Yes, this is Margaret Atwood’s other book. Oh, my, aren’t I sassy today! This was written in the ’90s after A Handmaid’s Tale and it even won the Booker Prize and yet still the lesser known. It is certainly more sedate than Handmaid’s, at least by comparison. We aren’t thrown head first into a terrible dystopia (unless you consider 1990s Canada a dystopia).
It is a portrait of a regal family that rose to power at the fin de siecle, the main character’s grandfather in the 1880s takes over a button company (takes it off somebody’s hand) as something to do business-wise and is able to turn it into a multi-million dollar corporation. (With the help of international conflict and World War I, so more out of luck – or bad luck – just someone else’s bad luck.)
The interesting feature about this novel is that it is written entirely in a form called Belles Lettres, meaning that there is no third person about viewing upon the story, it’s all told within the story, but from someone who is witnessing the story as it occurs.
Let me back up, Belle Lettres is a special Point Of View. You might call it First Person Objective. It’s a story told not as if a person is sitting with you telling you their story, but instead it’s told through newspaper articles, journals, diaries, post cards, memoirs, and so on. Anything, any object, that the audience could pick up and read accounts of this or these people.
I recently came across someone who wanted to tell a speculative fiction story through scientific documents and electronic “help pages”. This person was under the impression that this was a brand new form of story telling, but, sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. The method in delivering the telling is new, but the thing itself still falls under the category of Belles Lettres, or beautiful letters – as in the things that you write on pieces of paper to tell people the latest news in your life. I’m certain he’d be disappointed, but everybody likes to think they’ve found the brand new thing.
Dracula was written as Belle Lettres through correspondence with Jonathan Harker and his betrothed Mina for the first part, then newspaper articles, journals (the spookiest being Doctor Seward taking account of his patient Renfield) and then Mina’s personal journal entries. Some of the entries are disorienting, especially if the characters don’t understand what is happening to them. And if you are reading this without any knowledge of Dracula, you find it not only disorienting, but very frightening. You can’t explain what is happening to Lucy who keeps getting sicker and sicker. And why did a wolf jump off of a dead ship filled with bodies? And why is Renfield so fascinated with eating flies and spiders? You have to be very mindful of all of the little details that the authors themselves are missing and you have to step outside of their point of view (become objective) in order to gain any incite into what’s going on. Luckily, we can cheat and watch the films beforehand.
But I’m not able to do that with the Blind Assassin. I don’t know this story at all. This is a story that’s even more unique, it’s told through newspaper articles (throughout the decades of the last of the 19th and all of the Twentieth Century), the Main Character, Iris Chase Griffen, memoir and her sister Laura’s science fiction book.
At first glance, nothing seems to be amiss. The papers repeatedly tell of the accidental deaths of the various members of the Chase family over the years, but they seem to be nothing more than bad luck. And then there’s this strange science fiction novel that is being told to the main character (of the novel who is unnamed – but a woman reminiscent of Laura herself). It’s of a strange world far away straight out of a pulp fiction magazine with blue (albeit painted) people, green eight legged cat beasts of burden. A brutal world where the planet’s most powerful city sacrifices a virgin every year and most of their caste system are doomed to slave labor, the children forced to work looms until they go blind.
Little things start to cross over from the memoir to the novel. In Iris’s memoir she talks about their maid making them little dough people out of bread dough scraps and in the novel little clay women are made to destroy during the time of the virgin sacrifice.
Then there’s the tale of the planet’s god, a bright young warrior god, who goes into the underworld to do battle with the dark army lying in wait there. They tear him apart, then the goddess picks up his remains and re-assembles him but not quite the same as before. This reflects Iris and Laura’s father’s story of going to World War I, a bright young soldier, but on the battlefield they metaphorically tear him apart and his wife has to re-assemble the broken man who comes back, but he isn’t re-assembled quite the same.
The planet erects a statue dedicated to the broken god, just as the small town that Laura lives in erects a statue dedicated to the broken soldier who came back from World War I. The “Laura character” in the novel has an affair with a fiction writer and Laura’s father has an affair (after their mother’s death) with a sculptor. These are stretches of comparisons, but I’m only a third of the way through. I have a feeling that those cross references will become more frequent and more closely associated as I go.
I fully expect that the accidental deaths will turn out to be not so accidental, but how is the big question. The writers of the articles won’t reveal it. The science fiction novel within this novel will be willing to expose it (author Laura is quite the rebel), but only symbolically. No, I feel that somehow, Iris will finally reveal everything and she may turn out to not be the sweet little old lady that she seems to be in the beginning.
The memoir within the novel is the most interesting of the types of Belle Lettres (if I’m honest), because it doesn’t simply become the act of giving the audience facts as the newspaper articles do, or unraveling the point of view character’s experiences as they happen as the journal entries do, but are an act of revealing, a showing that which has not yet been seen by those who know this character – a very, special and privileged view into the character’s inner world.
I think Iris will reveal these dangerous things because she’s in her nineties and has no heirs, no family legacy, it’s all gone away just as the planet’s finest, most powerful city has been destroyed and long sunk into dust. Iris has nothing left to lose. But since we’re reading her memoirs we have to wonder, will she want to destroy the one thing she does have: her image. Will she want to tarnish herself and her family’s good name? Or is the moral of the tale that evil deeds will out in the end, so it’s better to be remembered as honest even if flawed?
I guess I’ll see….