Of all the Margaret Atwood novels, The Blind Assassin is the one that wants the hardest to be the best. It won’t be content with being better than its brothers. It aims for the Classic List. It wants to sit alongside Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, The Grapes of Wrath and various others you think are overrated. It succeded at making people think that way, and the novel was pretty convincing for the most part that it deserved it. The approach had more style over substance, but there were 600 pages to through. It could take its time revealing its depth.
Only when it had the chance to be truly as complex as its structure, it fell. It fell where you’d least expect Atwood to fail. She’s excellent at portraying the female experience, especially under the gaze and control of men. She treats the subject with the respect and depth it deserves, recognizing the bad guys are human, as bad as they are (Life Before Man) and that girls can be just as cruel to girls (Cat’s Eye). In The Blind Assassin, there are two patriarchs, one of which is excused because he is supposed to have some nice political ideas. The truth is, he’s excused because he’s far more sexually attractive. Atwood should be the last person to give ammunition to guys who go on and on about how women like jerks.
Alex Thomas could be a fantastic character. He’s full of good intentions, and it’s great that he’s willing to make sacrifices for what he believes it. It doesn’t change the fact that his behavior with Iris – a far more interesting character than the crazy Laura – reeks of future wifebeating. The first intimate scene between them reads like an account of near-rape experience. Iris narrates as if she avoided a car crash. It’s exciting, but it’s not something you’d want go through again. There’s also a narrative device that details the relationship between the two, and Alex always comes off like a manipulator. He has mood swings, he’s idealist one second, and nihilist the next. His confusing behavior is what Pick-Up Artists recommend in order to get the emotions going in women and therefore, manipulate them.
This could have been a fantastic portaryal of a Dangerous Guy, and how sometimes it’s very hard to detect their manipulation. When the big moment arrived, though, it turned out the subtleness wasn’t a part of the theme. If Alex is not terrible for women, why are all these hints there? Maybe this is what Atwood likes in a man, but her control on the novel is too tight to let such things slip in. If Atwood hadn’t failed, it could have excused the rest of the failures.
The Blind Assassin is worse at portraying its antagonists than Life Before Man. This is weird, considering Life Before Man is the product of a younger author that can’t even try to hide its youth. The Blind Assassin, while more mature in every other aspect somehow ends up with antagonists that always border on caricature. Winifred suffers the most from this. Her character is the least believable thing here. She has no redeemable features, and there’s never a glimpse into her struggles. Richard, the main antagonist, fares better. Excluding the reveal at the end that drags his character down, he manages to be both a pretty awful person but also real. Richard also has no good traits, but he’s a living person with his own wants and needs, his own ambitions and objectives. Unlike Winifred, Richard could lead a novel, although not as long as this. 600 pages with a person like him is too much.
Maybe it’s a deliberate attempt at non-complex antagonists because fiction is the novel’s main theme. There are stories within stories, but anyone who read Auster is not going to be confused by its structure. The novel is not concerned with just written fiction but any kind of fiction. Stories are biographies, things we write for others, novels, the news and rumours. Atwood goes beyond the self-indulgent, “novelist’s relationship with his work” that authors succumb to after sitting in a dark room for too much time with too many books. Atwood examines the relationship between fiction and any kind of person, but what wants to say about it is unclear.
The most obvious guess is fiction is deceptive, but if you don’t elaborate this statement it’s too simplistic. In a way, everything is fiction. Human interaction is based on telling stories, even if it’s just “I found a way to discover fire”. If fiction, in general is deceptive, then there’s a huge hole in all of human interaction. You can’t talk about this without also involving the theme of how humans interact, and Atwood doesn’t touch on that. Like in the Alex Thomas case, we’re left with too many hints that the complex structure is not just there for complexity’s sake, but it never leads to something resembling a conclusion.
Beneath the messy themes, there’s a nice story. The complex structure may fail to bring any meaning, but it doesn’t drag the story down. All the stories in the novel are interesting enough. Atwood is still a fantastic writer, despite sometimes describing too much. There are various great sentences and quotables scattered all over the book, and tiny stories that touch on various themes. Maybe that’s what impressed so many people. The scope of The Blind Assassin means that it touches more themes than mentioned previously, too many to count here. This scope makes it entertaining, but it’s not enough to make it great, and therefore it falls below Cat’s Eye, Life Before Man and Oryx and Crake.