Friday, 30 May 2008

The Blind Assassin: Striving for a "Balanced" View

Warning: A few "plot spoilers" may lie ahead . . .

What do we look for in a "classic" book? What criteria should be used to judge a novel as Booker prize worthy?

As I was reading The Blind Assassin, I held it to a high standard. If my comments on this book seem harsh and unfair, please allow that I was expecting rather a lot from it. It wasn't just light entertainment -- it was a contender for the "Best of the Bookers!" Implicit in this judgment, I think, is that such a book is not only well-written . . . but that it has qualities which make it timeless and universal. I really do believe that the very best books can be read over and over again, with just as much pleasure, and even more understanding -- or rather a "different" understanding as the reader matures.

Perhaps I do need to read The Blind Assassin again, because I think that the effort of trying to work out how it all fitted together perhaps detracted from my ability to immerse myself in the story. But do I want to read it again? (Not really.)
Here are a few more things that I think about the book:

  • The science-fiction narrative was a bit gimmicky. I don't think it added to the book; it felt more like Atwood trying to be "clever."
  • It annoyed me that Iris and Alex's relationship was so opaque.
  • I didn't believe in the character of Laura. She didn't seem like a real person, and I didn't feel there was much bond between the two sisters.
  • I realize that Iris felt that Laura had been entrusted to her care. I see that the "blind assassin" from the internal science fiction narrative was both victim and tool -- as Iris perceived herself to be -- but I think that the word "assassin" is entirely too melodramatic for what actually took place. In the final scene between the sisters, Laura seems much stronger than the sleep-walking, rather colorless Iris. Also, why would Laura have killed herself at that point? I feel like the book blanked out, or muffled, all of the emotion.
  • For all of the "revelations" made by the elderly Iris, I felt like we had been given some of the pieces of a puzzle -- but that it still didn't really form a coherent picture.
  • The book seemed more like an exercise in the construction of narrative than anything else. It lacked emotional impact, even though there were highly emotive incidents in it.

Feel free to disagree with me!


Brave Sir Robin said...

Ok I read the spoiler.

Hmmmm, doesn't really sound like Atwood, does it?

Bitty said...

I wish I had more time for this right now.

Could it be that the emotional chill you feel coming off Iris, for instance, is intentional characterization: the result of her early, repressed life?

And the rest of what I might say is too difficult for me to throw together in the approx. 2 minutes I have to devote to blogging right now.

I will say this about the science fiction: a friend of mine is in a book club, and one of them chose Atwood's Oryx and Crake, which is apparently a work of science fiction. It gets 4 of 5 stars on Amazon, but the book club universally hated it. My friend practically threw it at me and demanded I take it from her house.

Of course, I tend to find "I hate this book!" to be a challenge to me to read it.

Bee said...


It wasn't really a BIG spoiler, but I suppose it depends on your point of view.

Everytime I set out to talk about TBA's good points, I seem to end up panning it again. I just found it disappointing!!

I hope that Bitty can scrape up enough time to do a good defense of it at some point.

Nice phrase, that: "emotional chill." Yes, SO chilly.

And yes, I credit Atwood with superior intelligence; in other words, I totally trust that she knows what she is doing. Therefore, I think there is "meaning" in everything that I found lacking. Perhaps I just have an issue in that I don't like to read (anymore) just for the intellectual rigor.

I will freely admit to not caring for science fiction much . . . and having NO interest in reading her "Oryx and Crake."

I would like to get Anne and Jenine involved, if they have the time . . . because they both read the book, too, and perhaps could offer some words of defense.

Anonymous said...

I have plenty to say about a book that I don't think I will ever re-read. It hasn't been but a month since I finished TBA and yet I'm finding that it has faded quickly for me.

After starting the book suspiciously and then experiencing active annoyance in the middle, I was left with a rush of good feeling toward TBA when I completed it. I was satisfied/relieved to have the complete narrative drawn together. I really enjoyed old opinionated Iris and the ending gave me a sense of how she could have emerged from the bland, lying nonentity that was young Iris. I felt her love of her sister and could see that the loss of Laura was the formative experience of her life. I liked that the reader becomes Samantha (is that the name?), the lost grandchild. A little over-cosy, but still, I liked it.

I found the middle of the book, Iris’s young matronhood, very draggy. Yes, she’s powerless and dominated by her ugly husband and sis-in-law. But yet she’s rich and comfortable. Ho hum. She gets to have a hot affair with an unsuitable young man. She has a child. Her life seems to have a lot of the important elements, even if she’s not self-actuated. I expected Iris’s tragedy to be the loss of Alex or the murder of her husband. But it was the death of Laura, the discovery of how she’d been abused and the subsequent losses of her daughter and granddaughter.

Laura I found incomprehensible. A strange child, grown into a strange adolescent and adult. I couldn’t imagine being in the room with her. MA makes her so unpredictable that she’s a cipher. What was all that coloring faces about? I didn’t really blame Iris for pushing her into the pool.

Oh and I think that Atwood's ear for sci fi is pretty wooden.

When I started the book I was talking to my husband about how I feel that Margaret Atwood is a very cold writer. I think of her charcters holding back from reaction. The writing builds to an emotional event and then the main character generally holds still and waits for it to pass. I don’t know if that’s fair. I’ve only read The Handmaid’s Tale and TBA. But that’s my impression.

I was comparing Atwood’s writing to Rushdie’s. I feel that he is exploring story in all his writing. Can a story sum up a life? Who tells stories? How do they change you? How many stories within stories can you pile up? He throws quantities of lives, episodes, settings, and stories into a book and makes a beautiful shape out of winking little pieces. I love the idea that our lives are stories beyond our control and then we create stories for all sorts of reasons and they all twine together as the shape of human history.

Atwood’s main message for me is how young women who are dominated by controlling men wait for their chance at self expression. It’s an interesting idea but not as universal or as enjoyable or as beautiful.

Alyson said...

That's the trouble with the classics - they have so much to live up to. Thankfully, many of them do, but it's always such a disappointment to expect an amazing story and then be thoroughly deflated.

I agree with you about what makes a great book. If I think that I'd love to read it again, then it goes on my favorites list.

Bee said...

"The writing builds to an emotional event and then the main character generally holds still and waits for it to pass."

Jenine, YES!! All of the best stuff was just hinted at or glossed over.

Also, I too was thinking "cipher" when it came to Laura. I wasn't much fooled that it was Laura who had the affair with Alex and then wrote the science fiction "love" story. . . because the description of her character, such that it was, made both of those actions seem pretty implausible.

Laura seemed too headstrong to really let Richard do a number on her. I realize that the book hinges on her suicide, but it didn't really feel like she WOULD have killed herself.

J, you have a lot of interesting thoughts about this book. And why do you think that Iris (with her heart problems) kept insisting on eating those indigestible doughnuts? Like the colored faces, was this just another maddening, go-nowhere detail?

Yes, I expected a lot! Plus, if I am going to read 500 pages of something, what with all of the books on my to-read shelf, it better be good!

Lucy said...

I've not read it I'm afraid, and probably won't.

I'm really better with childhood favourites and roses, I think.