Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Merle Rubin | Review of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin

Review of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin
by Merle Rubin

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin. (New York: Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 2000).

The Canadian storyteller, port and critic Margaret Atwood first gained attention in the late 1960s and early 1970s as one of the representative voices of a new feminist sensibility. Whether she is exposing the evils chauvinism or stepping down from her podium to give free rein to her more inventive side, Atwood has a penchant for pastiche. Yet unlike more mundane purveyors of the obvious, Atwood infuses her work with a touch of irony: When she uses a cliché, she knows perfectly well that it is a cliché, and she all but identifies it as such.

Her latest novel, The Blind Assassin has the trappings of complexity: a story-within-a-story and a third story within that one. It spans most of the 20th century, with particular emphasis on the two world wars and the troubled era of joblessness and social unrest between them. The principal narrator is Iris Chase Griffen, a sour elderly woman conscious of her approaching demise, impatient with her increasing infirmities and smoldering with justified anger against her sister-in-law, one Winifred Griffen Prior. (Just as popular heroes of a previous era were spunky and resourceful, and those of the age before that, sweet and pure, so the typical post-feminist heroine is bitter, angry and resentful. Iris, admittedly, turns out to have good reason for her resentment.)

Iris' chief claim to fame, as judged from the various newspaper clippings that intersperse the narrative, comes from her connections. Her father's family, the Chases, founded the button factory that for many years as the economic mainstay of her Canadian hometown of Port Ticonderoga. Iris' husband, Richard Griffen, far richer, more reactionary and ruthless than her father, was an even more prominent personage, with political as well as financial ambitions. but the most famous of Iris' connections is her younger sister, Laura Chase who, 10 days after the end of World War II, accidentally, or suicidally drove her car off a bridge and whose posthumously published novel, The Blind Assassin, became an instant succès de scandale and a subsequent minor classic.

Passages from Laura's tersely written novel are spliced into Iris' narrative: A pair of lovers meet on the sly in squalid coffee shops, borrowed rooms and cheap hotels. The man is a leftist radical on the run, the woman is young, upperclass, inexperienced and eager. The man supports himself by writing pulp science fiction. When he and the woman get together to have sex, he also entertains her by telling her a sci-fi tale with vaguely Marxist overtones, about a planet where slave children are forced to weave carpets so fine that they go blind in the process and grow up either to work in brothels or become professional assassins, thanks to their keen sense of touch and ability to find their way in the dark.

The nameless hero is the typical mid-century man: hard-boiled, cynical, tough; the nameless heroine is the typical mid-century woman: daring enough to defy her conventional background, but accomplishing no more than trading her controlling father for a controlling lover.

Atwood serves up her stereotypes in a mockingly ironic manner, availing herself of their convenience while affecting an air of superiority. This is evident, not only in the two parodies of tough-guy fiction and sci-fi pulp, but also in Iris' much longer narrative looking back over the 83 years of her life. Iris' account of her family background and her childhood upbringing in the years following World War I is a veritable parade of stock characters: the enterprising Victorian grandfather who founds the button factory; the cultivated grandmother with a fondness for Tennyson; the dutiful son (Iris' and Laura's father), who goes off the serve his country in World War I and returns a "hollow" man; his disappointed wife, the girls' mother, a gentle soul who dies young, although not before urging her girls to finish their breakfasts by telling them to "remember the starving Armenians." The girls are brought up by Rennie, the loyal family retainer, who is chock full of lower-class savy, proverbs, snobbery and prejudices, and utterly devoted to her charges.

No cliché is left unturned: Reenie warns the girls that soda will rot their teeth. Young Iris sees a picture of Napoleon in a history book and concludes "he must have a stomachache." There is even a (male) tutor from England with a sadistic streak and an unwholesome interest in his prepubescent pupils. When the Depression cuts into the prosperity of the family button factory, a dark, handsome, union-organizing "troublemaker" named Alex Thomas appears on the scene, inevitably attracting the interest of the boss' by-now-teenaged daughters. Is this mysterious stranger a Communist? An anarchist? An arsonist? Whatever his precise affliations, he is yet another cardboard figure.

If Alex Thomas is the dangerous but attractive radical, and the girls' father, the standard "Victorian paterfamilias" (Iris actually describes him in those words!), Mr. Chase's paternalistic capitalism looks positively socialist compared with the heartless business practice of the reactionary Griffen, the man Iris marries in the vain hope of rescuing her father from financial ruin. And even worse than Richard is his pretentious, manipulative sister, the widowed Winifred, who sees Iris as putty to be molded into the "right" sort of wife.

In Iris, Atwood has created a heroine whose life story reflects the historical times in which she lived but in a way that is heavy-handed, derivative and lacking in nuance. With all the literature that's been written about World War I, from Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth to Part Barker's recent trilogy (not to mention the classic writings of soldiers like Graves, Remarque, Owen, and Sassoon), do we really need this tenth-hand recap of the war and its aftermath? "[My} father...was a shattered wreck, as witness the shouts in the dark, the nightmares, the sudden fits of rage...Over the trenches God had burst like balloon, and there was nothing left of him but grubby little scraps of hypocrisy.... [Those who died had] been killed by the blunderings of a pack of incompetent and criminal old man.... All this talk of fighting for God and Civilization made him vomit." The Depression, labor unrest, and wealthy capitalists who favored appeasement receive similarly rote treatment.

The only real power the novel possesses comes from its restrained but pervasive sense of feminist outrage over the half-lives that Iris and Laura have been forced to lead. As women of a generation who had developed a taste for freedom but neither the wisdom to use it well nor the means to preserve it, Iris and Laura acquire a little more depth as characters by the second half of the book. It's a pity so much of the first half is taken up with recycled images and predigested ideas. [Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times Book Review]

Copyright (c)2000 by Merle Rubin

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