Much like Cat’s Eye, I’m finding The Blind Assassin difficult to review. It won the Booker Prize, one of only three Canadian books to do so. And this Margaret Atwood person, she’s no slouch either. Apparently she’s some bigshot Canadian author with plenty of novels and short stories out there, somewhere, just winning awards and acclaim left and right. But even if one stripped away all such accolades and attempted to deal with the text itself, The Blind Assassin would still be an imposing story, intimidating because of its intimacy. It’s the perfect kind of ambiguous tragedy that most fictional memoirs try to be, and there are moments that are truly heartbreaking. Yet I still struggle with Atwood’s style, and that made it difficult for me to embrace The Blind Assassin in the way it might, one could argue, deserve.
Atwood employs an arsenal of storytelling techniques. Wrapped around the entire narrative is the frame story of 82-year-old Iris Griffen (née Chase). She begins telling this story without knowing for whom she is writing (eventually she arrives at a poignant if trite answer). Starting with an overview of her family’s rise to power in Port Ticonderoga, Iris delves into her own life, from childhood to adolescence to the tumultuous trap of adulthood, maturity, and marriage. Always lurking in the background is the rock that diverts the river of Iris’ life: her sister, Laura, one of those high literary versions of the Creepy Child (TVTropes) who is not always there. Laura’s death is the fixed point in time around which Iris’ tempest turns.
Next we have Laura’s posthumously-published novel, also called The Blind Assassin. Within that novel itself the characters work together to spin what Margaret Atwood would call a science-fiction story. So for those of you playing along at home, that means we have a story within a story within a story within a story: the sci-fi story within the posthumous novel within Iris’ narrative within the Atwood novel itself. Kinky. Well, maybe for some. It doesn’t quite do it for me. I enjoyed the sci-fi tale of Zycron and its blind assassin, but I could never invest anything in it, for I knew it was merely a plot device that Atwood would sacrifice at the proper moment.
Also, I make no secret of the fact that I find it very difficult to be interested in the second, third, and fourth decades of Canada’s twentieth century. (What can I say, I liked Laurier!) As an educator-in-training I’ve been sensitized to the way that poor teaching can cause education to backfire and turn a student off of a subject or topic. My history teachers were far from poor, but I’m still not enamoured of the emphasis our high school curriculum placed on military history of the early twentieth century. The bulk of The Blind Assassin takes place during the Great Depression, which is a crucial plot point. And to be fair to Atwood, she actually manages to make it interesting and intriguing. But setting is always more than scenery, and I’m sure this setting proved a stumbling block for me.
There is one aspect of The Blind Assassin that touched me. Iris is eighteen. It’s the height of the Depression, and her father’s factories are failing. His only option is to seek some liquidity from a business rival, 35-year-old Richard Griffen. And Griffen acquiesces, but as her father eventually reveals to Iris, this assistance comes with a steep price tag attached. And so Iris gets traded away. She goes “willingly”, doing her duty for the family, for her sister. But that makes it no less bitter for her or for the reader; there is that sharp moment of acrid realization that she has been sold, bartered like a possession.
And that is exactly how she gets treated while she is married to Richard. He and his meddling, controlling sister, Winifred, run Iris’ life. They treat her like a child, concealing crucial information from her. At times Atwood plays up Iris’ powerlessness and marginalization in ways that feel over the top, mostly in her characterization of Winifred. Yet this part of the story still gets to me and is still the most compelling. I couldn’t care less about Iris and Laura’s relationships with the orphan, Marxist Alex. I don’t really care what happened to Richard. It was always about Iris, about the way she seemed to begin to fade away, and then Laura’s death changes everything, and she finds a reason to strike back.
I’m not sure what else I could say. It’s a long book, and it’s a good book, and unlike some books I’m confident I can predict how others will feel about it. I wish I could endorse it more thoroughly, but there’s just something about The Blind Assassin’s obvious attempt to be a story that rankles. The blurb, from The New York Times, on the back of my edition calls it “Virtuosic storytelling on display”, and that is exactly what it is: showy (albeit not necessarily flashy) and loud in its skill. There are many layers to this book, but the dividing lines are neat and recognizable even if every layer’s meaning is not. The Blind Assassin is good enough that it defies my feeble attempts to classify and categorize it. But as with some other works of great literature, it is a novel whose greatness I can recognize but cannot fully enjoy, at least not right now. I don’t regret reading it, but it’s not my favourite of Atwood’s, and I hope the best is yet to come.