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 is one of the few writers who’s never let me down. In part, I think that’s because I share two of the main interests that run throughout her books and short stories: a certain dubiousness about gender relations, and a fascination with the unreliability of memory, particularly on a generational scale. Both these themes run strongly throughout her books, which sometimes address massive societal changes (The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx And Crake, The Year Of The Flood), but more often address massive personal changes (Cat’s Eye, Surfacing, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and of course The Blind Assassin). In the former case, she tends to address how easily people in a newly minted world forget what the old one used to be like; in the latter case, she often starts in the present day and has her narrator looking back on the past, and musing over all the events and emotions that shaped her life. Sometimes they’re things she’s forgotten; sometimes they’re things everyone else has forgotten, such that they’ve ended up with a completely different idea about the past.
The Blind Assassin is typical Atwood in this regard: The protagonist, Iris Chase, remembers things about her family that no one else alive knows, and in many cases, things that were furtively hidden even in her youth. Through newspaper clippings from the past and the actions of people in the present, Atwood reveals how little of Iris’ truth anyone else ever knew, and how badly they’ve all gotten it wrong in the present day. It’s always seemed to me that Atwood is fascinated with how easy it is to change the world by lying to it, which redefines it subtly: Tell the world that your sister didn’t run away, she was just on vacation and there was a misunderstanding, and suddenly more people are familiar with the lie than with the truth. At which point, the lie suddenly seems to become the truth. Whether it’s a crime being covered up in Alias Grace or a woman trying to forget what her relationships were like when she was young in Cat’s Eye, Atwood has probed this idea over and over, and it never gets old for me. History, she implies, will teach us nothing, because it always comes through people with agendas.
The gender-relationships idea is a whole separate thing we can get to shortly, but first, I’m curious about the themes the the rest of you see at play in The Blind Assassin. If you’re familiar with Atwood’s work, how do you see this book fitting into what she does? And if you haven’t read many or any of her books before, what did you see as the novel’s central ideas?
Donna Bowman: That's a fascinating summation of what Atwood is up to, Tasha. I've only read The Handmaid's Tale, so I'm entering this book as more of a blank slate. What struck me and kept me turning pages was this notion of the death of the author. It's presented literally, at least at first; Laura Chase is no longer around, she left this book that achieved notoriety, and then people made of it (and her) whatever they wanted to. They were freed by her death to understand her however they liked. I was haunted by the Morrison-esque cult of Laura Chase revealed by the flowers on her grave, the quotes (and misquotes) on the bathroom stall, the official line as represented in the newspaper reports ("noted authoress") and the school prize ceremony. How unquietly a complicated life fits into that reader-generated or culture-generated box, and what a strange thrill to hear Iris dig beneath it and finally dismantle it altogether, revealing that the author is still around and able to talk back, but can only do so in words designed to be read when she's gone.
Ellen Wernecke: Having read most of what Atwood has written, Tasha, I think I prefer what in your categorization you call the books of personal change. A related theme to her examination of unreliability is the way many of her characters, in examining or rewriting their pasts, are doing so specifically in the terms of their relationships with other women. Iris' main text may be the legacy of her sister's death and local legend, but in doing so she confronts similarly complex relationships with the woman who raised her, Reenie, and her controlling sister-in-law Winifred. (To a lesser extent, in retelling the history of her her grandmother Adelia Iris acknowledges that she seems doomed to repeat her life.) Atwood's particular investment in the agendas women have on each other leads her to trace some odd dynamics, like the creepy threesome of Richard, Winifred and Iris here, or the three friends united in The Robber Bride by their hatred of a fourth who has stolen each of their boyfriends. But Iris' obsession with her sister's postmortem glorification blots out not only her husband, but also the man they have in common—between them, they don't even say his name. Iris struggles against that closeness but their histories are too close together, as she describes the two girls "on our thorn-encircled island, waiting for rescue; and, on the mainland, everyone else."
Zack Handlen: I've been meaning to read The Blind Assassin for years now; I even owned a copy for a long time, before giving up and trading it for something else that I never got around to reading. In regards to Atwood, I read The Handmaid's Tale in high school, and that's it. I always meant to read more by her, because I liked Handmaid's, so I'm glad this book club entry gave me an excuse.
Thematically, what most interested me here was the way Iris's work reconfigured her past, and how, by ascribing authorship of the book-within-the-book to her sister, she attempted to rewrite history in a way that both minimized her place in it, and created an iconic position for her sister's ghost. This sort of thing always appeals to me, because I dearly love books which take into account that they are books; and I loved the subtlety here, how Iris's social paranoia is both completely justified, and occasionally suspect, but we're never allowed an outsider's perspective to provide context. (I'm thinking here of her constant assumptions about what people say about her behind her back. I tend to distrust that sort of assumption, as it nearly always says more about the imagined victim than her supposed tormenters. It's entirely possible that people were saying awful things about Iris, but it definitely seemed like her isolation, and the loss of her sister, brought her to assume the worst in strangers. Maybe there's an element of lingering guilt in this, too.) The Blind Assassin is the sort of book whose central figure only gradually emerges, initially appearing as a semi-objective narrator, but slowly revealing herself as much more complicated and moving than a simple observer. Atwood does a terrific job of revealing Iris's limitations without ever stepping in to point them out, and the contrast between the vibrant imagination of the "fictional" part of the book, and Iris's elegant but curdled observations in the present, is very moving. I'll admit, some of the middle section of this felt a little long to me; but I couldn't tell you what I'd cut out.
Rowan Kaiser: Like Zack, The Handmaid's Tale was the only Atwood I'd read previously, when I was in high school. Although unlike Zack, I didn't have fond memories of it, as I was pretty well incapable of dealing with literary fiction as anything other than homework at that age.
For me, the dominant theme of the book was one of creation and the process of writing. The book-within-a-book that gives The Blind Assassin its title dominates the proceedings early on, with the other Iris spending her time grumbling about the cult of Laura that's taken over the title, and the younger Iris brainstorming with Alex. For all that, though, we never see the finished product of The Blind Assassin. We hear other people's reactions to it, we see the stories being told, but never the text itself that seems so important. (Which in and of itself seems unlikely—pulp science fiction really didn't get a literary cachet until P.K. Dick some decades later.)
This is all wrapped up in another book, apparently Iris' autobiography or tell-all memoir, but it's also complete with stories of Iris in the present day. Are those supposed to be part of the memoir? It's impossible to say. We get a feeling for who Iris is now and what she is trying to accomplish as she writes her book, but again, it's much more about the process of writing than the text itself.
TR: Addressing your point about how Atwood often frames her stories in terms of women's relationships with each other, Ellen… Atwood has often been typed as a feminist writer, and I've long wondered whether that's in large part because her books focus so much on strong female protagonists and are often more about their relationships with other women than their relationships with men — and even when they are about relationships with men, romance is rarely involved. Love, sometimes, and disappointment and betrayal and frustration and the search for identity, but not romance. Finding a man is never a solution in an Atwood book, it's usually just one problematic step in a series of problems.
But that said, she doesn't really focus on women's relationships in a traditional way either. Her women also use and betray each other, often not in a huge melodramatic way as through misunderstanding, omission, selfishness, insecurity, and simple personal failing, the way Iris betrays Laura over and over in The Blind Assassin. Basically, relationships aren't simple in Atwood books. Nothing wrong with that.
But as I said earlier, I still see one of her major ongoing themes as a dubiousness about gender relationships. And maybe that's why she gets labeled as a feminist writer—because she so often focuses on inequality (both historical and in a theoretical future) between the genders, and the lack of communication and understanding there. And this generally without being shrill or strident about it. Richard and Iris' relationship in Blind Assassin is terrifying, with him predatory, lustful, exploitative, and calmly willing to place his comfort above her needs and desires, for instance when he decides to wait weeks to tell her that her father has died, and regularly shuts down all communication between Iris and Laura. But Iris is complicit in it as well, with her silence, and her willingness to go along with her father's plans for her, and her failure to confront Richard (or Winifred, for that matter) the first time she realizes what he's up to. The course of true love never did run smooth, Shakespeare tells us. In Atwood books, the course of any kind of relationship—with men or with women—tends to be a problem.