The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

What did it win?

Booker Prize 2000

What’s it all about?

Couldn’t tell you.

Was it really any good?

At what point, as a reader, are you justified in giving up? This is a serious question, and arises more often than you might think. After all, reading a novel is a big investment of time and you have to know when to cut your losses. I know one fellow who is prepared to call it quits after the first paragraph. “You should be able to tell right away,” is what he says. While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think it’s fair to say that if you don’t like a book after the first few pages then it’s unlikely you’re going to change your mind as things progress. As a reviewer you are sometimes obliged to make an extra effort, but there are still limits.

I read five pages of The Blind Assassin.

What made me give up? Well, I was initially repulsed by the Acknowledgments. But I think I’ve already said enough about that elsewhere so I’ll let it slide.

The next thing that threw me off were the epigraphs. Now as a matter of personal preference I have to say I like epigraphs. They always run the risk of making the author seem a little pretentious, making grand claims to profundity for the book you are about to read, but I like them all the same. Two epigraphs can also work. With two epigraphs one can be played off against the other, like a verse from the Bible followed by some lyrics from Led Zeppelin. Two epigraphs tell you that this is a really complex work, one whose themes can’t possibly be addressed by a single source.

The Blind Assassin has three epigraphs.

One senses that the author is now laying it on a bit thick. This sense is heightened by the epigraphs themselves. The first is from Ryszard Kapuscinski (don’t ask) and describes an act of historical barbarism that probably could have been introduced at some point within the text just as easily. (Maybe it is. I didn’t get very far.) The second epigraph is an “Inscription on a Carthaginian Funeral Urn,” and it is clear that we are beyond the point of seeming pretentious. Finally there is a quotation taken from Sheila Watson: “The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.” This throws me completely, and not just because I don’t know my Sheila Watson from Ryszard Kapuscinski or Carthaginian funeral urns. In order to be effective an epigraph has to have a specific relation to the text it introduces. But how specific can “The word is a flame burning in a dark glass” be to anything? Such a flabby line could just as easily have been the epigraph to Heart of Darkness, The Waste Land, To the Lighthouse, or Middlemarch.

Full of misgivings, I finally approached the text.

Since I don’t have any idea what The Blind Assassin is about, I have to limit myself to a consideration of style. There are a number of curious features to Atwood’s style, none of which are very pleasant. The first thing that strikes you is the sentence structure, which seems to be a transcription of bad free verse poetry into paragraphs, with a profusion of colons and semi-colons used to indicate where the line breaks were supposed to be. This is not at all to say the prose is “poetic” (the most overused and incorrectly applied adjective in the reviewer’s lexicon). Whatever else it would require, for any prose to be truly poetic it would have to have some kind of regular rhythm to it and not just be a pile of dreamy images. Atwood’s prose is like bad free verse in that it has no rhythm at all:

Also I ought to warn Richard, at his office: he would wish to have a statement of grief prepared. I went into my dressing room: I would need black, and a handkerchief.

What is it with these colons? There are seven in the first two pages (big print, wide margins), along with three semi-colons (in my opinion a rather affected and usually needless piece of punctuation). In the third chapter the semi-colon pops up everywhere, including at least four sentences (again within two pages) with two each. There is something lazy about such writing, as though Atwood doesn’t want to put the mental effort into writing a well-constructed sentence with a natural flow. The artificiality of the style draws attention to itself, as though it wants to force us to recognize how important it is by grinding to an inarticulate, inexpressive halt. Take the end of the first chapter:

But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.

And the end of the third:

His smoke-stained fingers. The distant glimpse of water. All drowned now.
Drowned, but shining.

This is Very Important, Very Serious stuff. It is writing that is being put on display, which is something bad writing should always avoid.

And it is bad writing. The second feature of Atwood’s style that strikes one is the imagery. Again, one gets the sense that this is the prose of a lazy poet. On the first page we are confronted with this:

A hot wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water.

Huh? How so? Hair blowing in the wind doesn’t look at all like ink spilled in water. And how on earth can the narrator describe it in such a way when it’s her own hair? Is she looking at herself in a mirror? An apt image that would be. More likely though she is imagining herself in a movie, the strands of her hair gently stirring as if in slow motion. Very poetic, that slow motion stuff.

Five pages was enough. There was no point in continuing. Perhaps the most disturbing indication that things were not going well was the brief extract supposedly taken from a newspaper. Atwood’s idea of newspaper writing apparently means getting rid of the semi-colons. Otherwise it is yet another false note. “She denied any possibility of intoxication as Miss Chase did not drink” is not a construction found in many dailies. In fairness, the newspaper piece is not as badly handled as the newspaper style of most writers of literary fiction, but that isn’t saying much. After the newspaper report things return to their usual groove. The third chapter ends with another obtrusive but utterly useless image: “The trace of brown cloud in the brilliant sky, like ice cream smudged on chrome.”

Hair blowing like spilled ink. Ice cream smudged on chrome. Striking similes only work when they are appropriate, when they not only surprise us but work as descriptions of reality. Unfortunately, reality is not the province of fine writing. Maybe that third epigraph has a point: that Atwood’s words are not meant to be read but rather placed behind glass. Such books should be left to admire themselves.

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