Fantastic Reviews - Related Interest Book Review
Blind Assassin book cover art The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese - copyright 2000
521 pages

Book read in November 2002
Rating: 6/10  (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

The Blind Assassin won the 2000 Booker Prize

          The Blind Assassin is of interest to readers of science fiction and fantasy for three reasons.  First, Margaret Atwood is the author of The Handmaid's Tale, an important work of science fiction, even if she resists that classification.  Second, one of the characters of The Blind Assassin writes for the pre-War science fiction and fantasy pulp magazines, and included in this novel are the plots of several of his genre stories.  Third, the unusual structure of The Blind Assassin is instructive on the differences between storytelling in mainstream literature and fantastic literature today.

The narrator of The Blind Assassin is Iris Griffen, an irascible octogenarian in the present day, with little to do to pass the time but reminisce about her youth and her family, now in decline but once wealthy industrialists who dominated their small Canadian hometown.  Most prominent in her thoughts is her younger sister Laura Chase, now renowned as the author of the classic novel The Blind Assassin, which Iris arranged to have published posthumously after Laura drove off a bridge in 1945.

Atwood's Blind Assassin alternates between Iris's plodding retrospective and the text of Laura Chase's Blind Assassin.  Interspersed between chapters of Chase's Blind Assassin are news articles from Iris's past, suggesting that these are clippings stuffed between the pages of a copy of Chase's make-believe book.

Laura Chase's Blind Assassin is a story of forbidden lovers in the years leading up to World War II.  She is a member of the wealthy elite; he is a fugitive from the police.  He writes for the science fiction and fantasy pulp magazines of the era.  (Atwood gives a nod to Weird Tales and Wonder Stories and Astounding.)  For several chapters he regales her with one of his fantastic tales, set in a harsh society that forces young slaves to work in conditions that cause blindness and later teaches them to kill.  We hear the young writer's oral retelling of the story of one of these blind assassins, until Laura Chase's Blind Assassin disappointingly abandons the tale, when the two lovers disagree on where to take the story.  After that, we get outlines of several more of the writer's skiffy stories, none of which is fleshed out like the story of the blind assassin.

For those of you keeping score at home, all of this makes the young writer's tales a series of stories within a story within a story.  This is one "within" too many.

This novel is not without rewards.  Atwood's use of language is consistently clever.  Sometimes the clever language attempts to disguise obvious or trivial observations as something profound, but often it delivers real insight into human nature.

The strength of the novel is Laura Chase's Blind Assassin, which is nicely constructed.  The stories the writer tells his lover are interesting on three levels.  First, they are entertaining as independent stories, even if they are deliberately pulpish in style.  Second, they inform us about these two characters, their feelings for each other, and their hopes for the future.  For example, the writer allows his bitterness about the class differences between the two lovers to show through in his story of the blind assassin.  All of his stories are dismal, and the one time he tries to think up a happy story it turns out to be even more bleak than the others.  Third, the stories provide a metaphoric overlay to the entire book, including the chapters narrated by Iris.  Early on, the deaths of Iris's sister, husband, and daughter are foreshadowed, and we quickly infer that Iris has in some sense played the role of a blind assassin.

In deliberate contrast to Laura Chase's Blind Assassin, Iris's chapters are excruciatingly ponderous, a long and slow review of her youth with all the interesting parts omitted.  Atwood tries to maintain some interest through these chapters by keeping us guessing just how Chase's Blind Assassin reflects the real past of Iris and Laura.  But she is only able to keep us guessing by omitting all the interesting parts from Iris's dry and bland account.

The contrast between the two portions of this novel is quite instructive, and not the way Atwood intends.  The traditional criticism of genre fiction, particularly science fiction, is that it lacks characterization.  For a long time this criticism was deserved.  Atwood's pastiches of pulp SF have almost no character development yet feel quite authentic.  The story of the blind assassin is arguably better written than most published pre-War SF, and its author's frustration with genre limitations is believable.  It has been over a generation, however, since this was a valid criticism of the field of science fiction as a whole.  Today, the finger must point in the reverse direction.  While the best genre writers attend carefully to both story arc and character development, the most respected mainstream authors are frequently fixated on characterization to the exclusion of plot.  They no longer believe that the business of a writer is to tell a story.

There is a story in The Blind Assassin.  It is the story of the young lovers, who desperately need each other even as they are often hostile to each other, and whose destinies are shaped by forces beyond their control.  Atwood is not willing to write a book just about them - that kind of a story would be passť.  She turns them into a sideshow to her main focus, an extended character study of Iris.  The reader sees the young lovers at a distance, through the filter of octogenarian Iris, and it become impossible to be fully drawn into their story.  As far as I can tell, Atwood does not want us to be drawn into their story.  She seems intentionally to make the writing of Chase's Blind Assassin a bit amateurish and overly sentimental, contrasting it with Iris's subtler, more mature prose.  Yet if Chase's Blind Assassin were published separately, it would be a better novel than Atwood's Blind Assassin.  If only Margaret Atwood had unleashed all of her considerable talents on the Chase version, without the framework of octogenarian Iris, that could have been a great novel.

          There is no good reason for non-genre writers to show so little interest in storytelling.  It is simply a mindset of current highbrow mainstream literature that has become entrenched for some reason I cannot fathom.  The Blind Assassin demonstrates how self-defeating this mindset can be.
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
vanaaron@excite.com
Copyright © 2002 Aaron Hughes

Other Margaret Atwood book reviews on Fantastic Reviews:
Oryx and Crake
The Penelopiad (and Weight by Jeanette Winterson)

Back to Fantastic Reviews main page

Our book club's web pages for Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Links to webpages about Margaret Atwood, and related topics:
ReadingGroupGuides.com - The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin - Wikipedia
january magazine: Review | The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Salon.com Books | "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood
Curled Up With A Good Book: The Blind Assassin -- book review

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

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