Before I fell in love with Margaret Atwood, I fell in love, as readers often do, with one of her books.
Perhaps as an American female writer I should be more enamored with Joyce Carol Oates, but I just can’t help myself. Our (one-sided) romance took root in the autumn of 2000. Newly graduated from college, I meandered into a Santa Monica bookstore in one of those rare moods where I had no purpose other than to wander through the world of literature, seeing what caught my eye. At the front of the store was the display of New Releases. There were other works there, but the cover art of this particular book called to me.
Perhaps it was because the image reminded me of LA Confidential, one of my favorite films. Or it might have been the title–The Blind Assassin. Already so intriguing, particularly juxtaposed with an image that seemed completely disconnected. The book found its way into my hands. Rather than reading the jacket, I flipped to the first page:
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
I shut the book and bought it. In that single sentence, she had me. Although I knew Atwood’s name from The Hand Maid’s Tale, I had never read the book and knew almost nothing about her. I bought a non-discounted hardcover book based on three things: the title, the chapter title, and the first sentence.
While the title is intriguing (how does one become a sightless political murderer?), the other two were what harkened to my wallet. Here was a decidedly adult text that used chapter headings instead of numbers. It automatically gave the text, to me, an almost fairytale quality. It reminded me of books I had read as a kid that were completely engaging, so much so that I lost track of hours and weeks because I was captivated by this world. There again was that promise.
The first sentence is, without question, simple. In that is the beauty. We have a simple subject (Laura) and a simple verb (drove). Atwood establishes a rough time period (sometime around a modern war–one might guess World War II at the earliest), a point of view, and a mystery. Notice that Laura’s car did not drive off the bridge. It did not swerve or fall. She “drove” it. That indicates intent. Did Laura drive off of a bridge on purpose? Is the time period, ten days after the conclusion of a war, significant?
The answer to both is yes. The why to both takes roughly 500 beautifully rendered pages to fully grasp.
The Blind Assassin is on that short list I mentioned last week of life changing books. It is as if Atwood took everything I love, shattered it into pieces, and constructed a narrative mosaic that displays flashes of the familiar in ways I could never have imagined. The use of newspaper entries, flashback, nesting, and somehow even science fiction to tell a historical romance should not work. And yet it does. After reading more of her work, the themes and style are decidedly Atwood; I’m rereading Cat’s Eye right now and feel bits of Iris in Elaine, even though they are different characters.
Beyond the beauty of the prose and the stellar storytelling, the novel has sentimental ties. It is one of the last books my grandfather read before his sight was too far gone. Although set in Canada, coming from Michigan, he responded to the time period and sense of place. After reading it he couldn’t wait to sit down at our weekly dinner to discuss it with me. But it was more than just the WWII period that engaged him: I think he felt connected to Iris as he counted down the years of his life. I remember him needing his handkerchief to dab at the tears as he recounted in gasping chuckles one of his favorite sections–Iris reading graffiti in bathroom stalls. He never admitted that he did it himself, but his reaction tells me he did.
One of my grandfather’s habits that I have acquired is signing the front of books. When he finished a book, be it the Bible or Harry Potter, he would initial (or sign) and date the inside cover. It was his mark, his way of remember what he read. For me it has been a way to connect with him after he died. Many of his books came to my keeping. When I begin them, I can see those letter and numbers telling me when he held the pages. Eventually, I sign my name under his. For all that I love technology, I doubt I can ever completely give up the actual book, if just because it would mean giving up my books as documents of those I’ve known and loved and the books we’ve shared. (It’s a rule, by the way, that if you borrow a book from me, you have to sign and date inside the front cover. Don’t like it? Don’t borrow my books.)
When I teach Atwood in my classroom, I usually do “Happy Endings” because it is in our textbook, although recently we also looked at “Backdropp Addresses Cowboy” as part of post-colonialism. “Happy Endings” concludes with this thought: “True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with. That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.” Atwood addresses our fixations on beginnings and endings without focusing on the meat of the subject. My favorite line from The Blind Assassin mirrors this thought in even more poetic terms:
“The living bird is not its labelled bones.”
As a writer, I try to keep that in mind. The skeleton of the story can be the same as ten thousand others. It is the living bird that we strive to capture with our words if only to show that it not just brittle remains with labels.
Thus, I take no hesitation in naming The Blind Assassin as my favorite book. That copy I bought out of college (that I couldn’t really afford) with my grandfather’s signature is priceless to me, as priceless as the story inside.