The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood's tenth novel, has just won Britain's prestigious Booker prize, leading one to wonder whether the Canadian author with the impressive oeuvre (fifteen works of fiction, including three novels already shortlisted for the Booker, five collections of nonfiction, thirteen editions of poetry and four children's books) has departed in some measurable way from her signature style or whether she has perfected it. Neither, quite. Satiric and brooding, The Blind Assassin presents a typical Atwood predicament: Women taught self-effacement, obedience, modesty and quiescence resolve to tell their stories, trusting that someone, somewhere will listen. "Because I am telling you this story I will your existence," says the narrator of the futuristic parable, The Handmaid's Tale (1985). "I tell, therefore you are."
The storyteller of Blind Assassin is an 82-year-old woman, Iris Chase, with an ailing heart who lives alone in Port Ticonderoga, Canada, where she and her younger sister Laura grew up, the well-starched granddaughters of a wealthy button manufacturer. But the era of cozy Victorian gazebos and twelve-course dinners has long since passed. Their mother died in 1925 after a bloody miscarriage, and their father, a shell-shocked World War I veteran, alternately distracts himself with alcohol or soirees with radically chic artists come to eat his food and criticize his politics. When noblesse oblige gives way to layoffs, shutdowns and outside agitators, to save his business Iris's father arranges her marriage to Richard Griffen, a ruthless industrialist from Toronto, but Griffen swindles Mr. Chase, brutalizes Iris and locks up her sister in a loony bin. Laura escapes, disappears and then, just after the end of World War II, drives her car off a bridge.
Now it's 1998. Iris prowls her own small house at night, finger in the peanut-butter jar, taking inventory of her life's rubble–saucerless cups and monogrammed spoons and the tortoise-shell comb with missing teeth. By day, she writes about that life with a new black plastic pen, hands shaking as she tries to get the story straight and figure out, at the same time, why she's writing it at all. No longer consecrated to the ladylike regimen of silence and complicity, she determines to speak the truth. "The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read…," Iris declares and pauses. "Impossible, of course."
Iris's saga is the linchpin of Atwood's Dos Passos-like mélange of newspaper clippings, interior monologues and social history, all interspersed with yet another tale, a sci-fi cult classic called "The Blind Assassin" and said to have been written by Laura. Published posthumously, "The Blind Assassin" is the story of Sakiel-Norn, a city on the planet Zycron, where enslaved children weave carpets until, blinded by their work, they graduate as hired killers. Meantime, the Sakiel-Norn business is itself a product of a romance into which it's folded: A nameless couple cooks up the fable during secret trysts that take place in two-bit hotels and fetid rooms borrowed for the occasion.
Sound complicated? Not really. Best-known of Canada's living novelists, Atwood writes with the precision of crack short-story writers Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant and the wit of the late, prolific Robertson Davies; but most often one hears an echo of Margaret Laurence's cranky women in Atwood's narrators. With a cool confidence all her own, Atwood expertly shuffles among her various plots, historical periods, locales and characters. There's no mistaking Port Ticonderoga for Sakiel-Norn, and anyway the features of the anonymous lovers turn recognizable pretty quickly. During the Depression, when Iris was 18 and Laura 14, the Chase girls attended the annual button-factory company picnic and met the former divinity student and career proletarian who, it happens, supports himself by writing pulp fiction. For most of the novel, however, Alex Thomas is on the lam, having become chief suspect in the factory fire that lays waste the dwindling Chase fortune.
Both Laura and Iris find the hard-boiled Thomas appealing, if for different reasons. Laura, an idealist with "the infuriating iron-clad confidence of the true believer," hides Thomas in the mansion's cellar. (There's a radical in the woodpile of every family estate, it seems.) Not to be outdone, Iris joins the Thomas relief effort, as much to rob her quixotic sister of her moral and emotional superiority as to protect Thomas. "Laura touches people," Iris says, toting up their differences. "I do not."
Competition supplies the necessary psychological heft to the novel's otherwise spurious mysteries. (Who really wrote "The Blind Assassin"? Who are its unnamed lovers?) After their mother's death, a 9-year-old Iris resentfully takes charge of Laura, and when Laura one day plummets into the Louveteau River (obvious harbinger of her later death), Iris hauls her out. "I couldn't get out of my mind the images of Laura, in the icy black water of the Louveteau–how her hair had spread out like smoke in a swirling wind, how her wet face had gleamed silvery, how she had glared at me when I'd grabbed her by the coat. How hard it had been to hold on to her. How close I had come to letting go."
In fact, just three pages into the novel, a newspaper headline announces that the precipitate death of Laura Chase, 25, sister of Mrs. Richard Griffen, has been ruled an accident. But dutiful Atwood readers understand that there are no accidents in her novels, and so ironic auguries topple over one another with a kind of slick inevitability. We read a 1937 society page in Mayfair magazine that some of Toronto's elite will travel to France and Italy this season, "Mussolini permitting." We learn from another headline that Iris's oily husband, Richard, praises the Munich accord. We discover that Iris and Laura's grandmother was one of those wistful women who "went in for Culture," believing it made you a better person. "They hadn't yet seen Hitler at the opera house," Iris tartly observes. This same grandmother christened the Gothic-turreted family mansion Avilion, after Tennyson's utopian "island-valley" in Idylls of the King–but Avilion, as we might have guessed, suffers the slings and arrows of change and neglect, its splendor turned food for silverfish. After it's sold, it's renamed Valhalla and run as an old-age home. O tempora! O mores!
All this historical canniness begins to sound a bit smug. Partly, of course, the problem lies with Iris, who recollects trauma from the relative tranquillity of hindsight. She's also a woman without affect who nightly accedes to her husband's savagery, insulates herself from her sister's suffering and refuses to see the incest and adultery and suicide committed before her eyes. Yes, yes, she is a kind of blind assassin, cutthroat and complex, herself a wounded child impassively doing what she has to do.
But we learn little about Laura Chase, whom we desperately need to know. "It was ill will, the ill will of the universe, that distressed her," Iris glibly portrays her. "Laura believed words meant what they said, but she carried it to extremes," Iris says in another of Atwood's foreshadowings. "You couldn't say Get lost or Go jump in the lake and expect no consequences." Similarly, Iris's buccaneering husband is a villain without a cause, committing all the usual atrocities: fraud, physical abuse, child molestation. His sister, a camp version of the social arriviste, brandishes a mean Waldorf salad, organizes theme-obsessed charity balls (Xanadu is the pick for 1936) and wears alligator pumps the color of chlorophyll chewing gum: amusing but arch.
Actually, all these characters succumb to Atwood's deadpan style, her penchant for static tableaux, her anxiety-ridden refusal to feel. "I can see people moving like bright animated dolls, their mouths opening and closing but no real words coming out," comments the narrator of Cat's Eye. "I can look at their shapes and sizes, their colors, without feeling anything else about them." There's much good prose here and much wit, but one wants more than that. Winking at the reader familiar with Coleridge and Dickinson and T.S. Eliot and Doris Lessing and Ursula Le Guin, Atwood structures her novel with the cerebral precision of a gymnast performing flips for the cognoscenti. Even the novel's organizing images–fire and water and gardens made of rock–occur in diagrammatic, self-satisfied fashion.
More successful is Atwood when she plies her own stock in trade, those prodigal similes ("over the trenches God had burst like a balloon"), merciless descriptions ("I look sick, my skin leached of blood, like meat soaked in water") and recurrent props, like the graffiti in bathrooms or photographs that commemorate our lives in their weird and flattened way. Laura steals the picture of herself, Iris and Alex Thomas taken at the factory picnic. She makes two prints, one for Iris and one for herself, and in each, cuts one of the sisters out, leaving only a hand. It's the novel's talisman.
Distance is Atwood's forte and her nemesis. Though her trademark understatement often contributes to the sharp humor of her work, at times it seems crudely facile. "The war takes place in black and white," Iris informs us in one particularly grating paragraph. "For those on the sidelines that is. For those who are actually in it there are many colours, excessive colours, too bright, too red and orange, too liquid and incandescent, but for the others the war is like a newsreel–grainy, smeared, with bursts of staccato noise and large numbers of grey-skinned people rushing or plodding or falling down, everything elsewhere." During the Great War, Iris's father writes chillingly from France, "I cannot describe what is happening here, and so I will not attempt it." One suspects that for Atwood, scenes of emotional carnage take place at a remove, as in newsreels, and therefore remain indescribably unreal–not exactly a virtue in a novel with history its tacit subject.
At her best, though, Atwood's suppressed women of precocious sensibility tell their stories with prickly precision, sparing neither themselves nor anyone else. They hold on; they let go. Such is the Scylla and Charybdis of Iris's life, not just in relation to her sister but to the past and to herself. "But what is a memorial, when you come right down to it," Iris speculates, "but a commemoration of wounds endured? Endured, and resented."
For Atwood, however, one also memorializes oneself to stave off atrophy and despair. "The temptation is to stay inside," Iris acknowledges, "to subside into the kind of recluse whom neighbourhood children regard with derision and a little awe; to let the hedges and weeds grow up, to allow the doors to rust shut, to lie on my bed in some gown-shaped garment and allow my hair to lengthen and spread out over the pillow and my fingernails to sprout into claws, while candle wax drips onto the carpet. But long ago I made a choice between classicism and romanticism."
So too Atwood. She chooses not to plunge inside, preferring instead the cool, hard, protective edge of classicism to the deeper, often sloppier emotions. Nonetheless, she confers a certain dignity on her female outcasts and artists and the solitary, aging everywoman who smells of kitty litter. "I'll tell you this story," Iris offers. "What is that I'll want from you? Not love: that would be too much to ask. Not forgiveness, which isn't yours to bestow. Only a listener." It's not a bad trade. Atwood writes an entertaining and bracing tale, fun to read, forgettable when finished.