Margaret Atwood’s tenth novel is both familiar and new. As it is an Atwood novel, we get eggs, a ravine, shit, snow, an ethereal double or sisterly doppelgänger, a bridge, a river, an act of violence – images and themes from her earlier fiction metamorphosed. The Blind Assassin also possesses the unusual lyrical sensuousness that distinguished Alias Grace (1996), Atwood’s last major work. A complex rumination on narrative, it is as elegant and dynamic as its predecessor, but more contemplative and more edgy – and much more witty.
The Blind Assassin has multiple voices but is chiefly the narrative of the 82-year-old Iris Chase Griffen. Iris remembers and recounts her own life and that of her sister Laura, of whose death we learn in the very first sentence: ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.’ It is part of the business of the novel to discover why Laura died. Iris and Laura grew up the daughters of a conscientious manufacturer who had inherited the estate, wealth and power of a successful Victorian enterprise in a typical well-to-do Ontario town called Port Ticonderoga. The Chase family wealth was based on buttons. (There is a hidden gibe here at Henry James, who in The Ambassadors would not let Strether tell us what was the embarrassing household article on which the Newsomes of Woolett had raised their fortune: ‘a small, trivial, rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use . . . It’s vulgar.’) We follow the fortunes of the button factory, and the fortunes of the Chase daughters, through the era between the wars and the course of World War Two.
Atwood has always been interested in history: her characters are steeped in the particularities of their era, most often an era close to the time of writing. Each section of Life before Man (1979), for example, is headed by a specific date in 1976; The Robber Bride (1993) covers the period from Vietnam through the cultural changes of the 1980s. In these novels, Atwood proved herself to be an acute recorder of the 20th century, a reliable reporter from the hinterland of private life, reflecting on the nastier struggles that take place there. Her most atypical novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), belongs to no historical period but is set in a grimly imagined future which is also a nightmare version of a recovered past.
The futuristic ending of The Handmaid’s Tale warns us of the difficulties of historical interpretation: ‘the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come.’ In Alias Grace – a profoundly disconcerting story of obsession, set in Ontario in the early 19th century, and based on an actual murder case – Atwood deliberately chose to go into the ‘great darkness’ of a past that was not her own past. The journey seems to have revitalised her imagination. The Blind Assassin’s historical scope is wide: it includes the era of the Chase girls’ grandparents and the building of the family mansion in the 1880s. Atwood illuminates the placid obscurities of life in Canada’s 20th century, from the plush ambitions and dubious traditions of the late Victorians through the false glow of the Edwardian era to the troubled aftermath of World War One, the fear of Bolshevism, the Depression.
As a history of an era, the novel is compassionate and satiric, the satire heightened by quotations from local and regional newspapers, expressive of the clichés of their various eras and the feebleness and bias of journalistic reporting. Portions of the quotations are taken from real papers, slightly altered to include some reference to fictional characters. Some examples are embarrassing – like the genuine and gooey account of the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage, taken from a 1936 article in a publication genuinely and absurdly called Mayfair. (Atwood is very alive to the colonial cringe as practised by Anglo-Canadians.) There are also many good touches that remind us of the cultural limits and habits of Iris’s time and place. At the unveiling of the memorial to the war dead in 1928 ‘even the Catholic priest was allowed to say a piece’: the words ‘even’ and ‘allowed’ sum up traditional Protestant attitudes as well as the power structure of Port Ticonderoga.
The more self-consciously truthful a recording is, the more apt it is to be a lie. (Unless the reader learns to read slantwise as we do with the quotes from the Toronto Star, the Port Ticonderoga Herald and Banner, the Mail and Empire.) Truth is seldom or never available. As Iris says,
the only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.
Impossible, of course.
All recording of the truth is questioned in The Blind Assassin – including Iris’s reminiscences themselves.
The novel is about a novel. In picking up a story as a central subject of her story, Atwood is being true to form. The heroine’s romance story that won’t go according to plan, a story given to us in incomplete instalments, was one of the subjects of Lady Oracle (1976); at the end of that novel, the heroine, Joan, says: ‘I won’t write any more Costume Gothics, though; I think they were bad for me. But maybe I’ll try some science fiction.’ Joan’s words seem prophetic of her own creator’s career. Atwood was to become a world success with The Handmaid’s Tale, a science-fiction-like horror story, the story of a terrible imaginary place and society, a dystopia. And in The Blind Assassin the interrupting tale, the alternative text, is a kind of science fiction story of a dystopia.
Atwood’s stories about writers consistently show that narrative is dangerous and difficult, and that narrative control is dubious. Although Iris in The Blind Assassin says you write truth only when you think no one will read it, that sentiment is in tension with other intimations and other truths, both within this novel and elsewhere in Atwood. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the ability to formulate thoughts and create narrative is the last bastion of resistance. The survival, not of the heroine – who has no name save the male-possessor name Offred (of Fred) – but of her tape-recordings is the only potential salvation. But the tale that can be told is never complete, and The Blind Assassin focuses on the incompleteness.
We soon learn that when Laura committed suicide in 1945, she left a legacy, a posthumous novel called ‘The Blind Assassin’. First published in 1947, Laura’s work has persisted as a cult classic, which appeals mostly to women. At the time Iris is telling us her story, Laura’s novel is being republished in England by a company of which Iris does not think highly, Artemisia Press (an overt play on Virago). In Laura’s book, a wealthy, young, naive but not unintelligent woman carries on a protracted if furtive love affair with a nameless man on the run, a union activist with Communist sympathies. This is a motif appropriate to the era between the wars, the period in which the main action takes place. The situation has a Bonnie and Clyde ring about it (although the circumstances of the young man also resonate with the story of Joe Hill, the union hero and songwriter executed in Utah before the end of World War One). The cramped and dirty rooms in which the lovers’ meetings take place rival in squalor those depicted by Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett and other male specialists of the ‘hard-boiled’ school. (We first meet the lover and his lady at a picnic, as he eats a hard-boiled egg, peeling it with his teeth, in an early chapter entitled ‘The Hard-Boiled Egg’.)
The hero of Laura’s novel seems clearly inspired by Alex, a character who figures in Iris’s reminiscences. A displaced person from somewhere in Europe, part of the detritus of World War One, Alex is a labour organiser. Suspected of Bolshevik violence, and dodging the law, he is secretly sheltered by Laura and Iris when they are too young fully to understand his position, or their own sexual pull. In Laura’s book, the intriguing and mysterious young Alex figure teases and pleases his lover by telling her a science fiction story, itself called ‘The Blind Assassin’. It is set on a planet called Zycron, which has ‘seven seas, five moons, and three suns, of varying strengths and colours’. The reader of The Blind Assassin is plunged into Laura’s novel and into the story of the lovers on the planet Zycron before she can possibly grasp who the characters are, or connect them with other events that emerge through other portions of the narrative. (In reading this novel, we are always ahead of ourselves, yet insufficiently informed.)
Zycron has a flourishing city, Sakiel-Norn, ‘roughly translatable as “The Pearl of Destiny”’. It has elements of beauty and advanced thinking, but is in other ways an archaic and brutal ‘civilisation’, sacrificing its people ruthlessly to achieve its aims – or rather, the aims of its aristocrats, the Snilfards. Sakiel-Norn demands the sacrifice to the gods of a girl who has been deflowered the previous night. The girl is rendered mute so her screams cannot be heard. The manner of her death is decreed by ritual and custom: she must be killed by a blind assassin, one of a group of such persons stunted and mistreated since childhood; the assassin has the satisfaction of killing the girl professionally, without the pleasure of being able to see her. In the story told by the Alex figure, one girl and her assassin step out of their roles by falling in love and trying to assist each other to escape. Their story is told in episodes sown tantalisingly through The Blind Assassin. In a reversal of the Sheherazade theme, the man entertains the woman with a long story in bed, a story that is episodic, beguiling and incomplete.
Unlike the overt pastiche of the heroine’s romance novels quoted in Lady Oracle, the parodic, playful and bitter snatches of the narrative of Sakiel-Norn have power over the reader – a bit like the cruel fantasies of A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower, and of course like the disturbing central narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale. The girl who is the hearer of her lover’s tale tries to intervene in the narrative, but she is not able to wrest it from him. The lover-narrator, who is able to survive in hiding by writing pulp fiction under assumed names, puts out a version of the story in a cheap magazine – but it is not the version we have been reading.
To anyone familiar with Atwood’s work, it is evident that the ‘science fiction’ story in The Blind Assassin is a peculiar take on The Handmaid’s Tale. Like the story that made Laura Chase famous, Atwood’s earlier novel has become a cult classic, appealing largely though not exclusively to women; it also involves sexual enslavement, sacrifice and cruelty. Its counterpart in the new novel is a tale told by a man, arising from common male and female concerns. Gender tensions arise, however, in discussions between the lovers as to what is to happen to their characters, and the civilisation of Sakiel-Norn. Is the young man telling the story only as a distraction from any hope of a future? It may take us a while to see the connection between The Handmaid’s Tale’s Republic of Gilead and the world of Sakiel-Norn: the world of Sakiel-Norn is vividly exotic and archaic, whereas the point of The Handmaid’s Tale is that the ‘civilisation’ in which the heroine is captive is determinedly middle-class and ruthlessly bland, a reactionary future world produced by right-wing American fundamentalism (with a touch of Mormonism). The Republic of Gilead insists on a Bible-based life, and the crudity of its inhabitants’ own Biblical interpretation. The novel was written in reaction to the American right-wing politics and ‘family values’ of the 1980s, and is a peculiarly modern and futuristic narrative: a female Orwell, as it were, looks on Utah or South Carolina.
Yet Atwood is evidently (at least on some level) impatient with the cult of her earlier novel. In The Blind Assassin she represents the hopeless task of trying to tell the story the teller has in mind, and the misreadings that easily overtake it in the outside world. She also seems to intimate that the fantasy story, the fable, has important if incomplete truths that ‘realistic’ history cannot convey – that history in some sense does not know or refuses to know. Iris’s own story is a version of the story of the hapless heroine of the young man’s spun-out tale. For Iris is a doomed virgin, sacrificed in marriage (because of her father’s hope that she can in this way save the now-failing button company) to the rich, self-satisfied, and extremely right-wing (even pro-Nazi) Richard Griffen. (Griffen is one of Atwood’s regular griffins, one might say, the monstrous male.) Richard is referred to by his enemies as ‘Mr Royal Classic’ – he is the owner of a successful firm called Royal Classic Knitwear – ‘Royal Classic Shitwear’ to the workers at the Chase Company. The words ‘Royal’ and ‘Classic’ combine in a succinct expression of Atwood’s contempt for fantasies connecting and endorsing authority, stratification and subjection.
Iris is so busy trying to resist the imposition of monarchical authority, of the civilisation for which Richard stands, that she fails to see how greatly her idealistic sister is being victimised. Laura becomes an unhappy sacrifice to Richard’s lust. If Iris is blind, however, she shares her blindness with all about her, even Laura. The power of authorship is not omniscience: it is (so Atwood implies) dependent, multiple, humble and uncertain.
The structure of Atwood’s novel repeatedly questions the nature of authorship. It is so constructed that we read parts of the story which has won Laura such odd fame before and then during Iris’s account of her own and Laura’s life. We are engaged, naturally, in looking for clues in Iris’s long reminiscence of their childhood: clues as to what made Laura the writer that she turns out to be, and then, of course, clues regarding the seemingly autobiographical love affair which is the kernel of the novel Laura wrote. What is increasingly puzzling is that it seems to be Iris, not Laura, who is carrying on the affair with Alex, the young man on the run – an ineffectually rebellious Iris, frustrated by her life with Richard, who in his propriety and his dominance bears more than a passing resemblance to Offred’s Commander, Fred, in The Handmaid’s Tale. This reference is made obvious when we find that Richard’s officious and condescending sister who takes the helpless bridal Iris in hand is not only named Winifred but says: ‘Call me Freddie.’ Iris finds relief from her marriage, if only for fleeting intervals, in the precarious freedom offered by the rootless and hunted young man with his gift of story. If Iris had all the experience, if Iris is the one to whom were told the tales of Sakiel-Norn with its blind assassins, why was it Laura who wrote it all down?
At the end of course – and here I reluctantly spring the novel’s trap – we ‘see’ that Laura is not the author of the novel published in 1947. The name ‘Iris’ is that of the messenger (as a long quotation from the Aeneid points out). Sister Iris is the one who gave this message to the outside world, posting her story (or autobiography) under her sister’s name. Laura, spiritual, curious, uncompromising, the girl who will never fit into the world’s regulations and structures, is not the woman with the organisational power or love of self-advertisement to write an autobiography or a novel – but she is both heroic soul and sacrificed female. She is used by others, who claim they don’t understand her – even Iris uses Laura in giving her an undesired romantic fame, posthumous and false. Yet that may in turn be an acknowledgment of Laura’s true place at the centre of the love story. Laura, who killed herself at 25, had more courage and dignity than Iris, and more to lose. Laura’s relations with Alex are never spelled out. But it seems likely that she was the hidden heroine of the young man’s story, even while he slept with Iris. Is Laura not the Petrarchan name for the complete object of ardent devotion? Laura herself was more devoted to Alex and to saving him than Iris could be to anyone. And if Iris is the author, the triumphant narrator, if she attains the position as memorable messenger, she is an Iris doomed to be a messenger of mortality, and even the dealer of it, as the Virgilian Iris finishes off Dido.
Iris is the survivor. Long after Laura’s death in 1945, she speaks to us, meeting us at the end of the 20th century. The octogenarian Iris who is recounting her story has to cope with the fact of her own survival, with a failing body and diminished powers in a world which is impatient of illness, weakness, vulnerability and death itself. Alex – whose crimes were merely union organising and Communism – fell in World War Two. Richard the rich, some of his chickens having come home to roost, committed suicide. Iris, who likes to take revenge, has long learned to take hers cold. Yet she is not triumphant but forsaken. Her daughter (fathered not by Richard but by Alex) died prematurely, drug-addicted, and her granddaughter has long been estranged from her.
It is uncertain whether anything living can spring from such a contaminated heritage. Yet spring and rebirth are constant motifs in the novel, though expressed in the disconcerting Atwood way:
The trees are still bare, the buds still hard, cocooned, but in places where the sun hits there’s meltdown. Dog doings unfreeze, then wane, their icy lacework sallow with wornout pee. Slabs of lawn come to light, sludgy and bestrewn.
For Atwood, every flower has its turd. She denies an aesthetic of the beautiful even while cultivating it in her electric play of images, especially simile. Everything works within the busy mind to create something else. Like Alias Grace, this novel is a dazzle of images. Atwood is a published poet, too, and her language in these later novels is more closely aware of its urge toward the poetic, even as she questions or probes different styles and practices. Atwood’s Iris is obviously influenced by Keats, though the Keatsian note in her unromantic but sensuous greeting of autumn is parodic: ‘It’s the first week of October. Season of woollen garments taken out of mothballs; of nocturnal mists and dew and slippery front steps, and late-blooming slugs.’
Atwood has always been an able wielder of metaphor, simile and metonymy, but in her earlier novels she used figures more sparingly. Here she is striking in her metaphors: ‘But long ago I made a choice between classicism and romanticism. I prefer to be upright and contained – an urn in daylight.’ She is likewise memorable in her metonyms: ‘the headache red of the flowers’. But her writing is especially strong in simile. Similes express the business of narrative itself, the living consciousness, and reflect and embody the personality’s triumphant determination to go on, as well as registering the clamorous active mind’s dissatisfaction with any one individual object and/or any single experience. Indeed, as fleeting experience cannot be grasped, cannot be turned into something solid, everything in life is simile – we register or remember a thing by assimilation, Atwood seems to say.
The Blind Assassin also has a wonderfully rich vocabulary of literary reference. The bringing in of pulp fiction is deliberate, for like many contemporary novelists Atwood questions the division between high and low. (Compare Salman Rushdie’s The Ground beneath Her Feet, which is comprehensible only if one has a good working knowledge of popular songs of the 1950s and 1960s.) ‘Classic’ and even ‘classical’ texts by major authors are playfully introduced. In the tale within the tale, the one the young man spins, the reader no sooner thinks, ‘This is very like Salammbô,’ than a copy of Salammbô appears on a bookshelf. Schoolroom scenes include discussions of Tennyson and Ovid, characters try to interpret poems like ‘Kubla Khan’ or are puzzled by them. Newspapers and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Victorian verse and the Aeneid, cookery books and Omar Khayyám, political slogans and archaeology all go into the mix.
As Atwood pointed out in her early critical work Survival (1972), Canadian literature tends to be about persisting in an environment not altogether adapted to human habitation, a beautiful but not sweet natural land; the sharpness of Canadian seasons and landscape are evoked in a continuous story of ruin and survival. This is a novel knowingly embedded in that Canadian tradition. Iris’s reminiscences have a relation to those of Hagar Shipley, the narrator of Margaret Lawrence’s The Stone Angel (1964). Hagar and Iris both deal with the indignities of old age as well as with vivid memories. Atwood’s novel is influenced surely by L.M. Montgomery’s Blue Castle (1926), with its attractive and disreputable young man, while also engaging in an overt poke at that author’s Anne of Green Gables (1908); the mansion of the wealthy and ambitious Chase family on their way up is given the name ‘Avilion’ by the pretentious grandmother Ardelia, an echo of Tennyson which was just as surely echoed in Montgomery’s ‘Avonlea’. (The virulent suspicion of orphans expressed by Iris’s townsfolk is not a parody but a reinforcement of Montgomery’s observation.)
Who or what, in the end, is the Blind Assassin? Eros, of course, but also Time. History is a blind assassin. Ego is a blind assassin: in Atwood’s world, none of us can say we have come through or done well without injuring someone. In the dark of the world, we strike out blindly, injuring those whom we have never seen, or whom we never truly knew. Iris ‘killed’ Laura, by telling her of Alex’s death, and also of the affair between herself and Alex. We do not know which of these pieces of simultaneously delivered news drove Laura over the brink. Iris, acting according to traditional female virtue, has tried to spare her father by marrying Richard, but that proves to be the road to her father’s death and ultimately to Richard’s also. Alias Grace, centred on a ‘real’ murder story, dealt with the single act of knowingly depriving someone of her life. The Blind Assassin is more generally homicidal. Nobody gets away free. Even Iris, the surviving teller, dies – her death recorded in the bland words of the Port Ticonderoga Herald and Banner, 29 May 1999, the penultimate item in the book’s collection of narratives.