Ernest Hemingway – Men Without Women

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Hemingway is a fascinating character. Many tell stories, but Hemingway lived in an epic poem. He traveled the worlds, participated in wars, hunted, fished, went through four marriages only to commit suicide. If I needed source material for an epic tragedy, I wouldn’t need to look further. I wouldn’t even need to add themes – masculinity, romance and war are constant themes in Hemingway’s life. This fascinating Hemingway is the only good thing about Men Without Women.

Nowadays, Hemingway’s prose reads more like a parody of realism. He didn’t understand the purpose of it. When he talks about his Iceberg Theory, he talks about hiding things from the reader. Yet holding back information isn’t good storytelling. It’s how cheap thrillers keep us hooked by hinting that if we invest more time, a revelation will come. The purpose of minimalism is to reveal using few words.

Carver came years later and saw it through. When you read Carver, you don’t need to dig deep to find buried ideas. Rather, Carver’s bare prose makes everything float up to the surface. If something is hidden or implied, it means that the mere fact of it being hidden is important. At the end of “One More Thing”, Carver tells us the man doesn’t know what to say. That’s enough to show us how confused, how broken that man is. If Hemingway wrote that story, it would end with “The Man said.”, as if not telling the reader what he said is somehow more profound than showing the man is at loss for words.

These aren’t stories of beginnings, middles and conclusions. They’re snapshots of life, which is fine. “In Another Country” is a story that goes nowhere, but it’s so lifelike. That story must be close to him since it deals with war wounds. He’s not worried about being obvious there, but just let the images stand on their own. In it, there are machines that are supposed to cure body problems. Despite being the first of their kind, there are images of before-and-after. It’s not a complex image and perhaps not a very subtle one, but it’s more powerful than anything here.

“Hills Like White Elephants”, perhaps the most famous story here both shows where the style works and where it generally fails. It’s routinely praised for only implying it’s about abortion instead of saying it, but what’s the point? If you insert the word ‘abortion’ there, would it change the story drastically? Often that word dies to appear on the page, especially if you read an analysis of it. Hemingway writes it while struggling not to mention it for fear of being obvious. It’s like a band who stumbles upon a great melody, but repeats it only once in fear of being ‘poppy’ or ‘mainstream’.

This isn’t being concerned with literary quality, but with literary image. A story that aims for critically-approved traits like subtlety and depth misses the whole point. Even if you do switch the word ‘operation’ with ‘abortion’, the story would remain excellent. It’s really about a couple who reached a stumbling block in their relationship and don’t know where to go. There’s a reason they spend the whole story in a train station.

If you found his dialogue stiff and repetitive before, it’s even more so here. Some stories have sections like a broken record. “The Killers”, an otherwise excellent expression of fear of organized crime, has at least a page worth of unnecessary dialogue. Whenever Hemingway slips into this, you can feel him dying to say something but too afraid of ruining his image. He’s not completely awful in his style of omission. He said he left out the whole Chicago thing from the story and that’s a wise decision since namedropping the city wouldn’t add anything. Organized crime is scary regardless of where you’re at, but killers who repeat the same words ad nausam just don’t make sense.

Across his books, Hemingway’s flaws are as repetitive as the dialogue. Yet I keep reading because there’s something beating here. Discovering Hemingway lead an epic life isn’t surprising once you read a few pieces of prose by him. There’s distress, a desire for more, an obsession with concepts that fuels great people. It’s also not surprising Hemingway killed himself. Literature was an outlet for his troubles, but he couldn’t let it out.

Again, his Iceberg Theory stabs him in the back. Being a stereotypical man means bottling up your emotions and going fishing. Men are supposed to be tough and invulnerable. A vulnerable man can’t protect your children, after all. The stories try to dig into these masculine troubles, but end up conforming to stereotypes instead of breaking them.

The troubles are distinctly masculine. Violence and heartbreak often plague our characters. The violence is either for glory or for survival. As for women, their role is to provide a respite from this life. Perhaps that’s why the man in “Hills Like White Elephants” is so vague, anxious both to make the abortion and telling her she should choose. He’s afraid of losing her because if she’s gone, all he will have left is bullfighting and war. There’s glory in bullfighting and connection when you’re at war with your buddies, but these things can also be your downfall. Then again, in Hemingway’s stories women can also be the downfall.

Downfall is always around the corner, but the sense of dread which the characters feel never surfaces. Hemingway wants to imply so much that the stories feel like a person opening up about his break-up, only to shut up once he talks about the real reason. You, as a listener, is being teased and your curiosity isn’t satisfied. The person who needs a good talk is too afraid to speak, so he doesn’t get any help. The best stories here are “In Another Country” and “Now I Lay Me”. Hemingway lets himself go in these. There’s a bit more telling, but the emotional punch of them is powerful. Both can slot nicely into a Carver collection without a change in quality. The worst story is “The Undefeated”, where Hemingway flexes his jargon and ruins what could’ve been a beautiful story.

Don’t read Hemingway to say you’re reading the canon. Read Hemingway because you’re interested in his personality. None of his books that I’ve read are truly great (I’m yet to reach Bell though) but they each expand on his unique personality. If you find Hemingway an interesting enough person, read this. It’s not good, but like anything else he wrote it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.

2.5 men out of 5 women

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Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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How do short stories work? How does any story work? Stories are a series of events connected by a theme, time and circumstances. They lead into one another and eventually conclude. Every ending is a beginning, of course. The end of a relationship is the beginning of a life as a single. Still, we live with these beginnings and endings – we draw lines between childhood and adulthood, day and night and Mondays and Sundays.

If you want to aim for realism, you need to remember this bias when writing stories. Beginnings and endings are what give stories meaning and we tell a story because it means something. It can be funny, it can show something about love but you never tell a story just to tell a story. Carver’s stories have some kind of a beginning, but no real endings. Sometimes they end with a punch, sometimes with the implication something terrible is about to happen. Concrete endings are rare, yet these stories still work.

Is this poetry, or is this literature? What’s the boundry between them?

Carver’s stories work because he puts the purpose way ahead of structure. His purpose isn’t clear-cut, which makes it all the more impressive when his stories work. There is no specific situation Carver wants to explore, no guideline that connects the stories. A lot of drinking happens and love is a big deal, but that’s because love is a big deal in general.

He tries to tap into life’s energy. If this sounds overly-sentimental, it’s because it’s hard to talk about the stories in any other way. How he achieves such emotional resonance is still unclear. Characters might as well not exist and stories rarely end or begin. It must be because of the unique structure of the book.

Few stories here stand on their own. Even the best one requires prior experience with his style before enjoying them. In fact, even as an experienced reader in minimalism and in Carver (I actually read this a long time ago in its original version – Beginners) it took me time to get into it. The style is so minimalist, so sparse that it’s shocking at first. We’re used to maximalist literature. Every beginner writer who gave me their stories to review has overflowing language.

We look for the grandness. We look for the symbol or the sentence that repeats itself, or characers talking about who they are. Carver creates Everymen by letting the situation speak for itself. In one story, everyone lives in Alburquerque but are all from somewhere else. In another, a man puts his whole house – couch and TV and kitchen – outside. In another, a couple fights violently over a baby.

Each of these small tidbits are rife to analyze. Just by telling you what happens I imitated a whole story, and do we really need more of it? A couple fighting violently over a baby is a great illustration of a fallen relationship. The baby is a product of both parents, yet the two parties want it for themselves. The baby couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the other. Relationships need room for selflessness, for caring about the other. One of the last line feels like Carver summing up every fallen relationship:

“He felt the baby slipping out of his ands and he pulled back very hard.”

Is this how we should react when love comes down? Should we pull back towards ourselves stronger and stronger at something that can only exists thanks to co-operation?

Self-insert characters are often criticized as lazy. That’s true, but there is a time and place for them. Sometimes the situation is the main character. The objects moving carry the meaning, not the personality. It’s true this has been used for escapsim – Harem anime create a situation many guys would like to escape to. Carver doesn’t create comfortable situations.

His situations are soaked in pain, but more than anything confusion. It’s as if by expressing the events in the most blunt way possible, he hopes he could make sense of the human condition. As evidenced by the last two stories (who gain a lot of their power by their position), Carver didn’t even come close to a solution.

These stories are a journey through a land that’s not really barren. People exaggerate when they describe Carver’s stories as ‘people drinking and talking’. He’s more concerned with the absurdity of life. That’s why a lot of these stories involve weird situations that feel odd in this collection. When was the last time a person with no hands asked to photograph your house? Life is strange – any attempt to capture realism by removing odd events results in bland monotony. Since strange events are confusing, many authors write about them with colorful language and your dull feel-good ending. “Viewfinder”, in different hands, would’ve been distorted into how ‘it all depends on your perspective! snap out of your depression!’. In Carver’s hands, he lets the interaction stand on their own. The loneliness is obviously there, and that makes their connection all the more engrossing and life-affirming.

‘Empathy’ is another word that suits Carver’s style. His style is so warm, so intimate. You can pop this book in the middle and it wouldn’t feel any different than starting from the beginning. The stories like a collection of aimless anecdotes friends tell each other into the night, just to have something to talk to. Like your friends’ anecdotes, the stories ramble and swerve into unnecessary territories before snapping back to the main topic. This isn’t sloppy writing but a deliberate attempt to capture the warmth of sharing stories.

Although Carver has been hailed as a master of minimalism, it didn’t actually come from him. Gordon Lish, the editor. The original manuscript wasn’t as minimalistic, although Lish clearly saw the potential there. The attraction to these stories is in the how intimate they feel. Even when Carver starts writing in bigger paragraphs, this would remain the defining feature of his work.

It’s as sparse as a Joy Division record, but don’t read Carver for the minimalist macho bullshit. This isn’t about covering up an iceberg like Hemingway. He does the opposite. By writing about the stories just as they are, he mines them for every sip of emotion there is. A lot of great authors gave us insight into the human mind/condition/experience, but none feel so intimate as Carver.

4 talking about love out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Children of the Mind

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‘Children’ is an appropriate word in the title. As for the ‘Mind’, not so much. Card’s finishes his quadrilogy – which started with two classics – on a ridiculous low. It’s not that the novel is bad, but that the flaws are brand new. Card succumbs to all the flaws he avoided when he first started.

Why did the two books split up? Considering how much Card had to say in Speaker for the Dead, it makes sense. His intelligence and complex philosophy still shines through. Instead of shining through storytelling, it’s one essay after another. Sometimes it’s inside the characters’ heads. Sometimes they ruminate and we get the whole thing, uncensored and unabridged. If this was part of a style, fine. It’s not. Rather, it’s a collection of notes – events, ruminations, extended dialogues that all should’ve been trimmed down.

The quadrilogy has philosophical weight, but in the end these novels aren’t pure philosophy. There is an engaging story beneath them about saving the world and what it means to be human. The constant ruminations are like a decent guitar solo extended for 10 minutes. One or two profound phrase is okay since it helps us focus on the themes. When there are whole paragraphs where nothing happens, that’s when you know the editors were dead.

If Card is so against destroying other species, why are the editors extinct? This is a flaw I encounter a lot when reading works by unpublished writers. They’re confused, not sure entirely what their story is about and afraid the audience won’t get them. The fear is justified considering how everyone loved Fight Club for the wrong reasons. So they fill their stories with character thoughts and speculations.

When I get these stories fresh from the oven, I don’t mind. Nobody has gone over them to trim the unnecessary stuff and what should remain as notes. A story doesn’t come fully formed from our minds. We must write it down, see how it looks like on paper and then play around with the pieces. You don’t really know how your story works until you actually write it down. If I read a story where half of it is notes the author should’ve kept to himself, that’s fine. They needed to write this to get the information out of their heads, to acknowledge it exists.

When I read a story filled with notes by a published author, I get angry. Card doesn’t show ideas. He doesn’t even let characters’ personalities filter them. Philosophies are the main characters now. The novel is filled with philosophical conversations and ruminations, and it’s all so disconnected from the story.

Philosophical essays contain ideas, but fiction is how we imagine them taking from. We need literature because that’s how we imagine the effect philosophies have on our live. I can write an essay about how everyone should have assisted suicide easily available for them, but through fiction I can imagine how such an idea might impact society.

The danger of piling philosophical conversations and ruminations in your novel is this. If they overpower the story, they lose connection. We no longer see the ideas in action, so we no longer see the importance. A good story doesn’t just give me insight into an idea, but makes me care about it. By having an emotionally engaging or thrilling story, I get emotionally invested and see the importance of the idea.

The philosophical conversations have no element of humanity in them. They rarely inform us about the characters or their big worldviews. Watching them is like watching a discussion on CMV-Reddit. You see the ideas isolated from a person dissected, analyzed and evolved. That’s fascinating, but that’s not a story. Moreover, CMV has an abundance of people. This novel written by one person. It’s really one long monologue in disguise, which is a shame. A monologue by a person – especially a talented writer like Card – could’ve been fascinating.

Children of the Mind isn’t an unrestrained novel. It’s a novel without purpose that jumps from topic to topic but in the end goes anywhere. We shouldn’t kill other people. We should try to understand people. Haven’t we heard this all before? Wasn’t it more convincing when characters were either morally grey, or when we saw the weight of heroism? The absence of Ender makes his character duller. Without him to show us the weight of his virtues, everyone just opens up a fanclub.

Everyone also acts like douchebags towards each other. Suddenly 21st-century internet lingo caught on and characters swear. Dirty words don’t offend me, but their sudden appearance is odd. Even more similar to stereotypical internet talk is how many dialogues go. So much belittling, being sarcastic and condescending you have to wonder why these people are doing with each other. Nothing actually happened between this novel and Xenocide, so when did everyone started swaggering like Tarantino?

The basic idea behind the ending couldn’t have been better. It ties the novel directly to the first one, but it’s still anticlimatic. Besides that tie to the first novel, nothing actually happened in that ending. The conflict was solved, events happened but no conclusions reached. The people of Lusitania may feel better and may be able to expand their colony, but I’m in the same place.

Children of the Mind gets by only because it’s a part of the Ender Saga. There are interesting ideas, but Card is trying hard to push himself when he ran out of things to say. It even lacks the occasional outrageous moment of Xenocide. That novel was empty, but you could trim it to a decent novella. A kind editor should’ve told Card that he’s writing a story, not a hodge-podge collection of conversations with self, ruminations and the occasional encounter with aliens. At least the first two books are constructed well enough they stand on their own.

2 children out of 5 minds

Margaret Atwood – Wilderness Tips

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At its worst, Wilderness Tips suffers from Atwood’s most common flaw. Although she’s blessed with intelligence that never gets in the way of her stories, there is always a little too much distance between the reader and the characters. That’s an odd complaint, considering the book’s genre. Compare it to Raymond Carver, and Atwood has better characters yet doesn’t create as much sympathy.

It’s odd. It should be the opposite. The close look at people in all their glorious flaws should make us feel closer to them. Atwood isn’t shy of the first person narrative. Yet it’s the same case with every Atwood book – its emotional impact is always a little low compared to the intellectual side of things. Then again, there are some brilliant stories here and it’s a prime example of how realist fiction should be done. So Atwood couldn’t get around her tiny flaw here, but it doesn’t matter when everything else is so brilliant.

Short story collections can be hard to review. They’re not music albums. They’re often written over a long span of times. They tend to contain experiments and snippets. For many authors, short story collections are B-Sides & Rarities – odd pieces of prose that are interesting for the die-hard fan, but don’t go anywhere and don’t really ‘conclude’.

The latter part is important. Even if you’re a great short story writer, why are all of these stories packed together? In music albums, you often have an overarching sound connecting it all. Great albums also have good sequencing, with songs sounding better in their place in the tracklist. Wilderness Tips isn’t so good that it starts with a bangs and concludes, but it’s a masterwork of a genre. That alone is enough to make it feel like a complete work, instead of just assorted prose for the diehards.

‘Realism’ is an annoying word to use when discussing fiction. It’s also necessary, which makes it more annoying. No one actually has any access to what reality is. It’s the Map and Territory situation. You perceive parts of reality, but never all of it. So how can humans write something ‘realistic’ when they only perceive a very tiny part of reality? Keep in mind that fiction deals with the most unstable aspect with reality – humans, their relationship and how they experience the world.

Some opt for a dry, ‘nothing ever happens’ style to inform the reader it’s realistic. That’s basically a cop-out for people who aren’t imaginative enough or too insecure. The ideal technique for realistic fiction is to steal stories directly from reality itself, and always be aware every story has as many sides as it has characters. I don’t know how many of these stories are based on true cases, but Atwood’s portrayal of relationships has always been brilliant. Here, she’s in top form.

I wish I had Atwood to help with me with relationships. She never slides into strawmen or caricatures. Her men and women aren’t heroes and villains, but flawed people. Sometimes their flaws make them easy to manipulate or abuse. Sometimes their flaws lead them to abuse or be terrible to others. With great understanding comes great pessimism, though. All over these stories is disenchantment and cynicism towards the idea of romance and sexuality.

It’s not so much that Atwood is a rowdy feminist out to castrate men. Women can a lot of flak too. Many of them are attracted to married men and work on starting an affair. The crucial thing Atwood focuses on is that every relationship has two participants. It’s never one person doing things to the other. Affairs aren’t just sluts seducing innocent men, or men being pigs. Both sides choose to do it.

Some relationships are abusive, though. Some people are assholes and only them are to blame for what they do to others. In these stories we see what pessimism is truly like. The assholes are never evil caricatures, rapists in the dark or hot young gaslighters. It’s easy to understand why they do it and that includes the backstabber in “Uncles”. What’s more horrifying than the act itself is their humanity. Atwood knows evil people don’t come from outerspace, kill people for the fuck of it and get blasted by dudes with sixpacks. What drove them to that behavior can also drive her or me or you or anyone of us.

The best story here is perhaps the aforementioned “Uncles”. While Atwood’s feminism and exploration of women’s position in society isn’t huge here – women are the main characters mainly because Atwood is a woman – that story explores it brilliantly. Again, it’s about showing the two sides of things. This time it’s about the relationship with a beautiful, perfect person who’s used to approval. I’ve met those. Women who are pretty can have it very easy in life, especially if they develop a few skills. Their good looks already means people are nicer to them.

People are jealous of you when you’re successful. The jealousy is even harsher when your luck is obvious. Everyone is successful mostly because of luck, but the Beautiful People’s type of luck is so obvious it’s excruciating. We also all know that our love for the Beautiful People is what gives them their success. We’re to blame. One way to deal with jealousy is to demonize the successful, disregard their successes or assume their feelings aren’t worthwhile. They’re so successful, so who cares if we humiliate them? It mirrors things I’ve seen in real life.

There’s also enough variety in tone and prose style to prevent this from becoming variations on a style. The hard realism and theme of relationships allow Atwood to experiment with story structures and styles without causing any disconnection between the stories. It’s the most versatile I’ve seen Atwood yet. Some stories have a more poetic, somber tone to them. Others like “Hairball” have jumpy prose that’s unlike anything she’s written. Sometimes she apes Carver completely with hard, dry prose. The tone is always appropriate for the stories, too. This variety helps to reinforce the realism. People experience reality differently. If all your stories are written in the same way, you’re too narrow for reality.

Wilderness Tips is an excellent short story collection. The only flaw is the slightly disappointing closer (“Hack Wednesday”) and the distance Atwood can’t rid of. Still, at its best this is how realist fiction should be. The events are exciting. There’s always a feeling of uneasiness and unstability which define reality. People are flawed human beings, sometimes weak or evil or talented but they’re always human. The stories also conclude more than they just end hanging in the middle of things. No one writes prose like Carver, but this is where I’ll direct people if they want to understand realist fiction.

3.5 tips out of 5

Margaret Atwood – Moral Disorder

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I’m not sure how to react this. This shouldn’t happen. Moral Disorder is part of a literary movement that’s close to me. Stories about the daily lives of people grab me like no other. I can forgive many flaws – lack of characters, lack of narrative structure – if the events are vivid enough.

Something about this literature is so lifelike. The grandmaster, Raymond Carver, didn’t have in-depth psychology and his stories rarely concludd. Yet his prose felt so intimate. He made you feel like you’re attached at the hip to these characters. I always held that the best authors have good prose by default. They can write anything and it will be a pleasure to read.

Atwood belongs to that line of authors, but that’s pure skill. This is why Moral Disorder isn’t as good as a random Raymond Carver story, although it’s close. Her prose is easy to read, focused and hardly rambles. She lacks a sense of style, though. Give her a good story – Alias Grace – and she tells it masterfully. When the prose needs to do more than just relay the events she’s in trouble.

It’s no surprise, then, that the best stories are the most eventful. The stories at the farm, especially the one involving butchering animals are the most fun. The events are interesting by themselves. Atwood is creative enough to imagine weird happenings with farm animals. All she has to do is relay them with her precise prose and you get the title story – a strong candidate for one of Atwood’s best pieces of writing.

Other great stories include The Headless Horseman and My Last Duchess. In these stories Atwood trumps Carver. Carver was a master of prose, but he was less good at imagining events. His prose breathed life into the mundane, but whenever he stretched himself he felt clumsy (That story about a headache always felt off). Atwood has a brimming imagination. Her events are never mundane. Rather, she mines the oddness of life – the last Halloween, a school project involving analyzing a poem. There’s something so lifelike in the teenagers’ conversation about the poem. The teenager’s complaint about the uselessness of it is the sort of thing I heard from my friends, too. Atwood recognizes the literary retarded without shaming them.

These stories also showcase Atwood’s main flaw, and that is characters. A common problem in realistic fiction is the removal of weirdness, but reality is weird. Atwood understands reality is full of weird events, but she forgets people are weird, too. The young sister is one of the few characters that are actually characters. Most of the time, what drives the characters is so basic it’s not important.

The stories are meant to be inter-connected. In order to connect these stories, though, we need to recognize that th characters appear again and again. It’s only seeing the name of Tig a few times that made me notice this. Until then, it felt like all characters were archetypical Everymen.

Atwood’s conflicts are believable, but not insightful. She has enough imagination to create a marriage that’s on a slow, peaceful divorce that gets uglier as it goes on. She doesn’t have the psychological insight to bring this relationship to life. The effort is there – Oona is almost a living, breathing character but not really. Instead of being something unique, she’s just a successful woman that hides a lot of secrets and can’t make it on her own.

Her character sketches are too generalized and not specific. The closest she comes to making a unique character is in Nell’s mom. The last story gives us some cues to who she is – her refusal to hear stories without happy endings, for example. Too bad that story also tries to expand on sideline characters with a sort of self-awareness that’s clever, but in the end doesn’t lead to much.

The worst offender is the main character. I’m a writer myself and I can somehow forgive that. Why is writing main characters so difficult? Why can we imagine odd sideline characters with quirks, yet our main characters always end up as observers? On the Headless Horseman, she brings the main character to life with her attitude towards youth, Halloween and all that stuff. In that story our protagonist reacts and makes decisions. In all the rest, she mostly observes.

Since her role in these story is mostly active – she’s the character that connects these stories – this observant behavior takes the life out of the stories. Nell is given a role that’s not suited her. The stories are about her, her experience with Tig and at the farm. If these stories were an assortment of tales about weird people Nell meets, then that flaw wouldn’t be so offensive. Even then, though, we’d need something about Nell. She’d need to connect all these tales.¬†Moral Disorder is, however, about her but sadly she’s not very interesting. Atwood can imagine odd happenings, but not main characters.

Overall though, this is still worth picking up. Atwood is still excellent at relaying events in plain language. If she can’t mine life out of hr characters, at least the set-pieces are memorable enough. Atwood’s prose is also good enough on its own. It doesn’t have wide appeal, but if you enjoyed Atwood before or you like dirty, hard realism there’s plenty to enjoy here. At worst, read the title story or The Headless Horseman.

3 butchered farm animals out of 5

Margaret Atwood – Alias Grace

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Shitty authors often fill their books with useless details. It’s a sure sign the book is bad, but it’s understandable. If you have no idea what works, just throw everything in and hope something sticks. The problem with this shotgun approach in novels is that novels are whole pieces, and so it’s hard to isolate the good parts. Some good authors fill their books with details, and then chop off what doesn’t turn out to be a buried gun (see also: Chuck Palahniuk). Why do talented authors leave a lot of details is puzzling.

There’s no need to put a cover on Alias Grace. Buried in it is a brilliant mystery novel that uses it genre to create meaning, not just to create a puzzle. Atwood made a career of exploring the female experience, and the novel is almost the definitive one about our perception of women.

The phase ‘benevolent misogyny’ sounds crazy, and too bad the other term to describe it is ‘victim privilege’. These things exist, though. When people perceive you as lower than them, some of the ways they treat you differently will benefit you.

The perception of women was so narrow that it even excluded some terrible prejudices. Since women are viewed as pure until someone has sex with them, the idea they can be violent didn’t occur to people. The only reason Grace has a chance at redemption is because she’s a woman. No one thinks James may have been innocent, or cares what his reasons are. Boys will be boys, and James is just a boy who couldn’t control his violence.

The question of whether Grace is innocent or not isn’t answered, because the definitive answer isn’t the point. The point is what’s reader answer is and how much of it is based on Grace being female. The purpose of the puzzle is not the right answer but to examine our reactions.

Sexism is more complex than just making one group feel bad. Sexism goes both ways, with positive ideas about an oppressed group stemming from them being considered inferior.  Atwood realizes that and this is why Atwood is one of the best authors on the subject.

Even in her comfort zone where she writes about discrimination, she’s still great in it. Her treatment of the subject is never black and white. There are sexist pigs. There are women who accept their position in society. There are men with savior’s complex. The contradicting sexism takes place in the same mind. Dr. Jordan seeks to help the outcasts and the insane. When you give him a woman desperate for love and an ugly servant, he’s regressing to the sexism he grew up with.

A common problem in Historical Fiction is that the authors give the historical characters a modern mindset. A third wave feminist in the 1800’s looks silly unless we get a reasonable explanation how she stumbled on these ideas. It’s like a person who talks about digital property before the internet was invented.

Atwood avoids this flaw. She knows that people who grew up in a sexist environment will think sexist thoughts, including women. I’ve seen plenty of women spit misogyny, such as slut-shaming and victim-blaming today. Of course Grace will buy into her role as a woman, and of course Dr. Jordan will treat ugly women in disgust if that’s all he knows. Thankfully, as time goes on and events pile up, events that challenge these perceptions take place. That’s Grace’s murder role. It’s there for people to question their ideas about the sexes, both the negative and positive.

These ideas are fully explored, so at least Atwood’s shower of details isn’t meant to cover up a lack. It doesn’t make it any less puzzling. It’s not a difference in prose style. Even at her most maximalist Atwood retains a gift for sentences that flow easily. She overcomes the challenge of writing in a less modern style, but unnecessary details remain unnecessary no matter how easy they are to read.

Everything little thing is described. These are not the purposeful descriptions of McEwan. Atwood has no modus operandi for choosing what to describe and what not to. The effect is similar to the shopping lists of Dragon Tattoo. They revealed nothing about the characters. Women had an obsession with appearances back in the day, but these aren’t descriptions that are focused on the beauty of things.

If Atwood wanted to express the characters’ obsession with things looking good, then she’d focus on the beauty of things. The shopping list is a static technique. It exists to give you a blueprint of how a room looks like, but it’s only important so you’ll understand the characters’ movements. Beyond that, telling us the color of the rag is unimportant unless the color or the rag has importance.

Less annoying are the words of wisdom that are dropped between paragraphs. There are many quotable moments, but they feel like they came out of an unpublished Words of Wisdom. I’d love to read a book like this by Atwood. Every novel I read by her paints an intelligent women, but it’s not believable when it comes out of Grace’s mind. She’s portrayed either as enigmatic or simple-minded. Intelligence isn’t a trait, so why do these pieces of wisdom tell us about the character?

The fairly-complex structure isn’t as harmful as these techniques, but it also feels like an unnecessary complexity. The exchange of letters is interesting, but they belong in a story more focused on Dr. Jordan. His main role here is to show a contradictionary sexist mind. He has an interesting psychological arc that gets drowned in too many descriptions and fear of exploring him. He never becomes the presence that the men had in Life Before Man. He exists to show us how Grace looks from the outside. There are too many passages on his life in general that are more than necessary to show he exists beyond the plot, and not enough to make him like a hero of his own story.

The news clippings in the beginning of chapters are better. In fact, Atwood should’ve used them more. She could have used a variety of clippings to show the subtle differences between sexist opinions. She has enough negative capabiliy to paint sexists as human beings while not justifying them. More clippings would allow her to experiment with the sexist mind.

The flaws in this novel prevent it from being great, but it’s still a success. Atwood is too good at prose, so even the filler writing is pleasant to read. The treatment of Atwood’s favorite subject is also the best she did so far, and it’s only over-writing that keeps this behind Cat’s Eye. Atwood said she doesn’t see herself as a feminist writer, but her literature is the ideal feminist. She doesn’t present a cliched narrative of bad men and angelic women (which is just another form of sexism anyway). She uses feminisn to question how think about sex and gender roles. There’s a lot to learn from her.

3.5 simple murders out of 5

Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assasssin

2000 Margaret Atwood The Blind Assasin

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.