The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.
“The average working man wouldn’t read that kind of thing, though – the working man the comrades think is so inherently noble. What those guys want is his stuff. Cheap to buy, value for a dime, fast-paced action, with lots of tits and ass. Not that you can print the words tits and ass: the pulps are surprisingly prudish. Breasts and bottom are as far as they’ll go. Gore and bullets, guts and screams and writhing, but no full frontal nudity. No language. Or maybe it’s not prudishness, maybe they just don’t want to be closed down.” (p. 280)
As I am myself a purveyor of pulp fiction’s closest children, comic books, I have a lot of respect for what has come to be termed the pulp style, even if I don’t have much first-hand knowledge of it. I know it’s like a cinephile who claims to love movies and yet doesn’t like black and white, or worse, silent movies, but you have to admit, pulp was made for its era, an era that we no longer live in. Pulp was a cheap, disposable sort of entertainment which has become irrelevant now, as we are continually bombarded with cheaper, even more disposable fun. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is a brilliant book, which uses pulp tropes and style marvelously in an attempt to ingratiate the reader into the world of Canada in the 1930s and 1940s. The pulp-ish sections of the book are where we can find the eponymous blind assassin, who is himself the fictional creation of a fictional author found in a scandal-making novel. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
The Blind Assassin is told to us by Iris Chase Griffen, a woman who was an heiress to her father’s button and underwear factories in 1930s Ontario. She relates to us the story of her life from then until the present day, showing how her family’s factories went under during the Great Depression and how she’s now become a somewhat decrepit and penniless old lady just playing out the string in her hometown of Port Ticonderoga. She also wants to tell us about her sister, Laura, who committed suicide at the close of the Second World War by crashing her car into a river. The fictional tale “The Blind Assassin” is also imparted to the reader in the book, through passages that comment on Iris’ main narrative, as well as the social mores and taboos of the time, showing us the illicit rendezvous of a hacky pulp writer and a wealthy young woman. These two narratives mix together into a lovely stew by giving us Iris’ version of events as they unfolded, as well as the lives of the book’s doomed lovers, who create the world of Zycron where an assassin blinded from birth and a sacrificial maiden with her tongue cut out attempt to flee their decaying city of Sakiel-Norn.
What I really liked about this book, in addition to the lovely writing style and attention to period details, is how it treats the matter of pulp fiction. Most modern-day treatments of pulp’s heady mix of jingoism, titillation and violence just present themselves to us fully formed, with no attempt to place the reader in the headspace of the genre’s intended audience of eighty years ago. True, pulp was pretty trashy, but in some ways it was also kind of quaint, as the above quote discusses. What Atwood does is to give us an epic generational saga to make us understand the way one lived at that time (with Iris’ story), then gives us a small rebellion against that stifling world (in the story of the nameless lovers who tell us the pulp stories as pillow talk), and only then introducing the spaceships, temple priestesses and lizard-men that we would characterize as being “pulp” fiction (in the story of the Blind Assassin’s mission in Sakiel-Norn). With the addition of these three layers of context, we are able to see why people were driven to read this sort of book, why they wanted an escape from the Depression that surrounded them every day.
A tangent: It doesn’t really irk me when people say comic books are for kids. While for the most part they aren’t anymore (which is a damn shame, as kids could potentially be missing out on a whole art form they’d be able to enjoy for the rest of their lives, with current market trends), the bright colours and over-the-top storylines of many books could easily lead the ignorant into believing as such, as they have no way of knowing better. What really bothers me is when people who should know better, ie. the middle-intelligentsia who dictate the critical discourse on film and literature, use the word “comic book” to describe instances when other, “better” art forms discard character development for fight scenes and exciting visuals. Anyway, this is all in describing how I felt a connection here to how Atwood here redeems the idea of pulp fiction, by proving it can be just as nuanced and layered as the “higher” art forms, if done well enough. And yes, I do realize that the “Blind Assassin” sequences are just one facet of this great book, but they were one that I really identified with, so there. The rest of the book is even better, but I’m sure many people have gone on at length about that in greater spheres than my humble blog.
“Back at home, they drew the curtains and read, with disapproval, with relish, with avidity and glee – even the ones who’d never thought of opening a novel before. There’s nothing like a shovel full of dirt to encourage literacy.” (p, 39)
Animal Farm (read before 2011)
Atonement (read before 2011)
The Big Sleep (read before 2011)
15. Blood Meridian
Total pages read since January 1st: 4823 pp
Next up on the Resolution Project: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1986)