Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Fiction within a fiction within a fiction (Books - The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood ) cont'd.

The upside to having been awake for several hours last night during which I would have rather been asleep is that I am half way through The Blind Assassin. In what I'm assuming is the "real story" as opposed to the fiction within the fiction (unless Atwood is going to pull a switch on me), there were two sisters - one dreamy and other-worldly, capable only of interpreting words literally, or as Atwood puts it:
She had a heightened capacity for belief. She left herself open, she entrusted herself, she gave herself over, she put herself at the mercy. A little incredulity would have been a first line of defense...

...Laura touches people. I do not.

the other sister, though just as naive, is more practical, capable of irony, and has a thing for a guy from the wrong side of the tracks. The narrator is supposedly this second sister, around 80 years old at the telling of the story. Now, even with the meta-fictional elements that I complained about in yesterday's post, that story seems to have me in its grip.

Within the fiction within a fiction there is a second fictional world, a verbally related science fiction story being woven during some tryst scenes. That story is meant to be bad and yet meant to also be meaningful to the reader. However, being poorly told, even while it's tongue is planted firmly in its cheek, I don't care about it. While I really enjoy some fantasy fiction I only enjoy it when the exposition of the world and its elements is very skillfully woven into the story telling. I am frustrated when a fantasy begins with dozens upon dozens of unfamiliar terms - names of creatures, of places, of objects - all completely new to me, all without any meaning in my vocabulary - when I read them I usually cannot keep them all straight. I start reading very slowly, trying to commit these new terms to memory, feeling I must master them in order to get the story. I usually end up feeling very frustrated. I can't string the narrative together because I can't remember what I've read because I don't know what the narrator is talking about. I usually put the book down in despair before I've reached page fifty. That's always what happens whenever I've tried to read Tolkein. I don't have the right kind of memory for it, but I also have this obsession with mastering it before I proceed. I can't leave it alone, ignore the fact that I don't get it and just read my way into the narrative, being confident it will seep in after 100 pages. So it's my problem. I get that. I do the same thing with scientific articles, I obsess over the details in the sequence they're presented and can't retain anything that follows until I feel I've mastered the terms. But it seems to me that revealing enough so that I care, but not so much that the mystery is ruined would be one of the ingredients of good writing, and in this element of The Blind Assassin Atwood does not succeed. However, I do like the primary narrative enough to deal with this obstacle by skimming the fiction within the fiction within the fiction, accepting the fact that I am retaining nothing and hoping it won't matter. It has begun to be revealed to me that elements of this fantasy world may become significant in ways I won't spoil in case you are planning to read this book. I hope I am not now going to have to go back and figure out what gnarr are and how many moons the planet Sakiel-Norn has, which, incidentally, is based on ancient Mesopotamian culture.

Atwood is, otherwise, an extraordinarily skilled writer. Creating living, breathing characters, convincingly different voices for the two sisters and their nanny/cook, creating some really funny scenes, and evoking detail in imaginative and lucid language:
I spent that night lying huddled and shivering in the vast bed of the hotel. My feet were icy, my knees drawn up, my head sideways on the pillow; in front of me the arctic waste of starched white bedsheet stretched out to infinity. I knew I could never traverse it, regain the track, get back to where it was warm; I knew I was directionless; I knew I was lost. I would be discovered here years later by some intrepid team - fallen in my tracks, one arm outflung as if grasping at straws, my features desiccated, my fingers gnawed by wolves.


Sheila O'Malley said...

In my opinion, Atwood has lost her way in, oh, the last 10 years. (I know a ton of people disagree with me, and that's cool). But after Robber Bride, I felt like her books started going down the tubes ... Alias Grace was a yawn (and what a disappointment - because it's such an awesome premise) - Oryx and Crake was bad - and The Blind Assassin was (in my opinion) unreadable. It's almost like she's imitating herSELF, at times.

On the flipside - her short stories and essays continue to burn with intelligence and wit ... she wrote a book about her writing influences called "Negotiating with the Dead" and I read it as though I was in a fever. Her whole essay on Wizard of oz was fascinating!

I know Cat's Eye sets a hugely high bar for a writer. But I have found her fiction since then to be on a downward spiral - increasingly simplistic and even (gasp) badly written. Strange.

But I'm a huge fan - so I live in hope. I read them all.

Ted said...

I never read Robber Bride or alias Grace, but I couldn't even get through Oryx and Crake I found it so, I don't even remember what I didn't like about it I just remember it was bad. Cat's Eye is indeed a hard act to follow. It wouldn't be the first time a creative artist had a hard time keeping up with herself (or others' opinions of her talent). I'm sticking this one out and at least enjoying the main narrative voice even if the conceit is unsuccessful.

Dewey said...

Ha ha, both Cat's Eye AND Alias Grace are in my top three Atwood favorites.

Anyway, it's definitely time for me to reread this. Your review made me realize that I don't remember this book nearly as well as I thought I did!