Margaret Atwood was hitting me over the head.
Well, not really hitting, like in her cameo in “The Handmaid’s Tale” television series, in which she smacks Elizabeth Moss in the head.
No, the subject of Margaret Atwood – not the actual Margaret Atwood — has been clubbing me for the last seven months. Here’s why:
- In January, the sign from the Women’s March: “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again.”
- The profile in The New Yorker, describing Atwood as a “buoyant doomsayer,” recounting her penchant for reading palms, and explaining how, since she doesn’t drive, she often drags a cart loaded with used books through Toronto to donate to the library.
- The aforementioned, terrifying television series based on The Handmaid’s Tale.
- The copy of her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Blind Assassin, which was balanced on top of the growing pile on my nightstand, then cascaded onto the mound under my bed. I heard the Canadian novelist calling me through the mattress.
So when I went on vacation this summer, I took Atwood with me.
I started reading The Blind Assassin on my last day in Colorado, and it delayed our hike a bit because I had to finish a chapter. The story starts with the suicide of the protagonist’s sister, who drives off a bridge without slowing down, her white-gloved hands gripping the steering wheel. What would be a climax for any other writer is just the beginning for Atwood.
Since I’m trying to write fiction, after years of telling the truth as a journalist, I’m having to make stuff up. It’s hard going – I can turn a phrase and describe a scene, but plot? It proves elusive. Atwood is teaching me to read like a writer, and, I hope, write like a reader. Her plots – the hateful girls and their tormented protagonist in The Cat’s Eye, the dystopian, reproductively challenged theocracy in The Handmaid’s Tale, the nineteenth-century murder tale in Alias Grace – are masterful.
The Blind Assassin sounds complicated, but in Atwood’s deft hands, the reader spins along quickly in the book, flashing back and forth in time, into and out of the world of the science fiction novel within a novel. Iris, whose sister, husband and daughter all die untimely deaths, tells the story from her silver years, writing herself back in time to her privileged childhood and her young marriage to her father’s competitor to save the family fortune. But interspersed in Iris’s tale is her sister’s novel, about an illicit affair in which the man, to entertain the woman in bed with him, tells a story about a blind assassin and his lover, on a faraway, violence-torn planet.
About halfway through, this reader thought she had it figured out. Then, by two-thirds through, I had it figured out a different way. By the end, though, Margaret had blindsided me again, her plotting twists and turns slapping me around like I was the punk in the fight.
I marvel at her imagination, her structuring, the control that Ms. Atwood had over me. The Blind Assassin’s protagonist and narrator – writing her own story – explains:
The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.
Impossible of course.
I pay out my line, I pay out my line, this black thread I’m spinning across the page.
All the while the protagonist is teasing us, telling us half-truths and outright lies mixed in with reality. The voice, the plot, the book, they hit you like a ton of bricks.Thanks for schooling me, Professor Atwood. This writer – slightly more black and blue – will get back to work now.