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Invisible Ink

"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." So says one of the narrators in Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (Doubleday) about halfway through the novel, and it's tempting to stop right there. Not only because there are still 238 pages to go and reading on has come to feel a bit like running through molasses; not because the observation itself is either revolutionary or entirely original.

You want to stop because you sense that in her demure sort of way, Atwood has managed to drag you into a vortex. Is it possible to write assuming that no one will read? Is it possible to read what was not meant to be seen? Is there such a thing as truth written down in one place and time, read in another, yet unchanged (at least in its essence) by the terrifying journey from mind to paper to mind?

It's been said that every novel is, in some way, a novel about the novel, every painting depicts the act of painting, every piece of music explores the secret at the heart of music itself. And there are novels, pieces of music, paintings that take this maxim literally, refusing to concern themselves with anything but the act of their creation and reception, running in place like frightened hamsters on a wheel.Atwood is too clever, too practiced, and too practical to fall into that trap: The Blind Assassin is a yarn and a half, complete with death, sex, and money--and so what if all the protagonists are writers? So what if the plot is centered on a story told by one author to another as told to another, for a sort of Russian-doll effect, except that you never quite know which doll you are looking at?

Here's the plot line--okay, lines: An old woman writes her life's story, scrawling hand racing failing heart to a finish line that both will reach before page 521. Much of this story revolves around the woman's younger sister, who drove her car off a bridge at age 25 and left behind a series of notebooks containing--you guessed it--a novel. In this fiction, a female narrator meets a mysterious rake for a series of trysts in ever-shabbier locales, the seduction progressing along with yet another story, a sci-fi-like fantasy the rake concocts for his paramour. The rake spends his hours in hiding (he is wanted by the law, and perhaps others), hunched over a portable typewriter, cranking out...short fiction. Interspersed with these tales is a series of fictitious news clippings, each telling a story that is both self-contained and suggestive of a context that remains just out of view.

It shouldn't bear noting (but it does, given that reviewer after reviewer has remarked on the oddness of the format) that the story-in-a-story trick is neither difficult nor particularly unusual: Novelists, songwriters, playwrights, and movie directors have played the game forever, sometimes earnestly and sometimes with a self-conscious smirk (now you see the man behind the curtain, now you don't!). But why would an author turn to this particular device--and then, after 250 pages, explode its premise? Socrates, or someone, might have crafted a nifty little syllogism to express the conundrum: 1. Nothing that is written for a reader can be true. 2. What you just read is true. Feel the vortex? With a flick of the wrist, Atwood has yanked you out of your chair and into the dark heart of the novel--when all you were trying to do is figure out why a young woman drove off a bridge. (Which you might, in time.)

So why this riddle? Because there is, really, no other way, Atwood seems to say. Because by the very act of writing, we create a reader in our minds; and because, at the same time, we know that what we write--what is in our minds when we put down the words--will never be read exactly as it was intended. One of my favorite poems evokes a scene I always imagined as the surreal transfiguration of some moment from the author's childhood. When I discovered that it is, in fact, a tale spun from a photograph, I was briefly disappointed: It was as if the physical world had staked a competing claim on the language of the unconscious. After some reflection, I like to believe that there is a truth shared by the scene I imagined and the one the writer sought to evoke--that in some other dimension they are in fact the same.

And maybe that's why I didn't put down The Blind Assassin after page 250. Why I quit griping about how some of the stories were better than others and how someone should cut and paste all the sci-fi fragments (a compelling blend of 1930s pulp, Doris Lessing, and MST3K) into a story to be read separately. It turns out that none of the tales should stand on their own, and that their intertwining--the reading, the telling, and what one says about the other--actually does make a bigger story. That story is about writing, yes, but it's also about sisters, and about the difference between people who develop the kind of thick skin it takes to get through life and those whose nerves remain raw, and the sorrow and guilt the first feel toward the second.

It's about periods, the Thirties and the Nineties, rendered with the merciless accuracy you'd expect from an author who has been known to keep more than a dozen fact checkers busy. It's about east-central Canada, a place that will feel familiar to local readers: "Snow fell, breath hardened; furnaces burned, smoke arose, radiators clanked. Cars ran off roads into ditches; their drivers, despairing of help, kept their engines running and were asphyxiated." And, of course (coming from the author who brought you The Handmaid's Tale and three dozen other works that have earned her a perennial spot both in the feminist pantheon and on the Nobel shortlist) the story is about women.

No wonder Atwood doesn't like to be interviewed (she turned City Pages down flat). Who, after 61 years and 39 books, would want to bother explaining why there are multiple stories, and what they mean, and why that business about writing the truth is both fully accurate and entirely hypocritical?

"You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand," the aforementioned passage continues. "You must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course."

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