When Teresa wrote about Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin this January, I realized that this was one of Atwood’s few non-speculative-fiction novels I had yet to read, and I put it on my list with anticipated pleasure. Teresa did an absolutely wonderful job (as usual) of describing the complicated strands of this layered and nonlinear novel, so I’ll just provide a link to her review here, and just sum up by saying that the narrative begins with the middle, when Iris Chase Griffen’s sister Laura Chase drives (deliberately?) off a bridge. We then return to the beginning, to describe how the sisters’ tangled relationship got to this point of disaster, and beyond. The layers consist of Iris’s narration, interspersed with chapters of a novel found with Laura’s papers (The Blind Assassin), interspersed with installments of a pulp science fiction story one character is telling another (“The Blind Assassin”), interspersed with news clippings and bits of the society pages.
I’ll mostly dispense with plot, and focus on one of the things that interested me most about the novel: the way Atwood plays with images of blindness and other kinds of mutilation, and to what effect. (Caveat: I’ll be talking about events that happen in the book.)
The first time we see it (or indeed, the first time I noticed it, which is not the same thing — I think this book would bear a lot of re-reading for the details) is when Iris and Laura are little girls, and their mother dies after a miscarriage. The girls sneak in and look at the half-formed baby:
But it wasn’t a kitten. It was grey, like an old cooked potato, with a head that was too big: it was all curled up. Its eyes were squinched shut, as if the light was hurting it.
Here we have, of course, the book’s first blind assassin. Laura recognizes it immediately, and it evokes her pity, not her fear. Laura is represented throughout the book as a kind of angel, though not the chubby putti sort, surrounded by Debussy and sentiment. Rather, she is literal and loyal, a messenger of hard tidings, someone who understands what she sees because she has no interest in self-deception. Someone like that — like angels — is dangerous.
Iris and Laura’s father is another example of blindness — or, in this case, half-blindness — and mutilation. Norval Chase goes off to the first World War, where his two brothers are killed and he is viciously wounded: he has only one eye and one leg remaining. When he returns, he can no longer connect on any real level with his wife and daughters, and he starts down the path of drinking himself to death. At one point, he pays for a memorial, which he calls “The Weary Soldier.” When he gets complaints that the soldier looks too dejected, he says
they could consider themselves lucky the Weary Soldier had two arms and two legs, not to mention a head, and that if they didn’t watch out he’d go for bare-naked realism all the way and the statue would be made of rotting body fragments, of which he had stepped on a good many in his day.
His one passion is for his factories, where he can provide jobs for returning soldiers.He’ll sacrifice anything for that goal, even his daughters (and even when he knows it won’t suffice) but we can see that he’s only half-blind to the terrible predicament he’s sending them into, and we can see the deep inner mutilation this entails — the “rotting body fragments” that are left. With Norval Chase, Atwood brings up an entire national problem of blindness — blindness to women’s roles in society, of course, but also blindness to veterans and to violence.
Iris herself, of course, has become mutilated by time. We see her vision of herself when she’s young, but when she’s writing her narration, she’s 83 years old, and she frequently talks about what time has done to her sight, her hearing, her mobility, her memory, her sense of confusion. Her insights are sharp, but they come and go, and they leave questions: why is she estranged from her granddaughter? Is everything really so much someone else’s fault? What does her half-blindness really mean?
When we read the novel-in-a-novel, The Blind Assassin, and the story-in-a-novel-in-a-novel, “The Blind Assassin,” we first get the impression that we’re getting at the real truth, that this is a roman à clef. But soon we see that this is Iris’s story, again: her impressions, her imagination, and not the “truth” at all, whatever that may in fact be. Two people trying to save each other from sacrifice, but one is blind and one is mute. Which one is which? Was the blind one really blind? Did the mute one choose to be mute? Did the war that interrupted everything really cause total destruction? How would Laura have told the story?
My favorites of Atwood’s novels are the ones like this: Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride, the ones that make me look at the use of language and layered meaning and time frame, the ones that examine complicated relationships and allow for people to change over time. I thoroughly enjoyed this, especially for its careful examination of willed blindness and enforced silence.