Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Waiting for the End: Closure in Margaret Atwood's the Blind Assassin

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Waiting for the End: Closure in Margaret Atwood's the Blind Assassin

Article excerpt

As Margaret Atwood's most faithful readers have frequently noted, each new novel creates a special excitement since she has seemed intent on undermining her readers' expectations of what the novel will be like, based on their reading of the novel which immediately preceded it. And that could not be truer than in the case of The Blind Assassin, a winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. If Alias Grace, the novel just before, may be read as a variety of anti-detective novel which draws readers in with the expectation that they might discover the extent of Grace' s culpability, only to leave them in the end without any confidence that she is clearly guilty or innocent, (1) The Blind Assassin is on one level a "whodunit"--with a vengeance. The narrative in this novel erupts into motion with the arousal of the desire for an explanation of the mystery expressed in its first sentence: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." The blunt assertion of this opening sentence generates immediate questions: Was it suicide or an accident? Why did it happen? Is there a culprit who triggered this apparent suicide? And, regarding the differences between these two recent novels, how does The Blind Assassin cue its readers that an "epiphany" awaits them at "journey's end" and Alias Grace prepare its readers for the eventuality of what is at best a mock-epiphany?

To start with the last of these questions and to defer the others, it might be argued that The Blind Assassin cues its readers that a major revelation will come as the "climax" of this long narrative by constructing a first-person narrative in which readers are impressed into a race with Iris Chase Griffen to figure out whodunit before she reveals the guilty party. In addition, since Iris is writing a variety of confessional memoir, the reader is energized by the desire to pay attention to the clues which will connect Iris to the woman in the novel-within-a-novel. Because Iris represents herself as a "historian," if not a detective, examining the events leading up to her sister's apparent suicide, the reader is also constructed as a "detective," attending to the clues offered by the narrative to support the reader's suspicions. At the same time, the narrative must be careful not to make the clues so obvious that the reader loses interest by prematurely figuring out the answers to the whodunit questions generated by the opening sentence. In contrast, even though Grace is the object of that novel's focalization (2)--to borrow Gerard Genette's useful term--her complicity in the murders of her master, Thomas Kinnear, and his mistress, Nancy Montgomery, cannot be so easily established since many years have elapsed and Grace herself cannot easily "confess" to having been a free and willing accomplice in any psychologically credible manner--if, indeed, she even knows! The case of Laura Chase's suicide is far different since from the beginning Iris--the narrative's "I" who is also its "eye"--subtly communicates the knowability of both what caused the suicide and even who the culprit is. (3) The very length of the novel the reader is holding suggests that it will be possible in the fullness of time to know the truth, but only by establishing what led up to Laura's "precipitous" demise.

The plot of The Blind Assassin is set in motion by its ending, an ending which the reader is led to believe Iris knows but will not reveal until the proper time. As one reviewer comments, this is a novel very much about time, (4) and, we might add, about timing in the ways that timing is crucial to knowing. The revelations toward which the narrative slowly draws its readers--taking its own good time--could all be made at the outset or at least somewhere well before this long narrative completes itself. However, their "truth" would be diminished without the slow preparation for the end. And with the mention of"the end" it is appropriate to turn briefly to a narratologist whose views illuminate the reading of this text--Peter Brooks. …

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