Blind Assassin, The

by Margaret Atwood (2000)

5/10

Despite having enjoyed Atwood’s flawed but visionary sci-fi, I had no desire to read her other stuff simply because the stories didn’t interest me. I allowed myself to be convinced on this one via friend recs and critical acclaim, and the results have been predictably disappointing.

While I admire Atwood’s plotting and her structural ingenuity, and while she continues to impress with her sharp, inventive prose, the story itself was frustratingly boring and the pacing was way off. I couldn’t wait to finish it, not from page-turning compulsion but rather just so I could read something (anything) else. It’s the only Atwood book (out of five) that has felt like an absolute chore to pick up every time I wanted to read.

Given the acclaim, I’m not arrogant enough to think the problem is everyone else. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for a more plodding, deliberate story, a family chronicle almost along the lines of (the brilliant) Angle of Repose. Maybe I was too scatter-brained to sit with all of Atwood’s flowery metaphors and cutting insights for the time they deserved. Maybe I’m just an insensitive oaf.

But Atwood’s not blameless here. I felt duped after reading so many “Blind Assassin” segments in the early goings only to be turned over to the comparatively pedestrian Iris for hundreds of pages afterwards. The entire time I wanted less elderly meandering and more story-within-story. You could call it a problem of expectations perhaps, but Atwood shaped those expectations in the very first chapter.

Also, I’d imagine there’s an artistic reason to go so heavy on setting and description, but it’s impossible for me to divorce whatever that reason is from the tedium I felt in reading it (there’s my inner oaf again). And I’m not too dense to have missed the explanatory passage on 417-18:

I’ve looked back over what I’ve set down so far, and it seems inadequate. Perhaps there is too much frivolity in it, or too many things that might be taken for frivolity. . . Breakfasts, picnics, ocean voyages, costume balls, newspapers, boating on the river. Such items do not assort very well with tragedy. But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it (my emphasis).

Maybe so, but that doesn’t make everything that led up to it an enjoyable read. Having a narrative “reason” for it doesn’t automatically negate its gratuitousness.

Similarly, on p. 479 Iris admits that the characterization of Richard had been inadequate (something I hadn’t actually noticed until the narrator mentioned it, but then agreed with). But it’s okay because that’s just how she perceived him, or something. Frankly, and this goes for the above “frivolity” as well, that’s not a valid excuse for me. Self-recognition of a narrative flaw is not justification for that flaw.

So then, plotting, structure, prose? Impressive. Characters, pacing, story? Meh. The “twists” weren’t even that twisty. Honestly, excepting the distinctly Atwoodian touches (sci-fi weirdness, edgy psycho-social commentary), this felt like a really bloated Alice Munro short story. And while I appreciate  Runaway, it didn’t leave me wanting to read any more Canadian, female, familial strife. I would recommend it for fans of Atwood, Munro, or other slow-paced family dramas.

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