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.

Being Dead

Being Dead by Jim Crace

What did it win?

National Book Critics Circle Award 2000

What’s it all about?

A married couple are murdered and their bodies left to rot on a beach.

Was it really any good?

It certainly wasn’t very pleasant, and I say this not just in response to the nihilism it takes as its theme, and which is introduced in the epigraph: “Don’t count on Heaven, or on Hell./ You’re dead. That’s it. Adieu. Farewell.” As if the attention given to the gradual decomposition of the two bodies isn’t enough, the narrator makes sure to tell us that the daughter’s visit to a church is pointless: “hymns and prayers have feeble tunes because there are no gods.” That’s it. Farewell.

The unpleasant thing about the book is not this, but the fact that it is impossible to sympathize with any of the characters. Joseph and Celice, the husband and wife zoologists who, at the beginning of the book, have just been bludgeoned to death, are revealed through flashbacks as small-minded people only interested in themselves. Like everyone else in the book, they spend most of their time scheming how to get what they want out of others. The rule in life is use or be used.

Affection, like God, is dead in this world. Everyone we meet is hateful. Syl, the daughter, sleeps with a stranger for taxi fare, a single act that establishes her as whorish, lazy and cheap. And full of hate. When her chauffeur, Geo, kindly suggests she start making a list of places to look for her missing parents, she makes a face: “She hated lists. She hated Things to Do.” She resents Geo to the extent that she feels she owes him anything. “It was tempting to get rid of Geo straight away. Already [the morning after!] he was getting on her nerves. He was a whiner and a liability.”

The casual violence of the natural world, the beetles, gulls and rats that devour Joseph and Celice, are nothing compared to the novel’s human hunters. The killer isn’t motivated by any complex psychological urges, but is only another swag fly on the beach. And even the clerk at the morgue who tries to seduce Syl imagines himself a predator feeding on the dead: “He’d like to have her warm and naked on a slab, his scissors slicing through her polymura coat.”

In one sense Joseph and Celice are to be envied since, being dead, they won’t have to suffer the indignities of old age (and of course their lives were boring, empty and meaningless anyway). The narrator even seems to get a weird delight or at least grim satisfaction in the messy end of “our doctors of zoology.” The murder is presented as a sort of terminal comeuppance. The scavengers feasting on their flesh represent nature’s revenge on her too literal-minded servants. Hence the frequent finger-wagging: They should have known better, should have realized that it all would come to this. And yet if only they’d had more imagination – had taken to heart The Goatherd’s Ancient Wisdom, had been more in tune with faint premonitions like the kind you get from the other end of a ringing telephone line. Perhaps then they could have understood a passage like this:

Love was to blame, and passion. Passion such as theirs, brief as it was, was strong enough to shake the balance of the natural world, and test its synchronicity. Where there is sex, then there is death. They are the dark co-ordinates of one straight line. Grief is death eroticized. And sex is only shuffling off this mortal coil before its time to plummet to the post-coital afterlife.

This, we are told, “is a scientific view.” I have my doubts.

To its credit, the novel is well organized and doesn’t draw too much attention to its clever reverse narrative. The writing is also quite effective, with a lot of the low-key, clinical impressionism and irony we have come to expect from writers like Ian McEwan. “If life was an express that hurtled between termini, then it had been their choice to quit the moving train before the final station had been reached and dash themselves against the flying stillness of the earth.” The “flying stillness of the earth” is good.

Unholy Legions

What is the biggest threat facing today’s literary culture? The erosion of imagination beneath the relentless double onslaught of television and film? The rise of an entertainment-industrial complex that has effectively turned books into corporate products? The marketing of demographically appealing fiction and good-looking authors to readers more interested in celebrity than art or ideas? The death of the stand-alone book review?

No, I’m afraid it’s none of the above. As any editorial these days is bound to tell you, the greatest danger is that posed by self-published authors.

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What Has Changed

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

I’ve used the line a hundred times in as many different contexts when talking about books. It casts an aura of learning over whatever position I choose to adopt. Nothing puts an opponent’s argument away faster than pointing out that you’ve heard it all before. Got a thing about today’s hotshot celebrity authors? Well, what about Byron? Can’t understand why poetry is so despised? My friend, poetry has been despised for centuries. Don’t like books being written as sequels? Check out Henry IV Part Two. And so it goes. There is nothing new under the sun; you can be sure we’ve heard it all before.

Nevertheless, I often find myself thinking that there are some things that have changed. Books today are marked by a spirit of the age as certain as that which previously marked a novel “Victorian” or a poem “Romantic.” Without getting into a narrow, fruitless discussion of what makes a book “postmodern” I came up with my own list of what I see as the three things that most define literary expression since, to draw a rough line in the sand, the 1970s.

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The Morning After

May 1, 2001. National Poetry Month (which is the same month and goes by the same name in both Canada and the United States) has come and gone. Organized as a publicity event – a party for the media, on a level with most book awards – it could claim some success. But as a “celebration of poetry and its vital place” in our culture the results were almost certainly counterproductive. The media came not to praise poetry, but to bury it. And their chorus was a bitter elegy.

No one should have been surprised. It seems the only time we talk about poetry any more is to ask if it’s dead. But in some of the voices raised against poetry this year I thought I could sense a change in tone. As low as poetry has been, for so long, I wonder if things haven’t begun to take a turn for the worse.

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Old Dogs, New Tricks

I’ve noticed I’ve been posting a lot of obituary notices recently. Mordecai Richler, Eudora Welty, Poul Anderson – it’s enough to make you think about a changing of the guard. Many of the world’s most highly regarded authors are now very old and, frankly, we can’t expect them to be around much longer. This raises the question of succession. Who will be the literary lions of the twenty-first century?

But perhaps that’s moving just a bit too fast. Philip Roth, age 68, has his doubts about whether literature, at least as we know it, will even exist in the new millennium:

I’m not good at finding encouraging features in American culture. I think we’ve got a substantial group of original and talented writers who’ve been at work in America for the past 20 or 30 years, but their readership gets duller and smaller every year. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here.

Well! Imagine being a young American writer and reading that! America’s most original and talented writers are part of a group that have been writing for 20 or 30 years! So much for the next wave!

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Some Observations on the New SF


In the following essay I want to take a look at what I see as some of the main trends in SF today. Before I get started, however, I have to provide some disclaimers. In the first place, I am not an authority on SF. While I am interested in SF, my fascination stays on this side of obsession. SF is a particularly lush field, and I can’t claim an acquaintance with the majority of it. The reviewing I do covers everything from history and biography to poetry and picture books, so I don’t have the time to give any one genre the full attention it deserves. In addition, my knowledge of the critical literature is sparse at best. Confessing my ignorance, but also delighting in my amateur status, I have decided to plunge straight in.

As a way of narrowing things down I have limited myself to discussing the stories found in the last three volumes of The Year’s Best Science-Fiction (that is, the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Annuals). The major issue this raises is the undue influence it gives to one man’s vision of SF – the editor of the Year’s Best anthologies, Gardner Dozois. But while I admit that this is a cause for some concern, I don’t see it as invalidating what I consider to be general thematic observations.

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Spring Cleaning

This year found the annual spring clean-up at my house taking on an added dimension. After extensively remodeling three other rooms, I finally came to the holy place where I keep my books. This forced me into special considerations. I definitely didn’t want any paint getting on my library. Just to be on the safe side I decided to put most of my books into boxes and move them well out of harm’s way.

The thought of putting these “moldering paper bricks” into temporary storage made me reflect. Once packed away, which books would ever come out again? I have room for about 1,500 volumes on my shelves, but I reached capacity some time ago and every week there are more coming in. Drastic times called for drastic measures. Several boxes were going to have to be put away for an indefinite period. How to choose?

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The Shrinking Canon

I attended the University of Toronto as both an undergraduate and graduate student from 1987 to 1996. In hindsight, we might say that these years marked the highpoint of the campus culture wars, before “politically incorrect” became the name of a bland late-night talk show. I can’t say that it was bliss in that dawn to be alive, but as an English student I did feel very much in the middle of things.

One of the offshoots of the political correctness debate in English departments everywhere was the campaign to update the “canon.” What this meant was opening the list of what had become more or less established texts to new voices. Certain writers, it was argued, had been unfairly excluded from the canon in the past. “Canon maintenance” was an expression on every young academic’s lips. It all seemed very important.

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The Death of the “Author”

It is one of the ironies of postmodernism that Roland Barthes’s claim to literary immortality comes from having pronounced the “death of the author.” What he meant was that an author’s intentions in creating a text are irrelevant in interpreting that text. The death of the author was life for the critic.

Academics immediately fell in love with the notion because it seemed to place them on an equal footing with genius. Meanwhile, authors who knew what Barthes’s theory amounted to were powerless to do anything about it. The announcement of the death of the author came after the fact, recognizing a dramatic shift in cultural power that had already occurred.

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