Love and death

The Blind Assassin

“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” So begins Margaret Atwood’s extraordinary new novel, The Blind Assassin.

The narrator is Laura’s older sister, Iris Chase, now in her 80s, reconstructing the long-ago events that led up to her sister’s apparent suicide. But before we learn more about Laura, a newspaper story tells us that Iris’s industrialist husband, Richard, has been found dead on his boat. We then confront Laura’s posthumously published novel, The Blind Assassin, the story of two socially mismatched lovers who meet secretly in seedy rooms. The novel continues seamlessly to intertwine Iris’ memoir, Laura’s novel and news accounts about the Chase family.

In Laura’s book, a cult classic, the man spins out an improvised science fiction tale that keeps his girlfriend entertained between bouts of passion. His story seems to spring directly from the pulp magazines of the ‘30s and ‘40s. On the planet Zycor, a blind assassin tries to save a mute sacrificial virgin and, in the process, falls in love with her.

But what does this have to do with the lives of the upper middle-class Canadian socialites, Iris and Laura? Almost everything, it turns out.

Did Laura commit suicide and, if so, why? What was her relationship to labor radical (and pulp science fiction writer) Alex Thomas? What is Laura’s “fatal triangular bargain"? And how do we reconcile the crusty and caustic Iris of the 1990s with the quiescent, submissive young woman described in her memoir?

Atwood juggles archetypes with consummate skill. The events on Zycor have sinister parallels with modern Canadian society and interesting roots in Mesopotamian and Carthaginian myth. Fortunately, Atwood’s archetypes are arch. She is Jung with a sense of humor.

But she is also a feminist Dashiell Hammett, an unpretentious Updike and a livelier Joyce Carol Oates. Atwood’s peers in erudition and wit are A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch and her fellow Canadian, Robertson Davies.

Noted for her crystalline prose and complex plots in such novels as The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride and Alias Grace, Atwood literally outdoes herself in The Blind Assassin. Combining witty observations on contemporary society with the history of the declining Chase family, Atwood weaves a compelling tale of layered complexity in which the truths of the characters’ lives are both elusive and alarming.

One of the book’s greatest pleasures is Atwood’s mastery of ‘30s and ‘40s slang. Atwood invests this antique patois with wit and tenderness. The lovers in the novel within the novel are not parodies; they evoke remembrance of romance past, especially when desperate and impossible: “Salad days. Days without names. Witless afternoons, quick and profane and quickly over, and no longing in advance or after, and no words required, and nothing to pay.”

Atwood is the master of the mot juste (and the mot injuste). Aphorisms abound: “Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead, I’ve found; but nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them.” “The living bird is not its labeled bones.”

But who is the blind assassin? Who blindly, inadvertently kills the ones they love? Is it the gentle, idealistic Laura, the resentfully responsible Iris, the ostensibly admirable Alex Thomas or Iris’s domineering husband, Richard? Or all of them?

Some might be disappointed in the dènouement. It’s true that only an inattentive reader would fail to figure out most of the plot twists about halfway through the book. But she must know this. I think Atwood is not particularly trying to perplex (or only a little, just for fun). She is making a larger point: that most of our lives and families contain not only secrets dark and Gothic but romance sweet and brief. In short, that in all the important ways, life imitates the pulps.