Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I know I shouldn’t have, but everyone does it. The first thing I read when I was given this novel was the blurb. It identifies the novel’s three main characters – Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis, and Cecilia’s thirteen-year-old sister, Briony. The blurb continues, “By the end of the day […]Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary […] and will have become victims of the younger girl’s imagination”. I thought, “So he shags her, then. No, it couldn’t possibly be that mundane”. It turned out that it was. To be fair, McEwan writes better sex than most. His style has an easy rhythm (no pun intended) and is set off by the occasional eye-catching line. Immediately after Robbie and Cecilia get it on in the library, the narrator continues, “Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen”. Generous applause for cheesy one-liners of the twenty-first century, number… This is not the only instance of showboating. McEwan wants us to know he’s slick enough to break the rules.

And make no mistake, there are rules. Rule number one is that, criticism aside, you should never write about writing. Never mind that it’s highly fashionable these days, or that it’s probably what the 'Literary Fiction’ tag really means. Writing about writing is a taste-crime. It demonstrates a kind of cultural narrowness which is, quite frankly, disturbing. McEwan can’t help it, being a literary kind of guy. It is sometimes said that a fiction-writer should be on a first name basis with one person in every profession. Reading this novel, you intermittently find yourself asking, what’s wrong with McEwan? Doesn’t he drink with any real people? Doesn’t he ever leave the house? Chapter one, page one, line one: “The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets […] was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and lunch.” I got that sinking feeling. Atonement doesn’t really sell itself on the suspense-factor, so I feel free to give a brief exposition of the plot. During an argument, Robbie and Cecilia accidentally break a near-priceless vase. Cecilia takes off her clothes to retrieve some fragments which have fallen into the fountain. Briony sees them. It’s a bit big-house-ish, but then again, that is a precondition for big house intrigue. All the same, we could have done without the descriptions of the manicured gardens, velvet curtains, etc. One suspects that McEwan is cashing in on a market of readers who believe all the reverential nonsense they’ve been taught about the Victorian novel. In any case, Robbie writes Cecilia an apology note and asks Briony to deliver it, only to realize immediately afterwards that he has put the wrong sheet of paper in the envelope. It contains a hand-drawn diagram of the vagina which he has copied from Grey’s Anatomy. A bit convenient. Predictably, Briony opens the envelope. From big house intrigue to American sitcom. The library scene quickly follows. Briony walks in on it. She concludes that Robbie is a sex-monster and accuses him of assaulting her young cousin. He goes to prison. Years later, Briony realizes her error, but the war renders the situation unfixable. She spends the rest of her life as a guilt-ridden writer. Ugh.

The story’s principle weakness is the underdevelopment of the characters. With the exception of Robbie, full of lust and the horrors of war, the characters are little more than earthbound ghosts, disembodied vehicles for neurotic intellectual baggage. Briony’s crime fails to be interesting because, as a child, her moral development is incomplete. She understands nothing. This is probably what, as a generality, makes children such dull fictional characters. Combined with the dreary, suffocating middle-Englishness she shares with most of the other characters, Briony’s innocence could have made her contemptible, but she is just not sufficiently present to be an object of hate. One probable aspect of this characterization is McEwan’s attempt to counterpoint her place in the world with Robbie’s. He is intellectually gifted, but still working class, so his reality is more physical. He doesn’t have the luxury of living in a world of fanciful abstractions. In chapter seven, the narrator informs us that Briony’s “reverie, once rich in plausible details, had become a passing silliness before the hard mass of the actual”. Now, either this is just terrible writing, or it’s a very clever way of criticizing the terrible writing of a silly little girl. It’s probably both. Atonement is full of this kind of in-joke. It is this tension between risibility and tragedy which robs it of any potential for dramatic power. McEwan simply fails to make the reader care what happens.

In the end, McEwan’s intentions are made plain. It’s a novel about writing, or rather it’s a parody of novels about writing. The sheer number of literary references and the implausible chumminess of Briony’s first rejection letter carry the distinct whiff of a send-up. Finally Briony, aged seventy-seven, learns that she is terminally ill. She tells us that she has just finished the final draft of the true story. All will be revealed, but not until she and the other surviving principles are dead. The world cannot be mended, so as the archetypal guilt-ridden bourgeois novelist is apt to do, she waves her magic wand and creates another one. She has inserted a happy ending, and maintains that “as long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love”. In other words, she’s every bit as cowardly and self-indulgent as she was at thirteen. Her cosmic faith in her own importance is appalling. This is where, out of kindness, I concluded that the whole project had to be a joke. For all that, and as easily as the prose reads, the story is just too ill conceived to work. It’s also evident that, joke or not, Atonement is purposefully written to take advantage of a certain set of preconceptions about what good writing is supposed to look and sound like. Either it’s irritating, or the joke’s on you.

Leave a Reply