Margaret Atwood wants you to know that she doesn’t write science fiction.
No, she won’t give back her Arthur C. Clarke Award, for her 1985 novelThe Handmaid’s Tale. But she does want to clarify matter. She will admit to writing speculative fiction, but not crass sci-fi. What’s the difference? "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships,” Atwood explains; “speculative fiction could really happen." Frankly, I am a bit confused by this posture. Am I to conclude that spaceships can’t really happen? Hello Ms. Atwood, have you heard about the Space Shuttle? How about Apollo 11?
But even if I grant Atwood her spurious distinction, I am still left puzzled. Because right in the midst of her ambitious 2000 novel, The Blind Assassin, Atwood is caught red-handed, describing monsters and spaceships. For good measure, she adds the scandalous and bloody rites of the God of the Three Suns, and the Goddess of the Five Moons on the planet Zycron—where blind child assassins kill tongue-less virgin sacrificial victims and “voracious undead female inhabitants” haunt the crumbling tombs.
Can it really be true? Did Margaret Atwood write a zombie novel?
Well, not exactly. Atwood’s novel adheres to strict realism. And there’s a novel within the novel…but it also sticks to plausible events that “could really happen” (in Atwood’s words). But now things get trickier, because Atwood has also included sections of a novel inside the novel within the novel…and it is a wild and crazy science fiction story, straight from the dark Satanic pulp fiction mills of the Golden Age of sci-fi.
So Atwood gets to have it both ways. She upholds the unyielding requirements of verisimilitude, but also finds a way to indulge her inner A.E. van Vogt. And, in all fairness to Atwood, she is very inventive in concocting her phantasmagorical space opera. Pretty slick, no? But even as she shares her over-the-top science fiction story, she uses her framing technique to make clear how much she despises it. At one juncture, she depicts her pulp writer mulling over his next story:
He needs to write something that will sell. It's back to the never-fail dead women, slavering for blood. This time he'll give them purple hair, set them in motion beneath the poisonous orchid beams of the twelve moons of Arn. The best thing is to picture the cover illustration the boys will likely come up with, and then go on from there….Still, it's a living, if he can keep up the speed, and beggars can hardly be choosers.
This intricate dance between levels of meaning and types of realism pervades every facet of The Blind Assassin. The narrative operates at four or more levels, with at least as many intended audiences. Yet each level is suspect, every author is compromised, no story achieves a pure level of disinterested objectivity. Only after arriving at the final page, can you start to determine how much of our story is truth-telling, and what portion can be classified as convenient fiction, self-justification, or pure fantasy.
In short, few books do a better job of exemplifying the postmodernist theme of the ‘death of the author’. Hence, it is all too fitting that The Blind Assassin even begins with the death of an author—in this instance, the troubled heroine Laura Chase, age 25, who drives off a bridge, leaving behind no note, few possessions, and the manuscript to a novel, fittingly called 'The Blind Assassin'. She won’t be the only author to die suddenly in the course of this book. In fact, we have another ‘death of the author’ at the very end of the novel.
Laura Chase and her sister Iris have to deal with the fallout from the collapse of their family’s manufacturing businesses in Port Ticonderoga, a fictional community in Ontario, Canada. Iris makes a last ditch effort to save Chase Industries by marrying her father’s business rival, Richard Griffen. But he never injects the promised capital to keep the factories running, and her marriage turns into a pointless sacrifice (much like that of those tongue-less captive virgins on the planet Zycron). But her sister Laura is even better suited for the role of sacrificial victim, and during the course of her short life she finds a host of ways to humble herself and make reparations. Yet her readiness to play the role of the willing pawn makes her prey to the worst kind of exploitation.
The sisters both come under the sway of a young man named Alex Thomas, a labor agitator with communist sympathies—and a knack for writing science fiction stories!—who is wanted by the authorities. Thomas may have been involved in vandalism, arson, and perhaps even murder related to a strike at Chase Industries. Laura and Iris help Thomas elude arrest, even though he may have helped destroy their father’s business. Their secret devotion to Thomas evolves into a dark romantic passion, in which the eroticism is heightened by the sister’s realization that they may be accessories to criminal activity or even betrayal of their closest blood ties.
At first glance, Atwood has built her ambitious novel on the most clichéd plot of all—the romantic triangle. But we eventually learn that more than three sides exist to this relationship, which may even turn into a romantic square or pentagon. And the personal entanglements of the frame story are further complicated by the mirroring love affairs of the story within the story, and even the story inside the story within a story. If I sketched out all the ramifications here, our love triangle might look more like a three-dimensional love polyhedron.
By the time Margaret Atwood published this book, in 2000, these postmodern antics were hardly new. But few have pushed them further, or more ambitiously. The Blind Assassin a virtuoso effort, both in its storytelling, and by what it tells us about the process of storytelling. And its span is so wide, that every kind of narrative gets swallowed up and re-digested here, from the news story to the scrawled bits of graffiti on the restroom wall, from romance to business and beyond. And, yes, even spaceships and monsters, God bless them!
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most recent book is How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).