Haven’t you always wanted to write a sex novel? I always have. A pulp sex novel. Just for the purity of it, the literary chastity, the singularity of focus. I’d feature sex not as a part of the artistic arc of a story but as the whole of it. I’d choose a beautiful woman, youngish but not innocent of herself, and situate her in various textures of darkness with a man who was sure of himself but not of the world around him. A rebel with a certain vulnerability, who could show a woman not just how to fuck, but how desperately and constantly she wanted to. Delicious.
With the plot of her most recent book, The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood put herself in the perfect position to write just what I’ve described. Some instinct tells me that’s what she wanted to write, and then couldn’t justify it; her ambition made it a prison ’twas too narrow for her mind.
When richly skilled writers write books that don’t work, it’s often because they’ve imposed upon their pure passion for speech some academic or exogenous formality. Atwood’s new novel, The Blind Assassin, could have been a sex novel, but for reasons I can only guess or curse at, it turned into a referendum on what kinds of architectural complexity the author thinks a well-written novel entails. Or else, more psychoanalytically, perhaps Atwood’s most striking subplot that of a woman writing a sex novel and passing it off as the work of her dead sister is as much about Atwood the novelist as about her character the novelist. Heady, self-referential doings. I’d rather have the sex.
There are three main stories going on at once in The Blind Assassin. The first, if we work from the outside in, is in the style of a classic memoir, the narrative of an old woman writing in a sometimes acerbic, occasionally lyrical style the story of her restricted present and her anguished past. Iris Chase Griffin is in her dotage, but her sharpness of mind teams up with her bruised conscience, impelling her to write about her childhood. Also covered: the death of her Mother, the demise through treachery and world events of her Father, her sacrificial marriage and the haunting, living portrait of her sister Laura, whose aloofness, meditations on God and shimmering sexual asceticism give the novel its truest impetus, and whose suicide is the first story offered the reader for consideration. This narrative gains movement and power through suspense; it becomes clear that the story is moving towards the revelation of the true cause of Laura’s death and the despair that drives the storyteller to reveal it.
Moving further inside this concentric study in sexual evasion is the novel within the novel, called, coincidentally, The Blind Assassin.
In this novel, which we are told has been written by Laura and has given Laura a certain celebrity in death, a man on the run from the law for his dealings with Communists keeps meeting with an unnamed upper-class woman who is young and beautiful and nubile and newly eroticized. They meet in various flophouses and leaky basements. She brings him cigarettes, sometimes apples, always whiskey; they fuck, they always fuck. Details of the sex are both implied and withheld:
Why has she kept away?
He’s there, he opens the door.
I brought you some apples, she says.
After a while the objects of this world take shape around her once more. There’s his typewriter, precarious on the tiny washstand. The blue suitcase is beside it, topped with the displaced washbasin. Shirt crumpled on the floor. Why is it that tumbled cloth always signifies desire? With its wrenched, impetuous forms. The flames in paintings look like that like orange fabric, hurled and flung.
He’s afraid she will never come back; she’s afraid he will disappear. Their talk is brusque, and full of insinuation; the plot has that slow, beautiful friction, like something being dragged. To keep her coming back to him, and because he also is a writer, he begins a post-coital ritual of telling her, Scheherezade-style, an ongoing science-fiction story about events on the planet Zycron, the sacrifical virgins in the god-forsaken city of Sakiel-Norn and the love story between a child-like blind assassin and the mute maiden he endeavors to save from the fate of tradition; this fantasy constitutes the third continuing narrative. A final stylistic artifice Atwood adds to this mix is that of newspaper clippings, which she uses to lend historical heft to the novel and to contextualize certain fictional family events.
Exhausting, no? But Atwood has shown herself to be relaxed and alive at the juncture of sex and sci-fi (her highly praised 1985 novel A Handmaid’s Tale covers that territory). In The Blind Assassin, her effort to fuse a science-fiction story, a thriller, a historical novel, a tragedy of manners and a classic memoir moves beyond literary ambition to sheer compulsion.
Still, I feel haughty pointing at her in this way; Margaret Atwood is also an exquisite writer. Sometimes I’d look up after reading one of the magnificently self-sufficient paragraphs in this book and just want the world to stop, the way it does when you enter a cathedral. Atwood is an accurate recorder of the symphonic components of a single instant; as slow and smoky with sex as Marguerite Duras, as luminous with gender as Rilke, as sharp about marriage as John Updike, as canny about class as Henry James. I’m proud to know her work; she reminds me that women write as well as men. (There, I’ve said it!) I’ve always known that, but I feel that I walk, that I write, in an unconvinced world. Perhaps women still lack certain freedoms, certain ways of taking the act of writing, the honor of being published, for granted. Atwood’s novel is about itself, and that seems unnecessarily apologetic to me. Many times in the novel, the adage is repeated: “the fist is more than the sum of its fingers.” There’s something about that expression: women just don’t make fists that often, so in a woman’s hands the adage is harder to prove. That the white glove is more than the sum of its fingers is never more clear to a reader than it is here.
We learn finally that Iris herself has written this novel within a novel, not her sister; we see that this is the reason that the themes of the dowager’s life are so directly reflected in the themes of the pulp novel she attributed to her sister. Tellingly, the narrator’s voice in this novel within a novel writes, “The real danger comes from herself; she hasn’t examined her motives.There may not be any motives as such; desire is not a motive.”
But desire most certainly is a motive. And, when fully vested, it’s a gorgeous basis for art. My faith in the artistic viability of Atwood’s impulse to write a sex novel is just a little stronger than hers, that’s all.
Maybe I’ll go try and write one myself.
Deb Margolin and Nerve.com, Inc.