August 23, 2009

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I finished The Blind Assassin, the novel for which Margaret Atwood finally won the Booker Prize, about a month ago, but I was so completely and uselessly fan-girled by it that I wanted to wait a while before writing up my thoughts. I figured that way I'd have more to say than just "Oh my god, oh my god, that was... I mean... wow!"

I do have more than that to say after a month of rolling the book around in my mind, but it still all boils down to "wow." The book is successful in so many ways that I can't address them all without boring anyone who doesn't live in my head, so I'm going to focus on structure for this little write up.

Structurally speaking, The Blind Assassin is a perfect novel. A structurally perfect novel is impressive no matter how you slice it, but it's especially impressive in the case of this novel, which weaves together four different, yet inter-related narratives. There are no last minute revelations in The Blind Assassin, as one might expect from a novel that is, in a sense, a bit of a jigsaw. Last minute revelations would disrupt the novel's elegant lines. Subtlety is called for, and that what Atwood uses, guiding the reader along implicitly, so that when something is revealed explicitly, the reader finds that they were already subconsciously aware of it.

The four threads that form The Blind Assassin are the modern, day to day dealings of the elderly protagonist, Iris Chase, Iris' remembrances of her childhood and early adulthood, and the whole text of a novel, also called The Blind Assassin, that her sister, Laura Chase, supposedly wrote before committing suicide in the 1940's. Laura Chase's The Blind Assassin is also set in the '40's, and tells the story of two lovers doomed to be separated by circumstance. In that novel-within-the-novel, the unnamed man writes a story for his lover, a rich society bride. It tells the tale of a blind assassin and the woman he rescues from death.

These are a lot of threads with very disparate contents, and one would think it nearly impossible to keep them operable and without using literary "cleverness" or falling back on trite and obvious tricks. What amazed me about The Blind Assassin, is that Atwood never makes a false move, not once, through the entire thing. Each of the threads elucidates the others, each narrator passes the narrative burden as if it were something light and delicate, like a teacup. The execution is flawless - literally, without a flaw. Incredible.

I've always liked Margaret Atwood. I deconstructed a number of her short stories when I began teaching myself to write, I gobbled up The Handmaid's Tale and I'm in the middle of loving Alias Grace, but The Blind Assassin is something different. It stands out to me as being that rarest of rare things: the Important Book that is also a genuine, keeps-you-up-until-dawn pleasure to read. This is why, after all of the babble that went into this post, and all of the thinking that preceded it, in the end, all I can say is "wow."

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