Margaret Atwood, an assassin's touch

August 27, 2000|By Charles Nicol | Charles Nicol,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Blind Assassin," by Margaret Atwood. Doubleday. 521 pages. $26.

In the first sentence, Laura deliberately drives off a bridge in Toronto in 1945 and it takes the rest of the novel for her sister Iris to explain why. Maybe not such an original idea, but still, this is Margaret Atwood, who manages to write American best sellers even though she's a Canadian and a feminist. There's also a scholarly society named after her.

For those who enjoy playful narratives, we have a number of chapters from a novel within a novel, also called "The Blind Assassin," allegedly written by Laura about her own love affair; this is supposed to have been a scandalous best seller and cult-fiction a couple of years after Laura's death. Then there's a sort of fragmentary novel within that one, an off- the-cuff science-fiction story told by her lover, a Marxist who writes pulp fiction for a living, and this one is actually about a blind assassin -- although by the time it gets published in a pulp magazine, this character has dropped out of the narrative. All of this is nicely gathered up by Iris as she looks back over her lifetime, caressing the details of her past while negotiating the embarrassments of old age and the changing face of Toronto.

Atwood seems comfortable tackling any historical or ahistorical space. Her last novel, "Alias Grace," was based on an actual woman, mid-19th century. This one re-creates the Depression, with a convincing viewpoint at the upper end of the deep divide between rich and poor. But we also have period characters to go with the scenery.

If I say that the three main females are two sisters and a sister-in-law, all rich, you may say, OK. But if I also say that the three main male characters are a responsible capitalist(father, who loses his capital), a wicked capitalist (husband, who doesn't), and a communist in trouble with the law (penniless lover), you may groan for good cause at the easy labels. Iris ends up confessing that in her description of her wicked capitalist husband "he remains a cardboard cutout." Unfortunately true.

Why the Depression and the nasty capitalist? I suspect it has to do with Atwood's own brand of feminist insights. The physical relations between men and women don't seem to offer much pleasure to Atwood's women even when the choice is a romantic one; they always hide a power struggle, and the men have all the power.

"The Blind Assassin" takes place at the end of an era when women had few rights, and when the Depression stripped away so much capital, an eligible young daughter turned into a family asset. In Atwood's best-known novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," set in a mythic near-future when fertile women are required to become concubines of important men because of a severe decline in the birthrate, the rights of women turn out to be easily forgotten; when the ability to have children becomes a valued commodity, women are again turned into property.

Still, writing well can be one weapon of liberation, and it eventually turns out that our narrator, meek Iris, has used this ability as a very powerful weapon indeed. As an assassin she has been far from blind.

Charles Nicol, professor of English and humanities at Indiana State University, is currently writing a novel, "Mercy Short." He once escorted a president of the Margaret Atwood Society to an after-hours party at a Modern Language Association

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