Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Shot In the Dark: Thoughts on Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin

It's rare that I read a book, shove it aside and go on to the next one without a thought. I tend to ruminate on them -- chew on events, characters and how the story left an impact. Now I'm also reading for prose and style.
Atwood had me at the first line:
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
What war? What bridge? I definitely want to know what happens next. At the same time, the recitation is so breezy, so casual.  What's fascinating is that throughout this novel, we never go far from this epicenter, and we've been told the entire thing. Even when the story steps back to before Laura and Iris all the way to their grandmother's time, that moment stands in the wings, waiting. The Blind Assassin many times reads like a murder mystery, many times as a Noir script, and sometimes broods with a lush decrepitude that when you reach a point where Iris says, "Things go downhill from here." you might not be able to imagine why. But they do.

What's so impressive from a technical perspective is the story within the story, the pulp science fiction story that gets created while another story -- the rise and collapse of a Canadian aristocratic family through the Great Depression and the wars around it -- is being told. That story feels like a mix of a paean, commentary, and criticism of pulp stories of the time, but so well mixed into the story they don't detract in the least. And, it's a decent story on its own, and I felt just as much regarding the fate of that story as I did the story that encompassed it.

The prose is thoughtful, and takes us on digressions, much like a memory -- always related, but not always coming to a conclusion. Sometimes the reader is left with just the thought, and they have to make their own down, but they are never far from the story itself.

The characterization is incredibly vivid, which I think is why I get that noir feel, and realize, that for all the 'tricks' that author sites and author discussions divulge in order to make your story more interesting, there is no trick to interesting characters. There are distinctive voices and motivations. There is how they rub and clunk against one another. How they fight or not fight. Who they are, how they struggle.

Both stories in The Blind Assassin  are written is past tense (inclusive narrative tense), which I think was desperately needed for this story, which is told from the point of view of the older sister, Iris, who hops from the past, to even further back, to moments closer to the present, and of course her 'present situation' very freely. I imagine Ms. Atwood could have used present (focused narrative) tense, but I think jumping from one perspective in time to another would have been much harder. And the story flows so well in the inclusive tense that its hard to see how it could have gone otherwise.

I'll be thinking about this for a while. The main point is, you should read this book. I'll probably be reading it again. Atwood's prose fills a novel -- the words don't just occupy the pages but expand them. This is work of substance, and one day I hope my prose can evoke the same feeling in a reader.

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