Coming to terms, at long last, with The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I recently read Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text, where I picked up this awesome little nugget about “[diluted] tmesis”:

. . . we do not read everything with the same intensity of reading; a rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text; our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or to skip certain passages (anticipated as “boring”) in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote (which are always its articulations: whatever furthers the solution of the riddle, the revelation of fate): we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations . . .

I am quoting Roland Barthes in attempt to dignify the fact that I skipped 200 pages of the chore that was Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winner The Blind Assassinat midpoint-ish, I just threw my hands up, muttered Fuck it, and resolutely skipped to the end. Which, normally, I’d be loathe to do. But Atwood’s impossible-to-me text called for drastic measures.

A backgrounder: When I returned to the 218th page, after several days of avoiding the book — and a lot of whining thrown in — I was aghast and very much resentful that, apparently, I was yet to even reach the midpoint. It was such a chore. It was tedious. I hated that I was reading it. And yet I read on—even though I’ve previously sworn to stop this sadistic habit of Compulsive Finishing of Books.

I read on because I loved Iris, the narrator near the end of her days, the chronicler of the Chase-Griffen saga. I liked how she recounted the family history, her childhood, the loves, the betrayals, and the tragedies. I liked Iris. She survived all that madness, and she was taking the truth to task — and I liked how she wrote it all.

The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.

At its heart, The Blind Assassin is the story of two sisters, Iris and Laura. I’ve found that in these kinds of stories, the reader [me] is always tempted to choose the side of one — either logically, or on a purely personal bias. And I’ve discovered that the good books make you swing from one sister to the other in a matter of pages — off the top of my head, Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald and Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman.

With this novel, I was Iris all the way. At that midpoint-ish point, I was resolved to like only her because I thought Laura vacant and bland, occasionally selfish, ridiculously blargh. At times I wanted to hit her. Most of the time, I just rolled my eyes and impatiently waited for Iris to stop talking about her. Enough about Laura! Talk more about you!

And, a fact that I’m sure the people who’ve read this book [to its conclusion] will find curious: I could barely tolerate reading the novel-within-a-novel, also called The Blind Assassin, which was published after its author Laura’s ooh-mysterious death. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

My distaste for all the Laura parts and the novel-within-a-novel parts [more so the sci-fi story within that novel-within-a-novel, augh] had me, ultimately, skipping to the end. It was disrespectful to the sister that I actually liked, but I was just so fed up. Besides, with barely-reading so many pages, we were only kidding ourselves.

I skipped to the end. I read the last chapter. And then I went back and read the penultimate chapter. And then I did a little more mind-scrambling and read from a hundred pages from the end.

And, will ye look at that, I was liking what I was reading. I was thrilled with the revelations. And smug, too — an I knew it, ha! reception to the answers heaped upon many questions Iris set us up with. I finally understood what all that narrative lollygagging [why, yes, I coined a phrase] was all about.

Guilt-ridden thus, at that point, I went back to page 218 and read the novel properly, obediently. As only a literarily-chastised girl could. And I liked Iris more — one of the most solid characters I’ve ever come across. And guess what? I loathed Laura — and basically everyone who wasn’t Iris — exponentially. And I still grumbled when I had to go through all that novel-within-a-novel muddle.

Knowing how it ended lessened my impatience. I was more generous, what with the revelations. [I am weird, but predictable.] But, bottom line, it was clear from the onset that Atwood and I didn’t click. I admired the complexity, its structure, and I loved Iris, I loved the language — but it just was not a book I enjoyed. Or even thankful to have read. I can’t dwell on the exact reasons, because I am sure that this is largely an emotional reaction. Augh. I don’t get it. I’m sure that I don’t like it. Sorry, heh.

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13 comments

  1. I have read two Atwood novels in their entirety for highschool (oh Canadian highschools love her) Alias Grace and Cat’s Eye and that is definitely more than enough for me. She has a knack for beautiful description but it’s hidden between so much else that it is not worth the trudge through them.

    1. She has a knack for beautiful description but it’s hidden between so much else that it is not worth the trudge through them.

      Yes, yes. That’s exactly how I felt. I feel like I’m not part of the in-crowd when I failed to like this book from the get-go, but maybe Atwood really isn’t for me. Oddly enough, I’m glad you feel the same way, haha.

  2. Too bad you didn’t like Atwood. Personally, The Blind Assassin is one of my favorite novels ever. Never mind that I spent the first half of the book wondering where it was going and what she was doing with it. For that first half, I enjoyed the language. Then, when things started clicking, it was mind-blowing for me. Plus, I loved the sadness of Iris.

    Though I do admit that it seems she can be hit-and-miss. For instance, I also loved Alias Grace, but her other novel that I’ve read, Surfacing, I could barely get through.

  3. I may still try it. But oh my. I’m afraid I too will dislike it. And it’s a book I own. I wish I didn’t own it now….

    1. Ahahaha, I feel your pain. But then, since you do have the book already, well, take a peek. :] A lot of people swear by this book — I’m sadly just not one of them. Who knows? You and Atwood could be friends?

  4. “As only a literarily-chastised girl could. ”
    Heheh. Well you came out the other side of it. I don’t think I could choose a favourite novel of Margaret Atwood’s: I always admire her writing even when the stories are not always enjoyable in and of themselves, and that sense of wonder (“How *did* she do that?) contributes to its own kind of enjoyment for me. I think you might enjoy Cat’s Eye more, or perhaps the short fiction in Wilderness Tips, but I bet you’ll be wanting a break before you think of trying another!

  5. Okay LOL I read this book from beginning to end. Did not skip a page. There was a moment when I thought I would stop reading BECAUSE IT WAS TOO MUCH IT WAS LIKE CHUGGING DOWN CONDENSED MILK.

    But I though it was brilliant, and I was glad to have read this book. :)

    (Also: I actually adore Atwood. So there. Hee.)

  6. *thought

    sorry crazy fingers

  7. I always wonder about this obligation most of us feel to fight our way through books we’re clearly not enjoying. Literary chastisement may well have a lot to do with it. Do you think it’s because we’re so used to writing about books either academically or on blogs that we feel that if we bail out of one, we forfeit our opinion of it?

    1. I know that I’m largely governed by, ah, financial concerns. That is, I feel exponentially guilty when I can’t finish a book, given that my budget for books is way larger than my budget for, well, food. So, it’s that feeling of, “Damn, I should’ve bought something else, but I’m sticking with you, and I’m making this work.”

      And, yes, ever since I began this blog, I know that I owe it to the book [at least] to say why I hated it. Or why I hated reading it. It’s this kind of aversion that’s, well, I think it’s as helpful to people, and to myself, as someone elaborating on their love for it. Sure, there are more limits to the knowledge upon which we base our opinions — but that doesn’t mean they’ve got less merit. At least, that’s how I see it.

      Then again, I’ve always been one of those pesky readers who insist on finishing books, in one way or another.

  8. @Honey, @BuriedinPrint, @Eliza –> Well, one of the main reasons, I suppose, why there’s so much pain in this post is that I fully expected that I’ll be loving this book to the high heavens. It seemed like a Sasha Book — sadness, lyricism, secrets, literature, complex histories. But sometimes just wasn’t clicking, and I do know that my impatience was a big part of this experience. Then again, if I really were inclined to dedicate myself to this book, I wouldn’t be feeling so impatient, right? I know, too, that a lot of you love this book! But, again, she just wasn’t for me.

  9. […] your head when you read me quoting something about “diluted tmesis” in an attempt to dignify the listless reading of a certain book, Barthes—one of my favorite [dead] people—is to […]

  10. […] The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood. [While Reading] [Post-Read Thoughts] […]

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