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The Blind Assassin.

After several failed attempts over the years, I powered through and read all 520-something pages of The Blind Assassin (hardcover edition) last night. This time I had the motivation of "required reading" for a seminar I'm taking, but time constraints meant it had to happen in one sitting. I don't recommend that.

I wasn't as bothered by the sci-fi bits as I had been in the past. In fact, there was much less sci-fi than I'd thought there would be, based on the first few chapters, and I actually started looking forward to the continuation of The Blind Assassin novel-within-a-novel every time Iris launched into one of her treatises on aging (invariably over the joyless consumption of coffee and a donut) that I could so clearly hear in Margaret's monotone.

Also, I know M.A. loves wordplay and etymology (and I love that about her), but all of her characters do not need to share this trait. (Example: "That’s my trousseau, I thought. All at once it was a threatening word—so foreign, so final. It sounded like trussed —what was done to raw turkeys with skewers and pieces of string.") A few times, it's interesting, but after awhile, I wanted her to let the words pass, unmolested. To be fair, I was likely cranky after 10 hours of reading. Or maybe I'm just getting old, Iris-style.

So it wasn't my favourite Atwood (that'd be Cat's Eye), but I appreciate what she's doing with genre here. My discussion question for the seminar: It could be argued that with its pulp sci-fi story safely couched within the more traditional narrative that frames it, The Blind Assassin became the first (semi-) sci-fi novel to win the Booker Prize. Sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson attacked the Booker for awarding "what usually turn out to be historical novels" --which The Blind Assassin could also be classified as.

At the same time, Atwood herself has said that she does not write sci-fi; rather, she positions books like The Handmaid's Tale and The Year of the Flood as speculative fiction, based on the plausibility of the events contained therein. Ursula K. LeGuin argues that this is a strategic move on Atwood's part, deployed to avoid being forced into a "literary ghetto." Is The Blind Assassin's story-within-a-story the subversive act of an author with sci-fi leanings attempting to bring the genre to mainstream attention and critical acclaim, or should we take Atwood's rejection of the sci-fi label at face value?

I should add that I don't have anything against sci-fi as a genre; it just isn't what I seek out as a reader.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
notxdeadxyet
Nov. 11th, 2010 02:06 pm (UTC)
I personally take it as face value in part. "The Handmaid's Tale" is something I don't consider to be sci-fi, mostly because there's very little actual science to it. And I thought that "The Blind Assassin"'s sci-fi was really more of a....I guess you'd call it a device. I really want to say "shtick" but that sounds terribly harsh. (And although it's not one I go back and re-read much, I do like TBA. The ending made me cry.)
The "Flood" books are definitely sci-fi, or at least sci-fi-esque. But I can see how she would prefer not to hang that label on them. I love science fiction and I still know that an awful lot of the books that are under than heading are pretty crappy. And the ones that aren't crappy at all don't tend to get as much respect as they deserve.
macychick
Nov. 11th, 2010 10:15 pm (UTC)
The "Flood" books are definitely sci-fi, or at least sci-fi-esque. But I can see how she would prefer not to hang that label on them. I love science fiction and I still know that an awful lot of the books that are under than heading are pretty crappy. And the ones that aren't crappy at all don't tend to get as much respect as they deserve.

I agree. Margaret Atwood is one of the most gifted writers out there and to place her into the same category as some of those sci-fi crappy authors is kind of insulting, even if they do write the same genre.
cancerdusk
Nov. 14th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
I also lean towards taking her at face value. Having not read either of your links, I can see the strategic value of avoiding being labeled a science fiction writer, since the genre, and genre fiction in general, is so often looked down upon. And if her novels had a "science fiction" label on them, they would be shelved in an area of the bookstore her normal readers might rarely peruse. Given that, if she wanted to bring science fiction more attention, she could do so overtly and use her stature to add credibility to the genre. Instead, she has repeatedly stated that she isn't a science fiction writer, sometimes adding a token "not that there's anything wrong with that"-type statement that makes me think she at least partially shares in the negative sentiment towards the genre.

That said, she does make the attempt in TBA to show one of the strengths of science fiction, the ability to comment on personal and social conditions via metaphor. Further, if that's how Atwood thinks of science fiction, as commentary through a specific convention of metaphors, then she isn't a science fiction writer by her own definition. The Handmaid's Tale and the Flood books are more speculative than metaphorical, but I'm not sure if the distinction is valid in defining the genre. Many authors under the science fiction label write with a speculative aim.

Edited at 2010-11-14 05:05 pm (UTC)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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