#LitChat: The Blind Assassin’s Mixed Genres by A.K. Andrew

A.K. Andrew’s guest post today addresses Margaret Atwood’s mixing of genre in The Blind Assassin. A. K. and I clearly share a similar taste in books, and now I’m convinced I need to read more books by Atwood!  My guest post on her blog is titled Reading Fever. And now I turn my blog over to her…

 

First let me thank Jeri for allowing me to be a guest on her blog. I’m honored to be here and thrilled to be included in the ranks of her excellent posts.

 

The Blind Assassin: A Lesson in Thinking Beyond the Expected

 

Most novels can be categorized in one genre e.g. mystery, thriller, literary fiction, romance, crime etc. But what if the novel does not neatly fit into pre-ordained boxes? Mixing genres in one novel is not for the feint-hearted. How successful they are depends on the skill of the author. It’s perhaps only someone as seasoned an author as Margaret Atwood who can succeed.

 

That said, as a writer I’ve been influenced by her work in trying to span the gaps between different genres, trying to think beyond the expected. In my current work in progress, Under The Bed, I meld literary fiction, and 20th century historical fiction, with a touch of mystery. There are also two distinct story lines in two different time frames. Atwood’s work is not something I can match, but why not try and learn from the best? Let’s look here at where my inspiration comes from.

 

The Blind Assassin is a book within a book within a book; four different stories interlink throughout the novel, two of which appear unconnected. The book is a combination of literary fiction, thriller/romance, and science fiction.

 

The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood

 

The first story is about Iris, the 83-year-old narrator, writing her memoirs, trying not to be erased. Her doctor dismisses her as, “an ineffectual and therefore blameless old biddy.” Through much of the book she appears inept, but turns out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Iris is revealing the truth, in the hopes of reconciliation with her estranged granddaughter.

 

The second, and main story focuses on the early life of Iris and her younger sister Laura. We’re told in the first sentence of the novel Laura killed her self by driving off a bridge in 1945, when Laura is in her mid twenties. Laura is arguably the main protagonist. Their father was a wealthy industrialist but by the time the depression hits, the business is failing. At eighteen, Iris is co-coerced by her father to marry a rival industrialist, a man more than twice her age, in order to save both her father’s failing business and to secure a future for Laura. (The theme of women’s subjugation and their attempts to escape it is a common theme in Margaret Atwood’s books, The Handmaid’s Tale being the most striking example.)

 

The third tale within the book takes the form of excerpts from a novel – called The Blind Assassin – supposedly penned by Laura. When it’s published posthumously, it gives Laura iconic status. This thriller/romance is a tale about a clandestine affair between an unnamed man and woman. The sexual nature of the book, and speculation of who the two people really were, has devastating consequences.

 

The fourth tale is a pulp sci-fi story that the male lover in The Blind Assassin is serializing in penny magazines. After their lovemaking, the man tells the story and the couple, often lying in a seedy hotel room, escape into the imagined world of the planet Zycron, where the city of Sakiel-Norn teeters on the brink of disaster. What is remarkable is that this is a complete shift of genre. Atwood is no stranger to science fiction, but for the intellectual lovers in the fictitious The Blind Assassin it is a dalliance in something “non-literary.”

 

Undoubtedly Atwood’s novel as a whole is considered literary fiction, but she employs techniques that are more fitting of a thriller. She employs a slow reveal that is an essential part that feeds the suspense of The Blind Assassin. As well she uses the technique of a thriller by switching from different scenes as well as time frames, keeping us on the edge of our seat. But more often than not what causes the suspense is the sub-text: what is not said.

 

The affair in the The Blind Assassin is a particular source of intrigue, in part because the characters are unnamed. Atwood deliberately confuses us by telling us that Laura penned the book, so when she starts dropping hints that Iris may be the woman in the affair we wonder how Laura knew. And of course the hints are very subtle.

 

There are a myriad of other sub-plots I won’t go into, but I can’t talk about a Margaret Atwood novel without referring to her wonderful descriptive prose, and use of metaphor and simile. Here are a couple of examples:

 

On the night before her arranged marriage, we see Iris’s disgust as she puts some cream on her hands: “This treatment was supposed to make your hands all white and soft –the texture of uncooked bacon fat.”

 

The sisters meet for the first time after their father has died. “She (Laura) … threw her arms around me and clutched onto me as if she were drowning. No tears, just that spine-cracking embrace.”

 

We only learn the name of the narrator a third of the way through the novel. This is quintessential in the disclosure of information throughout the entire novel – slow and deliberate. It’s a significant chapter and I’ll close with a short passage from the same chapter. There is a mere hint of something happening – no names, no specifics, just an undertow of tension for the reader. Atwood is not the sparsest of writers, but her language is always relevant. She crosses genre so expertly we hardly notice what she has done.

Was that the beginning, that evening – on the dock at Avilion, with the fireworks dazzling the sky? It’s hard to know. Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then later they spring.

 

Do you have favorite novels that cross genres? What kinds of fiction do you enjoy?

 

 

 

You can connect with A.K. Andrew on her blog. Don’t forget to chime in on my Reading Fever guest post on A. K.’s blog.

 

Picture of author A. K. AndrewBiography: A.K. Andrew was born in England. In the mid-late seventies, she spent five years in London where she was involved in the alternative housing movement, and became a Community Arts photographer and screen-printer.

After travelling in North Africa and Europe, she moved to California, making San Francisco her home for over twenty years. In San Francisco’s atmosphere of breaking boundaries and creative expression, A.K. became a painter, and ultimately a writer. In June 2010, she completed a Creative Writing Certificate at the University of Sussex.

An excerpt from her first novel, Radio Echo, received a notable mention in the subsequent anthology Voices from the Shore. In December 2010 Radio Echo was shortlisted for the Sussex Writer’s Award. The novel is the story of a young Italian Jewish woman in wartime Italy. Kathy plans to self-publish Radio Echo in 2014.

Her current novel, in its final draft stage, is Under The Bed. It juxtaposes the story of a Central Park west matron and an East Village artist against the backdrop of the 1950’s McCarthy era and the late sixties Vietnam Conflict.

A.K. Andrew currently lives in Brighton in Southern England, watches waves, and writes.

Author: JeriWB Guest

If you would like to write a guest post on a writing or literature related topic, please contact me. Aim for 800 words and be keyword specific.

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32 Comments

  1. “She crosses genre so expertly we hardly notice what she has done.” – great authors seem to do that – they write so the readers are drawn into the characters, plot and setting, whatever the genre of the book.

    When you say mixed genre, I think of the historical fiction/mysteries of David Liss. The 18th century comes to live along with mysteries and intriguing characters.

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    • You’re right Leora. The ability to do it seamlessly is the true sign of an excellent author. I am not familiar with David Liss, but I’ll be sure to check him out. Thanks for the comment:-)

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  2. Thanks once again for guest posting today, A. K. While I mostly read literary fiction and memoirs, I occasionally sample other genres, most notably psychological thrillers with a dash or horror now and again. An interesting young adult book that blends genres would be Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The book incorporates many comical drawings done by the main character, plus the book is based (to an extent) on the author’s real-life. Another great take on blending fact and fiction would be Tim O’Brien’s Viet Nam stories in The Things They Carried.

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    • It’s been a pleasure exchanging posts Jeri, so thanks for that. I think it’s the best of both worlds when you’re two favorite kinds of novel come together. I love the title of Sherman Alexie’s book, and combined with the drawings, it sounds great. The Things They Carried is a great example and very moving as I recall. I like memoir if it’s fictionalized, but interestingly I have no interest in Life Writing for myself. Drawing on experiences is sufficient for me.

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  3. I remember the film version of The Handmaid’s tale. It was a great movie but until now I had no idea where it came from. Now that I know the source I will have to add her to my reading list.

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    • Glad I could be of help Jon. Despite being a big Atwood fan, I’ve never seen the film. It was certainly a stunning, albeit grim, novel.

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  4. I’m afraid to say it but I’ve heard the name Margaret Atwood so many times, yet I never thought about reading her works. This post has made me rethink my past dismissals.

    I love hearing about authors I didn’t think twice about. Unfortunately, there are so many authors out there that it’s hard to keep up, let alone, go back to novels that have been around.

    I can’t think of a novel I’ve read that crosses genres. Most of my favorites are historical fiction. *makes note to put A.K.’s book on my list*

    One book that always stands out for me is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. He was ahead of his time when he wrote it with so many touchy different subjects; Pro vs. Con Vietnam, America vs. Canada. He also wrote Owen Meany’s lines all in CAPS. You have no idea why until the end, and it all makes sense. You find you love the guy more than you did throughout the book.

    Great post, ladies!

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  5. Well your comment brought me a smile. I’ll be sure to let you know when Under the Bed comes out! I always finding it shocking to realize just how many authors I know by name but have not actually read. Zadie Smith is one that is incredibly popular, but I’ve yet to read. And I know what you mean about going back to books that have been around. ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ sounds perfect for me. I will definitely have to hunt it down. As you were saying about Atwood, I know John Irving’s name , but have not read his work – seen a couple of the films instead. Gosh now I’m embarrassing myself.

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  6. Novels that cross the genre boundaries are always the most captivating and interesting and can be very hard to come by, I’ll have to download this book!

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    • I’m glad you find them that way too Morgan. I alway like a novel that helps me look at things in different ways, but as you say, cross genre is often hard to find. Thanks for the comment.

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  7. I confess I have not read any of Atwood’s work but now I know I must. Her ability to draw you in as a reader and to shift from genre to genre say a lot about her talent as a writer. Thank you A.K. for bringing this to the forefront.

    I’m not sure if the fits the question but the very first book I read at the encouragement of an amazing english teacher that change everything for me as a reader was Dr Zhivago.

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    • I think that most certainly fits the question. Dr. Zhivago is a fabulous novel combining history with suspense and a love story – triangular love stories no less. It had a big impact on me too Susan, and of course the film was great. I had a big crush on Omar Sharif in my teens!

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  8. I can’t say that I have read anything that crossed genres. Interesting…

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    • They are not easy to find as such, but as I mentioned to Susan with Dr. Zhivago, lots of novels have a number of different elements to them. Blending them into a really good read so you don’t notice the changes, is part of the key.

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  9. I’m recently getting back into fiction. I spent a long, long, long time focusing on memoirs because I liked how the events were true and I could relate to the person through their texts. I also liked the ability to learn from the memoirs as well. I will always remember the first time I read Mary Karr’s memoir and learned what a man-of-war was. I had never heard of one and I just kept thinking, that can’t be a real creature. But then I remembered it was a memoir and it more than likely was. I enjoy that. But I also enjoy reading of the impossible, reading of dreams, reading of things that can only exist in the literary world, or of things that nobody would tell of themselves but could only admit through labeling it fiction. This is what I am getting into now.

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  10. I think as readers we go through phases of liking different things at different times. It sounds like your experience of memoirs is only adding to your enjoyment of the truly fictional character of novels that are just that – fiction. Imagination is a wonderful thing to explore as a writer, but if it has no basis whatsoever in recognizable emotions or human feelings than it will be unbelievable. As you said, sometimes reality – as in the case of a man-of -war – is the most fantastical thing of all. Thanks for the comment and good to meet you

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  11. Nice Guest Post AK – Speaking of Dr Zhivago, Susan, I read the book and saw the movie several times. I have to say Omar was okay but for some reason my gaze was diverted to Julie Christie. AK, your description of Atwood’s mixing genres was instructive. I suspect there is a lot of this going on, but not nearly so inventively (is there such a word?) as Margaret manages. Stephen King’s Stand By Me is a YA adventure, but there is the ghoulish body discovery business going too. Then, there is SK’s Delores Claiborne, a long monologue with wonderful psychological stuff folded in.

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    • Thanks Larry. Re: Dr. Zhivago, Julie Christie was one of my favorite actors at the time, and with such an epic story , very memorable for me too. Stephen King is an odd bird with his work. Lots of really great psychological drama, but I find the writing overly drawn out, which takes away from the suspense. The beauty of different genres, mixed or not, is that we can suit our mood so easily now. It’s hard to imagine how restricted people were in their choice of reading even 50 years ago relative to today.

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  12. A.K. – you weave the tale in such an interesting way I couldn’t wait to read more. I haven’t read Margaret Atwood and I love fiction so I think I have to hop over to Amazon to check her out! Thanks.

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    • Wow Jeanette, I’m very flattered. So glad you enjoyed the post. Margaret Atwood’s writing career is long and varied, so there is a huge range of style to choose from. That said, all of her books are ones you get to sink your teeth in, and often have a dark edge to them. Thanks for your comment.

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    • Glad you enjoyed the post. Finding the time to read is certainly a challenge for a lot of people for various reasons, and especially if you have children, which I assume you have. When time is so precious you want to be sure the book is something you know you’re going to like. Hope you enjoy the Blind Assassin.

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  13. Yes, I like a lot of stuff going on in a story, all kinds of surprising elements so that its impossible to put it into a slot. And noting that more and more terms for describing these kinds of works are springing up all over the place too… which, I’ll admit, I can’t keep up with. Personally, I love to cross genres myself – something though, I just can’t help; appears to be part of my natural style. Thanks, A.K. interesting post.

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  14. We seem to be on the same page. I think self-publishing has really enabled people to take a chance and write what they want , rather than trying to fit a certain format. But also as I noted to Larry , the range of fiction has really ballooned in recent decades anyway. Multiple points of view, for example is fairly common now, and I think the same is happening with genre. As for the terms, I’m with you on keeping up. Still that’s what we have wiki for eh? Thank you for the comment.

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  15. A.K. I simply love the way you write!!

    Trust your taste in books so I just now reserved The Blind Assassin at the library. Will put Cicero aside for a while and concentrate on a contemporary book as opposed to one written 44 B.C.

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    • Thank you so much Catarina. What a compliment! Do let me know what you think of the Blind Assassin. It’s good to switch the kind of novels you read sometimes -gives a different perspective.

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  16. You have made this book sound like a must read, so read I must 🙂

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  17. Thanks Becc, I do hope you enjoy it. Let me me know what you think if you do get a chance to read it.

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  18. Margaret Atwood is a Canadian icon and treasure! I’ve read many of her books – sci fi fans would love Oryx and Crake, which was so real it gave me nightmares. She does “thriller” so well, she could have made a great living cranking out murder mysteries. Aren’t we lucky Ms. Atwood decided to delve deeper and pen these wonderful gems. Her writing always inspires me to try a little harder …

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    • She really is a treasure Krystyna. I completely agree about her ability to do ‘thriller’. It’s really quite rare in literary fiction. To be able to do that & sci-fi- amazing. It’s funny ,I’d never considered before, what if she’d just churned out a bunch of thrillers? As you say, thank goodness she dug deeper. Good to meet a fellow fan. Thanks so much for the comment.

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