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.
A guest post by Kathy Stowe (HoCoPoLitSo’s Program Coordinator)
Searching for authors to take me through the rabbit hole into a new world has been an unending but rewarding task since I was old enough to walk the mile to the local library, the summer after third grade. When I saw the movie Winter’s Bone, I knew I had to seek out Daniel Woodrell. Rarely have I been so rewarded. Woodrell conveys in just a sentence an entire world, an unfamiliar but believable territory that exists somewhere frighteningly close. It’s Neil Gaiman without the alternative universe.
William Boyle, in a review of the recently released movie Tomato Red, also based on one of his novels, called Woodrell “the battle-hardened bard of meth county.” An apt description for a man described as a “lady stinger of a writer” by E. Annie Proulx on the book jacket review of Woodrell’s 1996 Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir. Even the book’s title gives you a little shiver, conjuring up images of a perverted uncle. The lady stinger, a “little black thirty-two” tucked into a blue pillowcase that held his traveling clothes, accompanies Doyle Redmond on his family errand into the Ozarks to convince his older brother, Smokes, to turn himself into the law even though “us Redmonds have never been the sort of bloodline who’ll give up our kin easy to the penitentiary.”
In Give Us a Kiss, this particular Redmond, Doyle, has just one true love, “following his fantasies out and scribbling them down … telling stories … big wet whoppers” that “ … eventually … shade toward truth.” Having escaped the academic world in a stagnant pond-green Volvo listed on the hot sheets as yellow, Doyle has left behind the world of four published novels nobody much had read. He’s also left behind the Volvo’s owner, his two-timing wife who had “been in a frenzy to be a poet both revered and lusted after … . A hybrid of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carolyn Forché, and Gypsy Rose Lee.”
A quick check reveals Woodrell lists four published novels, meaning another tendency of mine, rummaging about in favored authors’ lives, might get a satisfying scratch. Lists of books carried in a box along with the pillowcase of clothes and the lady stinger, and references to authors, music and Doyle’s own writing process offer possibly slightly veiled autobiographical insight into the rather reclusive, fascinating mind of Daniel Woodrell. I too take great joy in looking under rocks to imagine, examine and describe the “dashingly scuzzy dudes,” just for the joyride of it.
Oh, and as in other Woodrell novels, sex and the Dollys are involved. The newest novel released as a film, Tomato Red (2017), and Winter’s Bone (2010) also feature the Dollys, a legendary clan of criminal persuasion, another backwoods family tribe who aren’t nearest and dearest to the Redmonds. Sex in the form of Doyle’s attraction to Niagra, Smokes’ girlfriend’s (Big Annie) 19-year-old daughter who tells him, “I believe we got the makings of a dream that’ll burn mighty hot, Doyle, you’n me.”
Woodrell’s ability to transport the reader to another world includes transforming words to smells and taste. Squirrel meat soaked in buttermilk doesn’t make my mouth water until he describes the old Folger’s can of bacon grease, burger leavings and whatever “from a United Nations of edible critters” that Big Annie cooks it in.
Woodrell, an author who is “…not the type who can exclude people socially just because they operate under some bad habits,” creates a world of memorable characters. He describes a neighborhood where “Some old boy across the road and down a few houses kept up a racket trying to cut the grass of his entire yard with a Weedwhacker. He stopped and dragged an ice chest along behind him after every five or six paces of whacking.” His evokes a believable world with unbelievable skill. This post aimed to give the reader enough of a taste to want to check out one of our best American writers. Start with Give Us A Kiss … .
In this this month’s “What are you reading?” HoCoPoLitSo’s Board Member Kathy Larsen tells us about The Gentleman from Moscow by Amor Towels.
Although The Gentleman from Moscow by Amor Towles could be a quick read, it is so beautifully written that I chose to savor it.
The novel opens in 1922 Moscow with an interrogation between Count Rostov and a Bolshevik charged with sending aristocrats to the firing squad. Expecting to die, the Count gives flippant answers. Asked if he had written a poem seen as a “call to action” prior to the Russian Revolution, the Count replies that the poem was attributed to him. Surprisingly, his life is spared. Instead, he is exiled to the Metropole Hotel and shifted from his suite above the Bolshoi to what used to be the servants’ quarters in the attic.
With the interactions among these characters working and living in the hotel, the author builds a community of hope and friendship amidst a world of fear. The Count, always charming and always observant, befriends a small girl who teaches him the terrain of the hotel. He’s kept informed by the concierge stationed at the door and kept sane by the rooftop beekeeper. He is also challenged by his nemesis, a boorish waiter who becomes the Communist enforcer.
Subtle changes in the Count’s situation reflect the changes in the greater Russian world during the 1920s and on. As Communism solidifies, the Count’s elitism and knowledge are discounted, even condemned. But when Stalin takes over and Russia returns to the world stage, the Count is asked to teach table manners to a potential ambassador.
Despite the turmoil, the love that Russians have for their homeland vibrates through the novel.
by Kathy Larsen
HoCoPoLitSo’s Board Member