I recently read Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text, where I picked up this awesome little nugget about “[diluted] tmesis”:
. . . we do not read everything with the same intensity of reading; a rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text; our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or to skip certain passages (anticipated as “boring”) in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote (which are always its articulations: whatever furthers the solution of the riddle, the revelation of fate): we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations . . .
I am quoting Roland Barthes in attempt to dignify the fact that I skipped 200 pages of the chore that was Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winner The Blind Assassin — at midpoint-ish, I just threw my hands up, muttered Fuck it, and resolutely skipped to the end. Which, normally, I’d be loathe to do. But Atwood’s impossible-to-me text called for drastic measures.
A backgrounder: When I returned to the 218th page, after several days of avoiding the book — and a lot of whining thrown in — I was aghast and very much resentful that, apparently, I was yet to even reach the midpoint. It was such a chore. It was tedious. I hated that I was reading it. And yet I read on—even though I’ve previously sworn to stop this sadistic habit of Compulsive Finishing of Books.
I read on because I loved Iris, the narrator near the end of her days, the chronicler of the Chase-Griffen saga. I liked how she recounted the family history, her childhood, the loves, the betrayals, and the tragedies. I liked Iris. She survived all that madness, and she was taking the truth to task — and I liked how she wrote it all.
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.
At its heart, The Blind Assassin is the story of two sisters, Iris and Laura. I’ve found that in these kinds of stories, the reader [me] is always tempted to choose the side of one — either logically, or on a purely personal bias. And I’ve discovered that the good books make you swing from one sister to the other in a matter of pages — off the top of my head, Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald and Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman.
With this novel, I was Iris all the way. At that midpoint-ish point, I was resolved to like only her because I thought Laura vacant and bland, occasionally selfish, ridiculously blargh. At times I wanted to hit her. Most of the time, I just rolled my eyes and impatiently waited for Iris to stop talking about her. Enough about Laura! Talk more about you!
And, a fact that I’m sure the people who’ve read this book [to its conclusion] will find curious: I could barely tolerate reading the novel-within-a-novel, also called The Blind Assassin, which was published after its author Laura’s ooh-mysterious death. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
My distaste for all the Laura parts and the novel-within-a-novel parts [more so the sci-fi story within that novel-within-a-novel, augh] had me, ultimately, skipping to the end. It was disrespectful to the sister that I actually liked, but I was just so fed up. Besides, with barely-reading so many pages, we were only kidding ourselves.
I skipped to the end. I read the last chapter. And then I went back and read the penultimate chapter. And then I did a little more mind-scrambling and read from a hundred pages from the end.
And, will ye look at that, I was liking what I was reading. I was thrilled with the revelations. And smug, too — an I knew it, ha! reception to the answers heaped upon many questions Iris set us up with. I finally understood what all that narrative lollygagging [why, yes, I coined a phrase] was all about.
Guilt-ridden thus, at that point, I went back to page 218 and read the novel properly, obediently. As only a literarily-chastised girl could. And I liked Iris more — one of the most solid characters I’ve ever come across. And guess what? I loathed Laura — and basically everyone who wasn’t Iris — exponentially. And I still grumbled when I had to go through all that novel-within-a-novel muddle.
Knowing how it ended lessened my impatience. I was more generous, what with the revelations. [I am weird, but predictable.] But, bottom line, it was clear from the onset that Atwood and I didn’t click. I admired the complexity, its structure, and I loved Iris, I loved the language — but it just was not a book I enjoyed. Or even thankful to have read. I can’t dwell on the exact reasons, because I am sure that this is largely an emotional reaction. Augh. I don’t get it. I’m sure that I don’t like it. Sorry, heh.