Jul 222009

Recently, I reread Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin because I’m interested in dismantling some of her work to see what makes it tick. While Atwood clearly addresses political issues, she’s never done so at the expense of the story. For the record, I’ve read three of her novels: The Blind Assassin, The Handmaids Tale, and Oryx and Crake. So, anything and everything I talk about is based upon knowing only these books.

Regarding structure, I’ve noticed that Atwood is quite consistent with two strategies: she withholds critical information about the plot, stringing the reader along for the payoff; and most chapters operate like a pseudo short story where there’s a set up, detailed exposition, finishing with an emotional punch. I hasten to say that Atwood’s writing is not formulaic, but it’s clear she often follows a similar pattern when moving the story from point A to B.

Atwood often favors telling a story by utilizing the first person PoV of a character that’s obtuse and complicit, and or, passive up to the very end. For example, in Blind Assassin: Iris allows herself to be married off without any kind of protest, doesn’t work to subvert the marriage, states she’s unaware her sister’s being molested, is unaware her sister ‘s having an affair, etc. The story’s a retrospective of all the things Iris is blind to, pun intended. This is an interesting move because all of Atwood’s stories represent the world as a bleak and oppressive patriarchy where females lack agency. Of course, Iris does take actions, but they are vengeful, spiteful, and all of her victories are Pyrrhic. In fact, the very act of writing the book may be futile, as Iris reveals all kinds of family secrets, and it’s not clear if she makes it out of the garden alive to stash the manuscript before Myrna gets to a burn it.

For the most part, I think that if I told “Joe/Jane Reader” about the kind of character Atwood uses as the protagonist up front, they’d most likely tell decline to hear the story. And who could blame them? But her method works. It works because the world Atwood’s characters operate in is as strange, and detailed as it is fascinatingly dark: she delivers descriptions of beautiful train wrecks in slow motion while withholding the worst of the wreckage and injuries until the last few chapters. By the time you realize the protagonist isn’t the hero, you’ll have been seduced into reading a relentless and intricate tragedy of a story.

For me, this works every time.

Jul 182009

Once, in a graduate seminar, I made a comment about authors who had a political agenda but told the story first while avoiding being preachy or didactic. When pressed for the name of such an author I responded with Margaret Atwood. The professor laughed at me, rolled his eyes, and moved to another point of discussion. I have always defended Atwood as someone with a stated agenda that writes complex work until I read The Year of the Flood. The novel beat me about the head with environmental issues from the first page to the last. No, while this is a very good story that I devoured in the course of a day, it shamelessly pushes a rather one note agenda that I found tedious.

Well then, why the hell is this such a compelling story? This book is well built and built for speed, and the story itself is action packed. However, as a writer the two things that I really noticed were Atwood’s ability to maintain tension when the reader effectively knows the outcome of the novel and her switching both the point of view as well as the tense between the novel’s two main characters.

Maintaining the tension with The Flood was a neat trick because the story’s time line runs parallel to Oryx and Crake. Presuming the reader has read the author’s prior book, the standard tactic of withholding information can only work so long. At the beginning of the novel, the reader knows two of God’s Gardeners are alive, each one in a different sort of trouble: Ren is stuck inside of a quarantine area of a sex club while Toby is holed up in a day spa. Each character has their own survival concerns, neither knows the other is alive or the whereabouts of the rest of the cult. So, by flashing backwards and forwards through time, the reader grows to care about the dangerous limbo states while simultaneously wondering what happened to all the secondary characters. Atwood is brilliant in the way she feeds the reader just enough information to maintain suspense while holding out on answers until near the conclusion. The shifts in time were also handled quite well; by the time one reaches the last section of the novel, they are well informed of why these two characters are in their present states and what is at stake for them to survive and find the rest of the community.

The choices Atwood made in terms of point of view worked quite well. The novel is told from two different female characters perspectives: Toby, perseverant and tough, is presented in third person limited, present tense while Brenda, passive and immature, relates her story through first person, past tense. Presenting Toby in the present tense works well because she is a no-nonsense, live-in-the-present, character. Therefore the narrative coming from Toby in this way seems organic and her perspective on things is reliable. In contrast, Ren’s story works from that particular PoV because she is rather self involved and comes across as weak when placed next to Toby. In fact, Ren is a pretty tough cookie, and to be fair almost any character will look weak next to Toby.

The point of view shifts were not jarring. They occur closer and closer together as the novel reaches its climax. The shifts themselves form a kind of structure where the novel’s sections often start with a fragment of ‘present’ post apocalyptic tension, Brenda is running out of food and Toby is being terrorized by the Pigoons, and then look backward in time to give you the story of God’s Gardener’s and the corporate wasteland they survive in.

While I enjoyed The Flood, I would call it a post apocalyptic page turner. Like, I get it. I understand the worldview: human beings suck, we are destroying the planet, and we live in a patriarchy where every woman is mere seconds from being raped/and or oppressed in some way shape or form. Atwood sees a future so bleak that the reader is cheering on a mega plague. There is not much else to say about this narrative besides it’s a war cry for the environment and rails against the evils of corporate capitalism. The world evoked is a kind of high technology dark ages where the last best of hope of humans is that they eradicate themselves before they destroy the planet. Margaret Atwood has amazing talent with the written word. Aside from the awful hymns (I thought they were written poorly with intent until I saw one could purchase a CD of them) the book is well written throughout. Also, there are shifts in language that occur that are really quite remarkable. Atwood has an enviable understanding of when to linger on a description, when to move on, and what kind of sentence will accomplish each task best.

Good book. Preachy as hell but good.

Feb 222009

There are many things to like about Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist. But, it is a strange book to approach as a reader and suspend prejudgment long enough to like it. I mean imagine you get the five minute elevator pitch (yes- that pun is unfortunate) for this book: “Well, it’s about the city’s first, black, female, elevator inspector. She becomes caught up in a web of intrigue surrounding theoretical note books that concern the design of a paradigm-changing elevator.” I know that’s not something that gets me fired up. However, this is a successful novel. As a writer, I came away thinking about the reasons something so weird worked so well. Whitehead employs two tactics that complemented his overall narrative strategy: a reticence to provide info dumps until they inform the story and a lack of specificity of regarding time and place. While one of the novel’s primary concerns is race, the slippery terms and complicated tensions that surround the topic fill this book, Whitehead manages to make this theme something significant and noticeable without detracting from the plot, and he does so without ever really telling the reader where the story takes place. Yes, I hear you screaming it is clearly New York City, but we will deal with that a couple of paragraphs below.

The novel takes a great risk in its very premise that elevator inspectors and elevator manufacturers are central to the very existence of a city. Once the reader has committed themselves to this premise there is not much more to say about it until the reader has something invested in the success of the protagonist’s quest. So, I think Whitehead was smart to withhold essential information regarding the political and philosophical underpinnings of the world he creates until it is significant to the story. This might sound like common sense to some folks, but I have seen this poorly handled in many novels. Many times, the reader is beaten over the head with all kinds of detailed artifice that is explained and enumerated in a bid to create a realistic world. This can occur in any kind of fiction where there are all manner of things occurring that the reader might need explanations: science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. It is Whitehead’s decision to hold back on the details until it develops his characters that makes the information work harder. For example, I enjoyed reading a scene where the protagonist is asked a number of esoteric questions regarding the history, function, and design of elevators. It was enjoyable because I was cheering for the protagonist at this point in the novel; her mastery of the information and her ability to pass the test are important because I care that she passes it. The fact that I am becoming more invested in the politics of competing theoretical ideas of elevator inspection is secondary (for me as a reader) to what is at stake for the protagonist. In the end the “test scene” works on four levels: it develops the character of the protagonist, it causes the reader to become invested in Whitehead’s alternate universe, it shows the nature of the racism the protagonist is dealing with, and simultaneously reveals one of her major flaws. In short, by being careful with what he tells the reader and why, Whitehead gets more effect for his effort.

Whitehead’s decision to not anchor this alternate metropolis in a well defined time or place is interesting. The reader is told very little about where they are: a city, which is obviously New York if you look for the landmarks. However, the city is not explicitly named while others are. Also, there is a decidedly high amount of racial tension as well as reference to black characters being referred to as “colored,” which makes one feel as though they are reading about a narrative that occurs approximately somewhere in the 1960s. Other historical landmarks, such as pictures of civil rights leaders, are dropped in subtle ways. Thematically, I read this as a commentary on the atemporality of the topic of race. But, it also works to give the story a certain tone. The narrative itself is not told in a strictly linear fashion, Whitehead will often provide scenes that have only tangential meaning to the main narrative arc, so the reader’s uncertainty regarding exactly where they are located is something that is maintained to effect throughout the novel. However, the story is replete with so many concrete details, as well as allusions to the thrillers and detective stories, that the reader is able to situate themselves with this strange city and come along for the ride. That is the key. If you are willing to place yourself in the good hands of Mr. Whitehead, he will take you on an insightful journey to somewhere that is as familiar as it is strange. And you are in good hands. Just relax, take a few things as they are presented, and this novel will be worth your time.