Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Blind Assassin: a critique of sorts. Wrestling with Margaret Atwood!

An intellectual post today, praise me or hate me for it! Strap your seatbelts on! For anyone who hasn't read the book, this is the stuff: http://www.amazon.com/Blind-Assassin-Novel-Margaret-Atwood/dp/0385720955 Check out the reviews for some proper gushing.

I guess that The Blind Assassin qualifies as a feminist novel. A lot of it is about exploring the ways in which women have been oppressed throughout their history. Iris Chase is married off when she is eighteen, her sister Laura is sent off to different schools and eventually an inhumane clinic as a way of suppressing her extravagance, their mentor Reenie becomes pregnant and has to get married practically against her will, and so on goes the story, littered with anecdotes and interesting facts about how women were treated and/or perceived (cooking, sewing, gardening & the rest of the full smack).

Central to the book (titular, in fact) is the relationship between a blind assassin and a mute girl who is supposed to be sacrificed. The assassin is meant to kill her but eventually they fall in love with each other, so he takes her away and on the run to get out of the city. The image of these two kids is by far the strongest and most brilliant moment of the book. It functions as a superb metaphor for the relationship between man, blinded by his own drives and desires to the pain and damage that he causes, and woman, incapable of communicating her own suffering to the men (further layers are added when you consider that her tongue was cut off by men, but those were the same men who blinded the assassin). The exchange between the two then becomes partial, fugacious, full of stumbling in the dark and silent weeping, but also carnal and primordial. A very rich moment of literature, definitely one of Atwood’s best.

However there are some problems. For a book that is purportedly about gender relations, I found it to be often unexpectedly na├»ve about its own subject matter. For starters, there is a gigantic problem with Laura Chase, the sister of the protagonist. Iris Chase seems (implausibly) more interested in exercises of linguistic virtuosity than in writing a memoir: Season of chrysanthemums, the funeral flower; white ones, that is. The dead must get so tired of them. – very pretty, but why the sudden curve into esoteric witticism? Thus, she seems to be nothing more than a surrogate for the author, whose interest in showing off with language is much more credible.
This is the lady, for anyone who's wondering.
The problem with Laura is exactly the same – she too is just an authorial surrogate, albeit in a completely different way. Where Iris represents the conscious (or self-conscious) side of Atwood, Laura stands for the side which belongs to the subconscious. According to Iris, ‘Laura was strange.’ Indeed the character is eccentric, but the nature of her eccentricity is so disingenuous that it almost results irritating: Laura is incredibly sensitive and invariably innocent, as well as socially inept. Oh wow. She is also asexual, reaching the age of twenty-something without showing anything like a hint of desire for a man, let alone a relationship (the closest she gets is her Mother Teresa-style attempt to save Alex Thomas, the communist lover of Iris).

Laura is not a character. She is an ideal. She is a subconscious projection of the self in its perfect integrity. For all of her social dysfunctions, she is always stalwart in her confidence in herself and her identity (just like we all would like to be). She is simply the female Tyler Durden. And, much as with Tyler Durden, the protagonist is split into two selves – the present and actual Iris, with all of her insecurities and her self-awareness (even excessive self-awareness, given how circular her style ends up being), and the ideal and transcendental Laura. Hell, she even has the name of the most famous mythical woman after Helen of Troy – hello Petrarch? Laura is a character whose privacy is entirely inaccessible (compare Tyler Durden, who is a man and totally public as a figure, with Laura, who is a woman and totally private as a figure – an interesting and revealing polarisation, I think). In this, she actualises the fantasy of the reader – it’s certainly seductive to think of ourselves as some mysterious and unreachable individual who is totally self-confident and whom others can’t figure out. We are the heroes, albeit ‘misunderstood’ heroes. Predictably, Atwood doesn’t have the courage to attribute this fantasy to the real ‘speaker,’ and she splits the voice from the subconscious ideal into the two sisters. But they are indeed the same person, and the speeches of Iris sometimes even parrot the ones she attributes to Laura in her memoir – for instance, Laura demonstrates an eccentric theological interest. Compare this with Iris’s own journal entry in The Water Nixie:

God works in his mysterious ways his wonders to perform, as Reenie used to say. Could it be that Myra is my designated guardian angel? Or is she instead a foretaste of Purgatory? And how do you tell the difference?

Is the above paragraph not the kind of thing we may expect Laura to say, quite exactly? According to Iris, they even wrote The Blind Assassin ‘together,’ even though Laura’s presence was only spiritual. The two sisters are the same character – both stand as expressions of the same (authorial) voice, struggling with the relationship between what it would like to be and what it is.
Laura's younger brother
Unlike Fight Club, TBA does not acknowledge the tension between actual and ideal self. While Pahlaniuk has the characters finding out that they are the same person and even confronting each other, Atwood insists to the end that the two sisters are two different characters.

Furthermore, for a novel that purports to be about gender relations, it seems to hold the two sexes to very different standards. Of course I don’t have an issue with the story being told from an exclusively feminine perspective, that’s not just legitimate but natural, but the representation of the men is ruthless to say the least. There is not a single man who is likeable in the entire novel. The father of the two girls is an alcoholic who abuses his wife and neglects his daughters, and whose only redeeming feature is a sort of military attachment to his wife. Iris’s designed husband Richard is a heartless monster and he even indulges in child abuse, as we later find out. The teacher of the sisters, Mr Erskine, is a fascist and he too indulges in child abuse (it must have been fashionable back in the day). Alex Thomas, the communist lover, is cynical to the point of nausea, and proud of his cynicism too. Walter, the husband of Iris’s care-taker when she is old, is good to the extent that animals can be good – he’s basically a mindless brute, used for menial tasks like driving her around or shovelling her snow, and Iris frames him by saying that ‘there are some men for whom chewing is a form of thinking’ (I’d love to see how Atwood would react to an equivalent passage about women: ‘there are some women for whom washing plates is a form of thinking’). Then there’s some side-characters who are male – an old French waiter who offers to marry her, people in the cinema who try to harass her, soldiers whom she can’t speak with because they’d ‘mistake her intentions,’ and other assorted folk whose sole occupation of the mind is an attempt at fucking her (or fucking some other girl).

The book disallows for the notion that men are capable of having good feelings, or an intelligence (one which doesn’t express itself in cruelty, at least), or even just an interiority. Her male characters are flat and incapable of ambiguity or paradox. Above all, in TBA men are incapable of possessing sensitivity. This is how Alex Thomas thinks of Iris when he has to part from her:

Her lovely distressed face wavers like a reflection in a troubled pool; already dissolving, and soon it will be into tears. But despite her sorrow, she has never been so luscious. A soft and milky glow surrounds her; the flesh of her arm, where he’s held it, is firm and plumped. He’d like to grab hold of her, haul her up to his room, fuck her six ways to Sunday. As if that would fix her in place.

Let’s roll! I’m sure that when John Clare was taken away from his wife to be locked into an asylum, he was thinking to himself, ‘I’d love to stick it up her ass as hard as I can!’ I’m not saying that this element does not exist in the male psyche – of course it does, and sometimes it can become incredibly pervasive, even predominant. I just wouldn’t reduce the male psyche to this bestial sentiment, which is the only one ever expressed by men in TBA.

The great inconsistency in TBA, then, is that it doesn’t respect its own brilliant metaphor. Women are ‘mute,’ but men are anything but ‘blind’ in this novel. They see all the damage that they cause, and in fact they seem to take pleasure from it. The narrative negates the delicate ethical balance which its central metaphor suggests. To me, the incongruity is so glaring that I find it astonishing that such a novel could have won the Booker Prize (assuming that it is as prestigious a prize as it appears).
Talk about a bitch-slap title. But the question is legitimate.
I won’t go so far as to say that I’m ‘concerned’ or ‘insulted’ by this book. It’s a well-woven story and I enjoyed reading it. But I wonder whether the message it’s sending out is as limpid as it would like. Mainly, and judging by its portrayal of gender relations, I wonder if it mightn’t be a case of using feminism simply as a pretext for androphobia. There does seem to be an undercurrent of discrimination against men in Atwood’s writing, and TBA definitely buys into the tone and structures which characterise texts normally labelled as misogynistic, only it inverts the genders.

I’d love to hear what the ladies think about this. I, for my own part, will take refuge in Atwood’s poetry, which I think is much more aware and ‘responsible’ than her prose, and in my opinion also much more interesting. I say this having read only two of Atwood’s novels, and I’d like to qualify this by stating that I thought Surfacing was a much better novel than TBA, though I did read it quite a while ago. I’ll give a shot at some more of her stuff at some stage, but I’d like to say that I remain a fan – albeit one which she probably is not interested in having, seeing how I happen to be a man.


maxratul said...

will attempt to read this, if i manage to get it in india.

Katherine said...

Lol, I'm too overwhelmed with my literature study to formulate a detailed riposte to this. Some thoughts though.

In the early paras you seem not to be critiquing Atwood at all - but as you pointed out before - the impulse, most marked in the postmodern, toward self-reflexive comment and metanarrative. Your quarrel isn't with Atwood - it's disingeuous to suggest so - but with possible form of reader engagement. Certainly Iris is an author-surrogate but I don't see this as a stumbling block, because she's also a sympathetic and complex character with a life-history - it's not just as though she's Maggie Atwood with another name. You placed a lot of weight upon Laura as ideal figure etc that readers, who you seem to suggest are predominantly female, would identify with. But actually I never much cared for Laura, who is I grant a kind of absent centre, and I think much of the interest resides in Iris and in the narration itself, i.e. in the periphery - I'm not even sure that the reader is meant to like Laura.

On gender, I think that it's kind of amusing that you place so much shocked emphasis on the fact that the male characters of this book are unlikeable (actually, I didn't dislike Alex as much as you did - cynical though I agree he is). Would a male author's objectification of women or portrayal of their flaws exercise you as much in a similar critique - you'd have to impugn almost the entirety of the canon, Petrarch and his ideal Laura included. If I was going to joke about it, I'd say, well, isn't it our turn :D? Though I'd hate for you to feel concerned or slightly impugned or slightly uneasy in your gender role :P.

Seriously though - although in other Atwood books there is more complex involvement with the subtleties of gender, I don't have a problem with what goes on here. Your critique doesn't make reference to the fact that the book is mostly set in the past. In a historical moment where women were far more disempowered than today. She's not necessarily talking about you, honey. Moreover, Iris is at times an ambiguous and untrustworthy character and narrator (you pointed out her stylistic excesses at the beginning) - we should not confuse her views with those of her creator. And I think the central vignette (with the titular Blind Assassin) is more complex than you suggest - surely it's about more than man being blinded by desire and woman being silenced. It contains within it a recognition of how two people, who happen to be of different genders, with analoguous but different vulnerabilities can achieve (equal?) partnership.

In short, I disagree :).

C.Hutchcroft11 said...

I found the same thing with Cat's Eye. If I recall, I called her a cashew-faced bint in a wig and stormed off two-thirds of the way through. Plumb the depths of feminine experience it may well have done, yet I couldn't help feeling that the men were little more than lumbering automata whose sole raison d'etre was to thoughtlessly malign women as often as possible.
I'd never say that she lacks for complexity or deftness in her writing, but I got the same sense in Cat's Eye that the main character was little more than a hollowed-out avatar to spout Atwood's florid fripperies.

Yet somehow I still absolutely love all things Angela Carter. Not sure how that works, mind you.

And wow, to say you prefer her poetry over her fiction... I don't disagree there but it certainly says a lot about her fiction in itself!