The Blind Assassin (2000)

NOTE: Several members will be out of town on our regular meeting date that would have been this week. Therefore, we have changed date (for this month only) to one week later, the second Wednesday of the month. On Wednesday, October 14, 2009 we will discuss the following book recommended by Peter Farnum:

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin, originally published in hardcover in USA by Nan A. Talese, 2000. This book was the winner of the Booker Prize.


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
Aside | This entry was posted in 2009 Selections, The Blind Assassin and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Blind Assassin (2000)

  1. David Gilmour says:

    Now in my early dotage, after too many tabs of purple haze, I couldn’t possibly have gone leafing again through those 500 hundred pages of Margaret Atwood’s exceedingly clever verbal maze of Blind Assassin. The structure of it is so haphazzardly tesselated (almost a Braque cubistic design I’d suggest) with points of view I knew, one or two I didn’t know for half the book, local Toronto fictional newsbites, and all the whiplash confusion of flashing forward and flashing back. After a while, I despaired of finding any interest in the peculiar diversions of sci-fi tales, mostly trumped-up poppycock drawn from Babylonian and Mayan mythology and priestly culture. I suspected some analogies at work in these vignettes, but my expectations were so stoked to read Atwood’s attempt at seamy triple-X sex between needy, prissy Iris and dark, hungry Alex that the mythological fanatasies went dry in my neuronal dendrites. No, for me, the structure was negligible.

    My interests were more inclined to the reasons why a writer of Atwood’s prowess would want to complicate her story in such a jig-saw puzzle manner and then daunt the general reader’s curiosity by dragging down the tone of her writer’s narrative into an interminable gripe about how bloody awful things were for her and her sister in the mid-20th century. Of course, one reason was to keep the old-fashioned modernist reader fit-to-be tied figuring out the circuitous structural plot. I did suspect this was her stab at postmodernist style (whatever that might have been in Atwood’s conjecture), or rather her modernist-cum-mid-postmodernist techniques (the structure-be-damned school). But no way could I really assume her intentions other than some strongly felt motifs: the crying need for women to grow balls and choose to act; the pusillanimity of rich, capitalist monsters whose balanced, black-bottom lines trumped sane, moral choices; the blinding vanity of fashion and make-up in order to sustain the blindness to meaningful lived values. As Neil Bergeson showed from an early Atwood explication of victimization and the vices of submissive victimhood, I sensed (what is there but feeling in this) an desire for atonement through cheirographology–healing one’s soul by creatively spilling the beans. In this last regard, Iris, Atwood’s persona, uses a similar psychological trickery as that of Ian McEwan’s author protagonist. Graphotherapy fits there, too, for the writer struggles to cleanse her soul of guilt by recreating a fictional ars longa existence for her older sibling whose life she ruined by false accusations . With Iris, it’s an atonement for playing pity-me victim, by rising to creative victimhood; namely wising-up through artistic creative action. To recount miseries at length still amounts to a lot of misery and this durge-like procession of woes is not going to raise Iris to potent tragic personhood, but rather maintains an agonizing, pathetic tragi-comic persona. The book presented a kind of horror story or a ghost story, with several ghosts taking major roles.

    “Blind Assassin” is a mighty unusual fictional style and genre. This sort of chronological, psychological mix-up Wm. Faulker tried out in “Light in August.” In recent times, I’d compare the effort at complexifying with Salman Rushdie’s “Enchantress of Florence.” Rushdie also takes his style and narrative, through a magician storyteller of enigmatic origins, to as high a stage of modernistic difficulty, that one wonders whether his hybrid historical-fiction is not his own brave attempt at bridgeing the modernist-cum-mid-postmodernist gap. Both writers vie for supremacy in the level-four difficulty, ambiguous and enigmatic top-hat prose to test their neo-phite deciples.

    Sorry as I am to have missed the face-to-face discussions on November 14, 2009, I cherish the conversations and e-mail correspondence I had time to engage in with Peter, Neil, Ron Boothe and Mohsen. Our exchanges, always on a slightly different bias, made Atwood’s arduously-long story live a bit longer in my experience. Now it will likely fade in my memory by going stale and mouldy like a greasy French cruller caught in the branches of some dead-end cerebral dendrite in my Broca’s brain area. One half of some toilet-wall graffiti is almost legible when I close my eyes tight. Nevertheless, I’ll carry hope for spunky Sabrina’s activist role in a 21st century feminist revival. — D.G.

  2. David Gilmour says:

    My thoughts about “Blind Assassin” as I think back on it, rather than browse through pages to remember this or that–and there are some remarkable thises and thats to ponder in Iris’ sorrowful story–memory of the character Reenie is what revolves enjoyably. The Canadian traits Atwood details about places and some characters reminded me very much of mid-century British manners and customs. Growing up in English Midlands in 1940s and 50s, I didn’t know anyone as well-off as the Chases or Griffens, but I did grow up knowing the hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types that Chase’s house-maid Reenie represents. In many respects she can be classed as a heroic figure. She was loyal to the girls, Iris and Laura, to whom she felt god-motherly, in many ways their ballast of sanity and good sense in a house of estranged businessmen. The father Norval was a good sort, doing his best to keep workers in his button factory during the Great Depression, but he was distant from his children, drinking himself to death out of life’s misery, and essentially sold his daughter Iris for the funds to keep his factory running. A tragic judgment if one fudges the problem of child exploitation; a pathetic one taking the exploitation of one’s child into account.

    Reenie felt sad at having to leave the household and her wards, but she had found a husband and had the chance to bear her own child, Myra, whom she brought up to be a decent soul. With the fate of Aimee, Iris’s daughter by the swarthy lover Alex, to be brought up by the vampirish Winifred, it was a pleasant relief in this sad tale of money-grubbing Griffens and regretful passive women to find a young woman living an ordinary life. Myra and her husband Walter were the supports of Iris in her old age. Through their friendly natures our miserable protagonist (a poor vindictive festering old woman, she calls herself) had connection with normal compassion and caring, ever present help in times of need. Reenie lost her husband in WWII and brought up Myra to be a good soul like herself.

    Iris’s passivity in the face of crisis, besides her camouflaginging her feelings to save appearances, made her a frustrating character for me. Reenie goes to the rescue of Laura, incarcerated in the asylum. Reenie acted, took matters into her hands, dealth with brittle reality, and used the proverbial wisdom of folk sayings as her advice to one and all. Amidst the stories of two families’ declines, Reenie stands as the kind of person who puts up with life’s trials and trudges onward, making the best of things. This type of long-suffering, hard-working woman was the sort I was acquainted with in the working-class town I grew up in. Lucky kid, I had two “god-parenting” women when I was growing up, older women from our town’s farm-village past. One was my grandma, Grace Holman, who used to take me to the old village cemetary to help her clean the headstones, just as Reenie had taken Iris and Laura when they were little; the other Auntie Annie Palliasser who often had a friend in her kitchen talking over the villagers’ doings just as Reenie had her Mrs Hillcoate to chat with. Annie and Grace were my refuge, my Reenies, in times of trouble at home, but mostly the kind-hearted souls who never allowed an umbrella put up indoors, who threw spilled salt over their shoulders, who stitched in time to save nine, and who never wasted and, therefore, wanted not.

    There is something still very British (others might say European) about Canadian literature. Atwood’s British spellings (neighbour, colour, etc.) and her description of the tackiness–the smallness–of modern life, which the public try to make up for with oversized jam tarts and massive doughy muffins. “Everything in restaurants is becoming too big, too heavy–the material world manifesting itself as huge damp lumps of dough.” It’s too bad Iris could not bring herself to write her own graffitti in the bakery’s lavatory she liked to visit to peruse young women’s salient and salacious wisdom. “What we all want: to leave a message behind us that has an effect, if only a dire one; a message that cannot be cancelled out.” What she wanted to put on the wall: “The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ,/ Moves on; nor all your Piety and Wit/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line/ Nor all your Tears blot out a Word of it.”

    Assassin is a bloody sad book. I hope the Sabrinas of the future can read.

    David G.

  3. David Gilmour says:

    Dear Atwood neophytes:
    Somewhere up in the scrolly stuff for the retriemensbookclub responses I added a poem by Denise Levertov. I meant to add the collection I got that poem from, because the break after the second stanza left out a dozen other stanzas. It was from No More Masks: An Anthology of Poems by Women, edited by Florence Howe and Ellen Bass. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1973. Levertov’s poem is from 1968, on pages 154-55. It was interesting to see poetry included in Atwood’s kitchen-sink mystery.

    No More Masks: Iris was very concerned about masking, covering up, and even left her story so mixed up we had to go looking into her mask devices to discover the witch hiding away in the person of the writer (not Atwood). What a serious critic she was of maquillage. The stories within the story were so much theatrical maquillage. Do people really take time with those diversions in the maze pattern?

    If only Iris’d realized most sensible people did not worry who killed Richard. Anyone would have been OK to have him pole-axed. In fact, if Ron Boothe had gone further in his sleuthing excursion, he might have suspected at least four culpable characters. The book’s full of pattern and style making up for a weak, miserable main character. A character can’t bellyache for 500 pages and keep herself interesting. Atwood played sadistically with her worshipers. What is life’s message from this work, what purpose? Mostly I think it was to see how many readers Iris as Atwood could string along, i.e. utterly seduce. Myself, I was hoping Iris would go to the toilet more often for those graffiti words of wisdom. The story, for my tastes, needed to move in a less constipated, anal-retentive flow. — Aristopagoras the Illogician

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