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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Blind Assassin (2000) by Margaret Atwood


Book Review
The Blind Assassin (2000)
by Margaret Atwood

   The path to literary greatness takes many twists and turns.  The major milestones I've seen repeated in the 20th century are:
1. The break through debut novel.
2. The  major prize winning novel.
3. The blockbuster movie or television version of a novel.
4. The best-seller.

   I think an easy, fair and accurate way to evaluate canon eligibility is to hand out points for each of those four, maybe add a fifth for "public celebrity status" and then just see where you are at with each author.  I think you'd have to adjust the value of each best seller downward to account for authors who have nothing but best sellers- there is a whole shelf full of "airport thriller/mystery" type authors who have dozens of best-sellers, a couple good movies and no prizes.

  If you look at a writer like Margaret Atwood, who is currently sitting in third place in the odds table for next years Nobel Prize in Literature, you can see the path to canonical status in action.  Specifically, in the past year she had her first blockbuster television version, the award wining The Handmaiden's Tale.  The Blind Assassin was another major achievement, it won the Booker Prize in 2000.   As a Canadian, Atwood is ineligible for the United States based Pulitzer and National Book Award- and you'd have to think that given her eligibility she would have won, see Annie Proulx, who won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for The Shipping News, which basically takes place in Canada.

  I haven't gone back and looked at the contemporaneous coverage of the Prize, but it looks like it was a weak year- with a minor Ishiguro book and a bunch of titles I don't even recognize. The Blind Assassin wasn't particularly well received by United States critics- the New York Times straight out panned it, and I would imagine the Booker really gave The Blind Assassin a sales boost stateside.

 As for the substance of The Blind Assassin, it's a work of historical fiction, set in the same Southern Ontario landscape that figures prominently in many of Atwood's books.  Iris Chase, the protagonist and narrator, discusses her past, with an emphasis on the relationship between Iris and Laura, her deceased sister.  She also throws in a sci-fi twist, with a fantasy story-within-a-story whose authorship is a major element of the larger story.   I read it respectfully, but I have to say that I agree with early critics, who found it sloppily written and over-long.  550 pages!

  But hey, if Atwood wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, this will be one of her canonical works.


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