Books

Margaret's Museum

John Bemrose September 11 2000
Books

Margaret's Museum

John Bemrose September 11 2000

In the corner of an old-fashioned red leatherette booth in a downtown Toronto restaurant, Margaret Atwood is laughing. She has been talking about how difficult it was to start her new novel, The Blind Assassin (McClelland & Stewart), and the celebrated author is suddenly and mightily amused at the memory of how she kept grasping at narrative threads that led nowhere. At first she thought the novel would be about her grandmother. But she soon realized there was one little problem: Atwood knew almost nothing about her, except for the fact that she had been an enthusiastic but terrible knitter of garments for First World War troops. “She couldn’t even make a washcloth come out square,” Atwood recalls. Later, she found herself focusing on a character who was painting his attic. But that turned out to be wrong, too: “I thought, no, he’ll have to paint his attic in some other book, even though it was a very nice shade.” And she chortles again with a restrained, quaking merriment, as though the world were hill of drolleries that leave her little choice. Today, though, there’s a shadow on her enjoyment. As Atwood talks, she keeps massaging a spot over her right eye: the author is prone to migraines, and it’s clear that, for her, getting a new book launched can be as strenuous, in its way, as writing one.

In the other booths, patrons are rubbernecking to catch a glimpse of the author of Surfacing, The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace and 36 other books of fiction, poetry and criticism. At 60, with her still-dark mass of curly hair and heavily lidded eyes, Atwood is arguably the most recognizable writer in the country—a situation she claims not to find burdensome since, as she says, “This is Canada. People don’t scream and faint when they see you. They walk quietly past you and then they—” and she twists her head around in a wickedly accurate imitation of just the sort of discreet gawking going on nearby.

In any case, Atwood is about to endure a whole lot more public exposure. In Canada, the launch of The Blind Assassin is easily the major event of the fall publishing season, one that will take the author on a cross-country tour for an arduous series of interviews and book signings. And her work won’t end there. In the past, there has usually been a break of several months between the Canadian and foreign launches of her books, but this year the American, British, Dutch and German editions are coming out almost simultaneously. So when Atwood finishes in Canada, she’ll go on immediately to an American tour, followed by a long stint in Europe.

Atwood jokes about the effect of this three-month blitz of hotel-hopping on her health, but it’s clear that international fame isn’t without its costs. She hopes to survive, she says, by taking vitamins, not eating meat and drinking lots of water. “Me and my digestive system are going on tour,” she deadpans. “Which of us will come back?” She also hopes to avoid the repetitive-strain injury that sometimes plagues her when she has to sign too many books. Atwood often ends up with sore muscles in her back from all the writing, and a sore left arm from opening and closing hundreds of copies of her novels. “I really need an opener and a closer,” she says. Is there nothing pleasant, then, about touring? “Sometimes,” she allows, “you meet interesting people, but the trouble is, you never can be with them for any length of time.”

As for The Blind Assassin, Atwood may have rejected the idea of writing it about her grandmother, but the novel is still narrated by an old woman, 82-year-old Iris Griffen. In one of the most ambitious social canvases Atwood has created, Iris—looking back from the vantage point of the late 1990s—spins out the century-long saga of her once-wealthy family. That story turns tragic when her younger sister Laura drives a car off a Toronto bridge at the age of 25. The tale shifts back and forth between the fictional southern Ontario town of Port Ticonderoga, where Iris and Laura grow up, and Toronto, where they go to live after Iris’s marriage to Richard Griffen, a prominent industrialist with a penchant for micromanaging other people’s lives.

Atwood clearly had more fun researching her book than she did starting it. She gobbled up small-town histories as well as old newspaper social columns, and with her partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, toured southern Ontario searching for an appropriate setting. In the end, Port Ticonderoga became a composite of three exceptionally pretty southern Ontario towns: Elora, Paris and St.Mary’s. Atwood read a great deal about the early industries in those places, and any question about The Blind Assassin is likely to set her off on a tangent about old mills (Iris’s grandfather owns a button factory) or the importance of rivers to a pioneer economy. She is particularly fascinated by the various styles of small-town war memorials and the way they glorified the horrendous losses of war. “I mean, it’s far from what these lads ever intended,” she says with a chuckle. “They didn’t go off thinking, ‘Oh goodie, I’m going to be slaughtered for the greater glory of mankind.’ ”

Atwood’s laughter, of course, has a serious note in it, and The Blind Assassin—for all its formidable narrative appeal—is driven at least in part by a desire to dissect social realities. There is a great deal in the book about class, particularly the lower orders, and the upper crust of which Iris is part (the middle class is all but absent). Iris, Laura and Richard lead lives of immense privilege, but while the women seem conscious and even guilty about this, Richard gloats in his power. In fact, the book is in many ways about the self-interest of the upper classes—a subject Atwood claims has been taboo in Canada since the McCarthy era, when class-based analysis of social problems fell into disrepute as too dangerously provocative. “We pretend classes don’t exist in our society, and of course we’re quite wrong about that,” she says. Do we make problems for ourselves, then, by ignoring the issue of class? “Think about the upper class,” she says, “what are they really? They are really a band of people with a common interest in making conditions better for themselves. And so just to take one example—if these people own the newspapers and communications systems, what kind of news are we going to get?” Atwood takes a sip of her cranberry juice: “Maybe it’s time to think about the issue of class again.”

The novel also explores a favorite Atwood theme: the limits placed on women by power structures controlled by men.

Since she belongs to a generation that came of age in the 1930s, Iris has a vivid experience of sexual politics in the days before Women’s Lib. She is expected to be an ornament to Richard’s career—a gilded bird in the cage of his wealth— while Laura, too, must submit to his numbing passion for control. All this may sound as though Atwood were flogging a dead horse; after all, hasn’t the lot of women improved radically since those days? But Atwood believes the old male urge to dominate is never too far beneath the surface. “Read the papers lately?” she asks with a flash of rhetorical vehemence. “Just think of these men who, rather than relinquish control, kill their wives, their children and themselves.” A moment later, she expands on her observation. “I really think control is at the heart of it,” she says. “Dentists have very high suicide rates, and I think the reason is, if you’re drawn to dentistry, you’re drawn to tiny, perfect solutions. But you cannot make a tiny, perfect solution for your life.”

Atwood digs even deeper into her themes of class and sexual repression in another tale, held within Iris’s tale like a knife within a sheath. Purportedly written by Laura and published after her death, this novel-within-a novel, which also bears the tide “The Blind Assassin,” focuses on an unnamed married woman who meets secretly with her lover, a fugitive from the anti-communist sentiments of the 1930s. Their trysts are beautifully evoked, with the man’s thorniness and the woman’s devotion entwining in a fascinating pas de deux of neediness, pain and love. To entertain his lover, the man invents a dark fable about a kingdom he calls Sakiel-Norn, a place where the upper classes make blood sacrifices of young women. The hero of this story is a young man who has lost his sight after years of forced labor in a rug-weaving factory, and whose superhuman sense of touch enables him to become a professional assassin who can operate on the darkest of nights. www.macleans.ca for links

Atwood’s masterful rendering of the blind assassin story echoes the cruel will to power that, in Richard’s household, is usually hidden behind a screen of gentility. And it lends a powerfully mythical dimension to the novel. “My tide has many meanings,” Atwood says with an enigmatic smile, but she won’t explain what they are: she’ll leave that to the critics. In any case, it’s certainly clear that by the end of the book the very idea of a blind assassin has become a potent, multi-layered symbol, which stands not only for death itself, but for the random cruelty of life, and for a kind of natural justice—a balancing mechanism, deep within fate—that not even Richard, for all his worldly power, can escape.

It could be argued that The Blind Assassin offers a fairly gloomy vision of human beings, with their penchant for domination and selfishness, for having their own adventures at the expense of others. Atwood allows that several characters in her book act this way. “But in this,” she says, “people are really no different from other biological forms. Think of those beetles having their adventures at the expense of others in that Halifax park,” she says, referring to an ongoing infestation there of longhorn beetles. Yet Atwood doesn’t think her novel is pessimistic, for it offers several examples of courage and generosity as well. In fact, the author believes human beings are unique precisely because they can rise above the narrow channels of self-interest. “People aren’t like mosquitoes,” she stresses. “I mean, the mosquito never has a point where he says, ‘I’m going to do something nice for the other mosquitoes.’ He never says, ‘I’ll overcome the fact that I’m going to end up as a smear on the windshield by creating a nice piece of mosquito art.’ ”

Atwood chortles at the very idea of mosquito art and takes another sip of her drink. Her headache seems to have abated, and in the nearby booths, the patrons have grown less inquisitive, accustomed now to the celebrity in their midst. “Selfishness and fear may be part of our biology,” Atwood adds finally. “But as humans, we have other options.” Options such as writing novels as richly layered as The Blind Assassin and revealing the bittersweet contradictions by which we live.