By Ian McEwan
(Doubleday, 400 pp., $26)
Ian McEwan is one of the most gifted literary storytellers alive—where storytelling means kinesis, momentum, prowl, suspense, charge. His paragraphs are mined with menace. He is a master of the undetonated bomb and the slow-acting detail: the fizzing fact that slowly dissolves throughout a novel and perturbs everything in its wake, the apparently buried secret that will not stay dead and must have its vampiric midnight. These talents, which are enabled by a penetrating intelligence and a prose style far richer and more flexible than most contemporary writers dream of, have made McEwan an anomalous figure in Britain: perhaps the only truly literary best-selling novelist in that country.
The cost has been high, however. McEwan’s work is very controlled, but its reality is somewhat stifled. More often than not, one emerges from his stories as if from a vault, happy to breathe a more accidental air. In his careful, excessively managed universes, in which everything is made to fit together, the reader is offered many of the true pleasures of fiction, but sometimes starved of the truest difficulties. McEwan’s fictions have been prodigies: they do everything but move us. In his world what is most important is our secrets, not our mysteries.
In other words, McEwan’s fiction has sometimes felt artificial. It should be said, in his favor, that most contemporary novelists feel artificial because they are not competent enough to tell a convincing or interesting story; it is a peculiar excess of proficiency and talent, like McEwan’s—or like Robert Stone’s, W. Somerset Maugham’s, or Graham Greene’s—that produces a fiction so competently told that it also feels artificial. Still, one has tended to read McEwan with the sense that he is beautifully constructing and managing various hypothetical situations rather than freely following and grasping at a great truth. (That this latter mode is also an artifice is only a banal paradox.) In particular, McEwan’s characters, while never less than interesting, lively, and sometimes interestingly weird, have tended not to be quite human. Many of them have neither pasts nor futures, but are frozen in the threatening present. Many of them have parents who died when they were young. They rarely refer to their childhoods, and seem not to have the use of deep memory as such. McEwan, unlike most writers, has not seemed to need any kitty of childhood detail on which to draw. This absence of past stories, of loitering retrospect, allows him to polish the clean lines of his stories. Since his writing rarely dips into the reflective past, it can exist the better as pure novelty. This is the key to McEwan’s extraordinary narrative stealth. His fictions, like detective stories, are always moving forward. They seem to shed their sentences rather than to accumulate them.
Atonement, perhaps following the claim of its title, is a radical break with this earlier McEwan, and it is certainly his finest and most complex novel. It represents a new era in McEwan’s work, and this revolution is achieved in two interesting ways. First, McEwan has loosened the golden ropes that have made his fiction feel so impressively imprisoned. His new book is larger and more ample than anything he has done before, and moves from an English country house in 1935 to an extraordinary description of the British army’s retreat at Dunkirk and a chapter set in wartime London. And second, McEwan uses his new novel to comment on precisely the kind of fiction that he himself has tended to produce in the past. It may be going too far to see Atonement as a kind of atonement for fiction’s untruths—not least because Atonement is ultimately, I think, a defense of fiction’s untruths. But it is certainly a novel explicitly troubled by fiction’s fictionality—its artificiality—and eager to explore the question of the novel’s responsibility to truth.
OF COURSE, CONFESSING to a sin is not the same as abstaining from it, and Atonement might easily have been no more than an over-controlled novel that sought to apologize for being over-controlled. But from the beginning the book has a spaciousness that is new in this writer. Significantly, Atonement is chiefly about a child, a little girl named Briony Tallis. The novel opens in 1935; she lives in a large country house in Surrey. Her elder sister, Cecilia, has just come down from Girton College, Cambridge. Her mother, who is subject to migraines, spends much of the time lying in her bedroom. Her father, a civil servant, is a distant presence, usually away in London. Around the house, in addition to the usual staff, is a young man named Robbie Turner, who has also just come down from Cambridge. Robbie’s status is ambiguous: he is the son of the Tallis family’s cleaning lady, and lives with his mother in a nearby cottage, but as a child he was taken under the family’s wing, and his education was paid for by them. He practically grew up with Cecilia, who is in love with him. Alas for Robbie, young Briony, who is thirteen years old, is also in love with him, and Briony will ultimately take her revenge on him, the revenge of the child who feels tempted by, but still exiled from, adulthood.
The novel opens as a house party is about to begin. Briony’s elder brother Leon and his friend Paul Marshall are coming from London. Briony’s young cousins Pierrot, Jackson, and Lola Quincey have just arrived. Briony has always dreamed of writing, and she is eager for her three cousins to act the parts of her new verse play, The Trials of Arabella. Mansfield Park, with its staged play in a country house, and its reflection on the dangerous excesses of the theater, is an obvious progenitor. McEwan has an epigraph from Northanger Abbey, and he clearly wants to perform that most difficult literary task, the simultaneous creation of a reality that satisfies as a reality while signaling itself as a fiction. The characters, for instance, have obviously theatrical and outlandish names (Pierrot, Lola, Leon, Briony), which are simply incompatible with verisimilitude.
One of the ways in which McEwan does endow this fictive world with a reality is by genuinely interesting himself in the ambitions and the follies of a little girl. Briony Tallis, a prim, yearning, intelligent child with a rage for order and a tendency to judge before comprehending, is one of the novel’s achievements. McEwan is funny about Briony’s pretentious habit of stealing complicated words from the dictionary, so that her verse melodrama, The Trials of Arabella, opens thus:
This is the tale of spontaneous Arabella
Who ran off with an extrinsic fellow.
It grieved her parents to see their first born
Evanesce from her home to go to Eastbourne
We follow Briony’s furies and daydreams, as her plans for the staging of her play are slowly thwarted (as in Mansfield Park, the play is never successfully performed). McEwan is especially acute in his conjuring of the aimlessness and solitude of childhood. In one typical scene, we watch Briony as she sits and plays with her hands:
She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instance before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in the finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it?
From here, Briony goes on to consider her own sense of reality: “was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face?” If the answer is yes, Briony thinks, then “the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was.” But if the answer is no, she thinks, then Briony “was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had.”
So we follow the vain drift of a child’s logic over a page. A universal experience is evoked, and McEwan subtly makes the banal and childish dilemma—when do I control my fingers?—the spur to those larger frustrations of childhood, the questions of authority, agency, importance. What child has not selfishly thought: is anyone else as real as I am? And McEwan traces this mental discussion with an exemplary tact, the language having the poise and the exactitude of the adult novelist while inhabiting the imperfect simplicity of the child (“the bright and private inside feeling she had”).
BRIONY IS ABOUT to discover that her sister Cecilia does indeed feel as “valuable to herself” as Briony does. Or, rather, Briony is about to ignore this truth, in a moment for which the rest of her life will be an atonement. Staring out of the window, she sees Cecilia and Robbie standing by the large fountain. Suddenly, Cecilia strips down to her underwear while Robbie watches her, and steps into the deep fountain to retrieve something. Cecilia emerges, puts her clothes back on, picks up a vase of flowers that had been hidden by the fountain, and walks into the house. Robbie also walks away. The scene stirs the little girl, who had once confessed her love to Robbie. She has the sense that she has witnessed some adult mystery, perhaps a scene of obscure erotic domination. Briony does not know what McEwan has told us, namely that Cecilia dipped into the fountain to retrieve a piece of the broken vase, and that Cecilia’s provocative stripping had more to do with erotic challenge than submission or fear.
Briony is aware that her dim comprehension of what she has witnessed burdens her with an obligation not to race to judgment. Indeed, after her witnessing, she decides to abandon melodrama (which has been her habitual literary genre) and begin the more difficult task of writing truthfully and impartially. She could write the scene from three different perspectives, she excitedly realizes,
from three points of view; her excitement was in the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains. None of these three was bad, nor were they particularly good. She need not judge. There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive... And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value.
Six decades later, McEwan tells us, when Briony Tallis is a celebrated author of fiction “known for its amorality,” she will recall this year, in newspaper interviews, as a turning point in her literary development.
BUT IN FACT Briony ignores her own caveats, and vandalizes the wise perspectivism that she claims to have discovered. Over the next few hours, the idea that Robbie is an erotic menace, an outsider or even a predator, grows in Briony’s mind. She interrupts Robbie and Cecilia having hurried sex in the library, and again infers from their position that Robbie is forcing Cecilia into something unpleasant. (McEwan tells us that actually the lovers were equally sexually inexperienced and mutually attracted.) When, later that night, Briony’s fifteen-year-old cousin Lola is sexually attacked in the garden, Briony assumes that the shape she saw in the darkness, running away, was Robbie. (Lola was attacked from behind, and seems unable to identify her molester.) Briony tells the police that she is sure that she saw Robbie, and she has other information too, all of it damning to Robbie’s case.
Her determination to accuse Robbie is bound up with her literary impulses. She needs to make a story of it:
Surely it was not too childish to say there had to be a story; and this was the story of a man whom everybody liked, but about whom the heroine always had her doubts, and finally she was able to reveal that he was the incarnation of evil. But wasn’t she—that was, Briony the writer—supposed to be so worldly now as to be above such nursery tale ideas as good and evil? There must be some lofty, god-like place from which all people could be judged alike, not pitted against each other... If such a place existed, she was not worthy of it. She could never forgive Robbie his disgusting mind.
In part, Briony has been unable to shed her old melodramatic impulses, and is merely showing her age, even as she strives to get beyond it. But in part what is at work in her is the excitement of shaping a story that fits, that makes too much sense. McEwan surely wants us to reflect on the dangerous complicities of fiction, not just of melodrama but of form itself, which insists on sealing and plotting. What Briony saw was in truth plotless, because it could not be made to mean. Yet a plot is exactly what she imposes. Fiction, even very good fiction, often tends to notarize the incomprehensible simply because it insists on its readability. This is exactly the kind of fiction that McEwan has tended to produce in recent years; his last two novels, Enduring Love and Amsterdam, both begin with mysteries that they then efficiently lay bare. Formally and stylistically, both begin novelistically and accelerate into the neat, jigsawed domain of the thriller. Atonement, by contrast, seems to want to ponder the deformation of tidiness in such fiction, and to propose instead an enriching confusion. McEwan, as Chesterton has it, chooses reality’s battered truth over form’s perfected error.
THE PARADOX, of course, is that it is only through fiction itself that we can see how mistaken Briony is. McEwan’s own wise perspectivism enables us to inhabit that “lofty, god-like place from which all people could be judged alike.” Thanks to his own novel, we discover how terribly Briony misjudged the moment in front of the fountain. Thus Atonement is both a criticism of fiction and a defense of fiction; a criticism of its shaping and exclusive torque, and a defense of its ideal democratic generosity to all. A criticism of fiction’s misuse; and a defense of an ideal. And this doubleness, of apologia and celebration, could not be otherwise, for art is always its own ombudsman, and thus healthier than its own sickness. Art is the foundation of its own anti-foundationalism, and the anti-foundation of its own foundationalism. And from this comes a further paradox: McEwan’s perspectivism, whereby we see all the characters equally, cannot avoid having a shaping torque of its own. There is no such thing, really, as a confused or truly messy fiction; distortion is built into the form like radon underneath sick buildings. The greatest, freest, truest, most lifelike fiction is nothing like life (though some is closer to it than others). McEwan certainly knows this.
So innocent Robbie is arrested, and as Robbie is put into the police car Briony again watches from a window: “The disgrace of it horrified her. It was further confirmation of his guilt, and the beginning of his punishment. It had the look of eternal damnation.” This is a fine example of how subtly McEwan follows the self-serving theatrics of Briony’s mind. The idea that being arrested by the police is confirmation of guilt is a non sequitur indulged in by many people, often to disastrous effect, and probably no more so than to a child, who has rarely if ever seen the police doing their work. It is the final non sequitur from a girl who has consistently allowed the unfinished picture to finish her judgment, who has taken wonders for signs.
In its second and third parts (each about sixty pages long) Atonement leaves behind the Tallises’ country house, but it cannot leave behind the shadow of Briony’s false incrimination. In Part Two, we have advanced by five years, and are following Robbie Turner as he retreats, with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force, through northern France to Dunkirk. We gather that he has been in prison, that he and Cecilia have been corresponding, and that a remorseful Briony, now eighteen, wants to retract her statement to the police so that Robbie’s name might be cleared. Cecilia, we learn, has not spoken to her parents or brother since 1935 (they sided with Briony against Robbie); and of course there has been no communication between Cecilia and her younger sister.
But in some ways this information is incidental to McEwan’s extraordinary evocation of muddled warfare. I doubt that any English writer has conveyed quite as powerfully the bewilderments and the humiliations of this episode in World War II. After more than twenty years of writing with care and control, McEwan’s anxious, disciplined richness of style finally expands to meet its subject. This section is vivid and unsentimental, and most importantly, though McEwan must have researched the war, there is no inky blot of other books: his details have the vividness and body of imagined things, they feel chosen rather than copied.
There is marvelous writing. Robbie has been wounded; he feels the pain in his side “like a flash of colour.” Day after day, the British soldiers make their weary, undisciplined way to Dunkirk. They can see where they are supposed to be going, because miles away a fuel depot is on fire at the port, the cloud hanging over the landscape “like an angry father.” They are not marching, but walking, slouching. Order has broken down, and a tired anarchy rules. McEwan captures the fatigue—which invades even eating—very well: “Even as he chewed, he felt himself plunging into sleep for seconds on end.” Into this obscure, thudding chaos, discrete and vile happenings explode and then disappear. Occasionally the Luftwaffe’s planes strafe the straggling infantrymen. And one day Robbie turns to hear behind him a rhythmic pounding on the road:
At first sight it seemed that an enormous horizontal door was flying up the road towards them. It was a platoon of Welsh Guards in good order, rifles at the slope, led by a second-lieutenant. They came by at a forced march, their gaze fixed forwards, their arms swinging high. The stragglers stood aside to let them through. These were cynical times, but no one risked a catcall. The show of discipline and cohesion was shaming. It was a relief when the Guards had pounded out of sight and the rest could resume their introspective trudging.
As the soldiers near Dunkirk, Robbie crosses a bridge and sees a barge pass under it. It is like the boat in Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts”: ordinary indifferent life continues while Icarus falls. “The boatman sat at his tiller smoking a pipe, looking stolidly ahead. Behind him, ten miles away, Dunkirk burned. Ahead, in the prow, two boys were bending over an upturned bike, mending a puncture perhaps. A line of washing which included women’s smalls was hanging out to dry.” Finally, when the soldiers come upon the beach, they taste the salt—”the taste of holidays”—and then they see the remarkable formlessness of an army waiting to be shipped back to England. Some of the men are swimming, others playing football on the sand. One group is attacking a poor RAF officer, blaming him for the Luftwaffe’s superiority. Others have dug themselves personal holes in the dunes, “from which they peeped out, proprietorial and smug. Like marmosets....” But the majority of the army “wandered about the sands without purpose, like citizens of an Italian town in the hour of the passeggio.”
IN A NOVEL so concerned with fiction’s relation to actuality, this amazing conjuring cannot but fail to have the weird but successful doubleness of the novel’s first section: it has a grave reality, while at the same time necessarily raises questions about its own literary rights to that reality. Was Dunkirk really like this? Stephen Crane’s evocation of Antietam was so vivid that one veteran swore that Crane (who did not fight) was present with him. Like Crane’s descriptions, McEwan’s gather their strength not from the accuracy of their notation but from the accumulation of living human detail, so alive that we are persuaded that such a thing might have occurred even if no one actually witnessed it. The soldiers dug into their own little holes in the dunes, like marmosets, has just such a fictive reality, so that it becomes irrelevant to us were a veteran to say: “this never happened.” McEwan has made it seem plausible, because alive. This is what Aristotle meant when he said that a convincing impossibility is preferable in literature to an unconvincing possibility. Yet this great freedom shows how dangerous fiction can be, and why its transit with lies has historically been subversive and threatening. Again, McEwan wants us to reflect on these matters. He has Robbie ponder: “Who could ever describe this confusion, and come up with the village names and the dates for the history books? And take the reasonable view and begin to assign the blame? No one would ever know what it was like to be here. Without the details there could be no larger picture.” It is fiction, and McEwan’s fiction, which provides “the details” that history may miss. But—and this is a gigantic but, surely, which this novel acknowledges—those details may be invented, may never have happened in history.
In Part Three, we see Briony working as a trainee nurse at a London hospital. We learn that she is terribly sorry for what she did in 1935 and that, in a gesture of atonement, she has forsworn Cambridge, and dedicated herself to nursing. Late in the section, she visits her estranged sister in Clapham, and finds her living with Robbie, who has briefly returned from his army service in France. Again, McEwan writes superbly well, especially in his evocation of Briony’s nursing experiences. Soldiers arrive, looking identical in their dirt and torn clothes, “like a wild race of men from a terrible world.” One of them has had most of his nose blown off, and it falls to Briony to change his dressings. “She could see through his missing cheek to his upper and lower molars, and the tongue glistening, and hideously long. Further up, where she hardly dared look, were the exposed muscles around his eye socket. So intimate, and never intended to be seen.” There is great tenderness in this description of the poor soldier’s eye muscles, “so intimate and never intended to be seen.” We may even think of another moment, earlier in Briony’s life, when she also witnessed something “intimate and never intended to be seen.” But the mark of the true writer, the writer who is really looking, really witnessing, is that notation of the soldier’s exposed tongue as “hideously long”—something worthy of Conrad.
ATONEMENT ENDS WITH a devastating twist, a piece of information that changes our sense of everything we have just read. It is convincing enough, but its neatness seems like the reappearance of the old McEwan, unwilling to let the ropes fall from his hands. In an epilogue, set in 1999, we learn that Briony, now a distinguished old novelist, wrote the three sections—the country house scene, the Dunkirk retreat, and the London hospital—that we have just read. Moreover, Robbie and Cecilia were never together, as the third section suggested. Robbie was killed in France in 1940, and Cecilia died in the same year in London, during the German bombing. The conjuring that we have just witnessed has been Briony’s atonement for what she did. She could not resist the chance to spare the young lovers, to continue their lives into fiction, to give the story a happy ending.
This twist, this revelation, further emphasizes the novel’s already explicit ambivalence about being a novel, and makes the book a proper postmodern artifact, wearing its doubts on its sleeve, on the outside, as the Pompidou does its escalators. But it is unnecessary, unless the slightly self-defeating point is to signal that the author is himself finally incapable of resisting the distortions of tidiness. It is unnecessary because the novel has already raised, powerfully but murmuringly, the questions that this final revelation shouts out. And it is unnecessary because the fineness of the book as a novel, as a distinguished and complex evocation of English life before and during the war, burns away the theoretical, and implants in the memory a living, flaming presence.
This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.