“The Blind Assassin” – further discussion

I realized just now that I did not do a very good job of reviewing the book, so I’ll add a few more thoughts here.

As I said in a comment, I think that this novel differs from Coetzee’s “Disgrace” not only in subject matter, but in the way Atwood deals with plot and action. Everything that happens in “The Blind Assassin” has already happened. Iris is writing about the past. In this way, it is an extraordinary work because it redefines the reader’s idea of truth.

Atwood doesn’t use plot to propel the novel. In some novels, there’s conflict after conflict, and yet in this novel, I believe that there are very few actual conflicts, apart from the conflict of the truth. Basically, all the major plot takes place in the first 100 pages of the novel, if not the first 50, or the 1st page itself. The rest of the novel is concerned with showing the reader that the truth cannot be trusted. There are two different stories to everything.

Because of this subtle difference in structure, the novel drags a bit. There is nothing to move it forward, apart from Atwood’s deliberate choice to subtly delineate the differences in the two truths we find. The novel-within-a-novel provides imaginary plot that does help ease the dull progression of the first 300 pages. After you start to realize what’s actually happening, the novel becomes much more interesting. You start to make connections; you start to think.

A review: Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin”

I’ve been reading Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin” for several weeks now. It’s almost as long as Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” but except for its length, has nothing in common with that novel. I must say that it is one of the most astoundingly crafted novels in recent memory. It won the Booker Prize in 2000, the year after J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” won, and I believe that the committee made a fantastic decision with this one.

The novel concerns Iris Chase, the daughter of a Canadian industrialist who inherited a fortune by way of button factories. Iris has a sister named Laura who dies at the age of 25, leaving behind a science fiction novel titled “The Blind Assassin.” In fact, the first sentence of Atwood’s novel is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

The novel quickly moves from Iris’ autobiography, written in the present, when she is 85 years old, to excerpts of Laura’s novel, a story of a man and a woman who are having an affair. The interspersed narrative voices and historical details combine to create a rich image of pre- and postwar Canada.

Atwood’s structure is perfect. She begins with facts – newspaper clippings inserted into the narrative to give the reader concrete details about what happened. Somehow, though, the novel shows that the truth is completely subjective. As you read the novel, details are introduced in such subtle ways that it seems as though you already knew them.

I don’t know how Atwood wrote this. It is so tightly plotted that it isn’t just a matter of placing certain events in a certain order; it is the difference between saying that something happened, and giving the reader the ability to read between the lines. Halfway through the novel, I knew what happened at the end. The clues are all there. In this regard, the title is absolute genius. It gives you everything.

I think the biggest criticism of this novel is also its strongest point: I hate Iris. The novel shows her to be a naive, weak-willed individual who destroys everything she loves through inaction. She does not change at the end of the novel. She is frustrating and I think Atwood wrote her specifically to show the futility of doing nothing. I think this is a work of social criticism.

Forced ambivalence and the simplification of immigration issues “because I said so”

This is a post I started several weeks ago, so I wanted to finish it. It starts below:

Just read an interesting August 27th blog entry by Maira Kalman of the NYT. At first, I was excited to see another voice speaking in what seemed like support of immigration. As I kept reading down the page though, it became evident that Kalman’s position is ridiculously simplified and makes assumptions about the nature of immigration, “legal” and “illegal.” While she reflects on and seemingly celebrates the diversity seen in her neighborhood in (I assume) Brooklyn, she naively rejects the overwhelming facts of the unjust immigration system currently in place in the United States. At first glance, she seems very supportive of some sort of change to the system; yet gradually, any observant reader will realize that she’s advocating the status quo; if not the status quo, at least the willful ignorance that pervades this country, the idea that if it doesn’t concern you, you can simply ignore it and move on.

Posting a blog entry full of non-sequiturs (both illustrations and cutesy ideas) does not excuse you from this statement:

“What of the 12 million people living here who are undocumented? They are here illegally. Do they deserve to stay? There are groups lobbying for immigration reform. At community centers you meet dedicated organizers and undocumented people, and you think these are GREAT people and they CANNOT be sent back to their countries of origin. The problems are SUBSTANTIAL: Health care. Employment. Taxes. Detention facilities. Impenetrable bureaucracies. Is it naïve of me to think, while acknowledging the myriad problems, that the system is basically just?”

What in the world lead Kalman to believe that the system is just? Could it be the separation of families due to the flawed petition/visa system? Could it be the deportation of US citizens to Mexico? Maybe she doesn’t know how USCIS has broken the law, time after time, by not allowing derivative beneficiaries of green card petitions to maintain original priority dates; I am one of those beneficiaries, as are several others I know. Instead of being productive members of society, we’re forced to wait ten more years while USCIS plays the “because I said so” card. Or could it be selective memory? After all, Kalman herself is an immigrant.

Perhaps she should take a good look at what is happening in this country before making such statements and then following them up with shows of appreciation for diversity through images of mango lasse drinks and boxes of cookies from Pakistan. “Think small,” she says, “It helps me handle the complicated too-muchness[sic] of it all.”

Gee, Maira, could you think any smaller than the last sentence of your blog? “Happy to be here,” are you? Maybe you should be the first to get back in line.

Back to my regular programming

Alright, I fixed my computer. I can’t tell whether one of my RAM sticks got fried or whether the motherboard slot got fried. If the RAM stick got fried, I lost 1GB of RAM, which I can easily replace by buying a new stick. If the motherboard slot got fried, I’ll have to replace the motherboard. Doesn’t really matter too much. I still have enough RAM to run the computer, though I am noticing a bit of choppiness when viewing videos.

I literally spent five hours cleaning the RAM and trying to figure out what wasn’t working. But now it works, and I am content.

Next post: new ideas for mixing immigration and creative writing. Stay tuned.

Denis learns his lesson

So, people warn you about spilling liquids on your computer. They say it’s not a good idea to do so. Well, they’re right. I own a trusty desktop which I’ve had since 2003, and it has served me rather well. The other day I decided to drink some juice while I was sitting at my desk (which isn’t really a desk but more on that later), and of course, I ended up knocking over the glass, which spilled all over my tower, the carpet, and the bed. It wouldn’t have been so bad if there hadn’t been a fan on top of my case. Because there’s a fan on top of my case (to provide additional cooling) the juice went into the fan aperture and dripped inside the case onto the video card.

Seriously, don’t spill anything on your computer! I spent half an hour cleaning berry juice out of my case and got really lucky that when I started it up half an hour later, it worked. I considered myself lucky on that one and decided to be more careful about drinks on my desk (small table) in the future.

Today, I decided that I wanted some milk at 4am. So I fill up the same exact glass with milk, and go to my desk (shitty table) and I drink the milk. Then I decide to get another glass of milk and some waffles. I bring everything back and sit down, and then I spill the milk all over my case. So this time, I didn’t turn off my computer as fast as the first time. I’m lucky that the motherboard sits vertically in the case, because otherwise all the milk would have gone on the motherboard. The video card sits horizontally, and that’s the problem. I had to clean up the case, and then I took out the video card to clean it a little better.

I don’t know what happened this time. I can start my computer (I’m on my father’s computer now) and boot it up, but the video is choppy and fragmented, and the computer ended up crashing (most likely because the card overheated or got fried). I guess I’ll leave everything for a couple of days to see if if ends up drying out. I don’t really care about the video card because it is six years old and can be cheaply replaced, but I am worried about the hard drives and the motherboard.

If I have to replace everything, I’d rather get a laptop, and an external hard drive enclosure to transfer all my files. I’m not really worried about the hard drives now, but I do need to check them later today to make sure all the files haven’t been corrupted. I mean, I booted the computer up fine, and then I think it crashed because the video card got messed up, so I think the hard drives are okay.

I learned my lesson! No more drinking anything around my computer. I guess this also means I’ll be spending less time online until I have a reliable computer.

A single song to sing

Name a single song that you wish you could sing (if you’re not a good singer like me). I’m talking perfection – one song you could always sing perfectly. For me, it’s Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I can’t think of a more powerful piece of lyrical genius.

Your turn.

And I mean so many things

We don’t talk much anymore. She moved to San Francisco without saying hello. When she told me, I was duly surprised. Now she talks to me once or twice a week, always in short bursts; she tells me things such as: been working sixty hour weeks, looking for a new job, looking to go away, being antisocial. I say more than she does. I’d like us to be friends again.

Back when we first began getting to know each other, she was at UCLA, had two roommates she hated, was studying Spanish or some such things. Her name also begins with a J. It’s funny how many women I’ve been involved with whose names begin with J.


Recollections of the bridge

We used to cross the bridge on buses, in the afternoon and at night, when the city lights flashed across the bay. Once, we must have stayed late at a party and missed the last train. We went to the Transbay Terminal on 2nd street, waited for the bus under the building overhang, stood among the night shift workers and drunks. For some reason, it is the only time I ever remember riding the bus with her at night. She looked pretty, but tired, and she sat in the front of the bus, in a seat facing the back. It was the only seat available; every other seat had been taken. We must have done this several times, but I only remember that single time. I had to stand the entire way, and she nearly fell asleep on the forty five minute trip. It was 1am, and the city glowed, a perfect backdrop for photographs taken from Treasure Island. I remember a man with a bike, and a woman with tattoos, and older black men who looked exhausted, but not from drinking.

After the bus goes through Oakland, it drives up Telegraph Ave towards campus. You can see it from miles away – Barrows Hall is visible first, from 50th avenue, around thirty blocks away. As you reach Ashby, twenty blocks closer, the Campanile emerges. It is the defining campus building, built east of center, a long walk leading away from it downhill, to the west. Someone once joked that the walk was created so that the Campanile would have a place to fall in case of an earthquake. From the top of the tower, you can see the city, the ocean, a bit of the hills behind the campus if it isn’t foggy or raining.