THE BLIND ASSASSIN By Margaret Atwood Doubleday 521 pp., $26
Margaret Atwood is the literary world's greatest stunt woman. She leaps from heights, crashes through walls, and flies through flames that more prudent writers would never dare.
The title of her latest book, "The Blind Assassin," announces its recklessness right up front. It's a killer novel, all right, but it can see exactly where it's going, even when we can't.
"Ten days after the war ended," the narrator opens, "my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." The flames of that deadly tragedy don't throw much light on Laura's motives. Nor does the carefully fabricated obituary that follows. Or the story of intergalactic warfare on the planet Zycron. Seriously.
In fact, for the first 30 self-consciously oblique pages, "The Blind Assassin" drags us through a pawn shop of incongruous objects: more obituaries about the accident-prone Chase family, furtive meetings between two unnamed lovers, ghastly battles on Zycron, and best of all, the old narrator's cranky patter about the indignities of modern life.
It's a wild ride, but if you can hang on through this opening, you'll be hooked till the whole tragic story finally comes to rest in the most surprising place.
Iris Chase has been waiting 50 years to reveal what led to her sister's suicide. Over that time, Laura attained cult-hero status for the posthumous publication of her noir novel, "The Blind Assassin," which appears as a novel within this novel. (In a further nesting of tales, a character in Laura's book entertains his lover with bizarre stories of the planet Zycron.) Professors still publish critical essays about Laura, and lachrymose fans leave flowers on her grave.
After a long, lonely life in the shadow of her sister's fame, Iris wants "only a listener, perhaps; only someone who will see me." Knowing she's "a brick-strewn vacant lot where some important building used to stand," she begins carefully to re-create that forgotten structure.
Her grandfather built a button factory in the early 1870s, and from these tiny pieces of bone, he erected a fortune whose effect can still be seen in Port Ticonderoga, Canada. "Buttons were taken seriously there," Iris notes. "It's hard to see how much glamour would have attached itself to the granddaughters of a man who made such buttons, except for the money. But money or even the rumour of it always casts a dazzling light of sorts, so Laura and I grew up with a certain aura."
The town may have envied them, but that aura of privilege was studded with tragedy. Her father was the only Chase son to survive World War I. He returned to take up the company reins with only one eye, one working leg, and a debilitating addiction to alcohol. They live in a mansion named Avilion, after the place where King Arthur went to die. Their home is a cold, fearful one, full of silent grudges on her father's side and tyrannical selflessness on her mother's.
The burden of caring for Laura falls almost entirely to Iris. She's a wildly idealistic and provocative girl. "Laura believed that words meant what they said," Iris notes, "but she carried it to extremes." While Iris is a careful student of the pursed lips, a pathologist of shrugs, young Laura is ill-equipped to survive in this thicket of euphemism and unspoken expectation.
As the Depression spreads and begins to unhitch the button business, Iris finds herself traded to marry a conniving businessman who promises an infusion of capital. It's a loveless union with an ambitious stranger (and his controlling sister), but what can she do? Someone must save the business and provide for Laura.
With Iris, Atwood has created a domestic historian of the best sort. A skeptic of all sentimentality, she has a witty, rueful voice that gives a deadpan appraisal of the past and present. We see the patriotism of World War I turn to chalk as the telegrams begin arriving at home. During the red scares of the 1930s, we listen to the rumbles of labor strife while wealthy barons deride those downtown ruffians pretending to be unemployed.
Atwood's crisp wit and steely realism are reminiscent of Edith Wharton - but don't forget that side order of comic-book science fiction. How goofy to repeatedly interrupt this haunting novel with episodes about the Lizard Men of Xenor. And yet, what great fun this is - and how brilliantly it works to flesh out the dime-novel culture of the 1930s and to emphasize the precarious position of women.
Till the last few pages of this long, bewitching story, Atwood tantalizes us with clues to scandal and rumors of blame. As Iris notes with her typically surly, aphoristic style, "In life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it." Here in one woman's captivating vision of that sequence are the shards of a broken mirror put back in place.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society