of events would've been.
Still, my biggest problem with the book is that I never really felt like it earned its length. I'm with you, Tasha, I lost interest in the newspaper articles after a while, because they weren't really necessary. And the middle was something of a slog at times; a beautifully written slog, but the endless details of Iris's miseries as a senior citizen dragged me down after a while. Did anybody else feel like this? Or has my attention span just been destroyed by all the television I watch?
Donna Bowman: See, I loved the newspaper articles. Perhaps I was just experiencing a carry-over of affection from Watson's Apology, where they used so exquisitely. But I felt the same thing here, the provision of another perspective -- and an "official" one at that. Such perspectives can speak volumes both in what they say and what they don't say. From the society pages Atwood provides, you can glimpse the layers of approval, gossip, and suspicion directed at Iris and Laura by the keepers of public opinion. For a book with characters so obsessed with how others see them, they add additional layers of fascination.
No, I could have taken much more of The Blind Assassin—especially of the book within the book. When the actual published version shows up, with its science-fiction trappings and abandonment of romance in favor of sex, I experienced a palpable letdown. If only the story that Iris was told on those illicit visits could have gone on, Arabian-nights fashion. But of course, the fact that the fantasy has to end is part of the point.
TR: I felt the first few newspaper articles really worked—you could tell where the official story veered from the one we were already familiar with, and the discrepancies invite readers to wonder what else is being glossed over. And the huffy, fussy "Public officials should take and somebody should do something!" tone was particularly funny. But the later articles, the gossipy fluff about what everyone was wearing on the cruise ship or at the costume ball, struck me as inessential, as though Atwood felt the need to continue with the newspaper asides because she'd done a few early on, but she didn't have anything new to say with the subsequent ones.
Certainly there's something being communicated there, about how high society then (and celebrities now) were fawned over and battened on by a not-critical-enough press. But I feel like the point could have been made with half as many of those articles. Still, I can't agree with Zack about the book being a slog; I loved it. Those articles were only irritating to me as page-long distractions from a complicated story I wanted to get back to right away.
Todd VanDerWerff: The Blind Assassin, of course, is an "old man/woman novel," or a narrative where everything is filtered through the perception of an old person nearing death. (My favorite recent example of the genre, Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, is one I hope we'll get to here at WUIB, eventually.) And while I really enjoyed both the novel within the novel (particularly the endless imagination Atwood showed in remixing various pulp elements) and the flashback story, I have to agree with Zack that the "old woman confronting her mortality" stuff was kind of hackneyed. I get that everybody goes through something like this at the end of their life, but there was so little momentum to it, compared to everything else, that it quickly sapped my energy. In comparison, I really didn't mind the newspaper stories, which I enjoyed for so thoroughly missing the point.