In a recent New Yorker article on the late Stephen Jay Gould, biologist H. Allen Orr describes the difficulty that paleontologists have with the sparse fossil record: “Imagine trying to reconstruct Western history from two snapshots, one of Pontius Pilate and the other of Evel Knievel.”
We humans face a similar problem in our everyday lives, simply trying to understand each other. What evidence do we have for what goes on in our fellow man’s head? Close friends, parents, spouses, family members remain able to surprise us long after we think we’ve gotten to know them as well as we can know anyone else, so sparse is the “fossil record” of speech and action by which we know their inner thoughts.
This inevitable gap between supposed and real understanding has provided the grist for many novelists’ mills, and indeed if this gap were to close, one wonders whether the novel would have much future. The novel offers us at least the comforting illusion that we can access another person’s thoughts, understand their motivations as well as we understand our own. The problem, of course, is that even our own thoughts can’t be adequately captured as prose, let alone as narrative prose, and so the novel remains an approximation at best. In the past century, writers tried hard to throw off this constraint through experimental techniques, such as the stream of consciousness, that arguably leave the reader even more alienated. In recent years literature has seen a profusion of irony and exotica, as if writers are too exhausted to keep up the fight, and instead hope to distract us.
This is why Ian McEwan’s newest novel, Atonement is so important. At one level, it is a well-plotted, unusually (for this author) emotionally-involving piece of conventional fiction; at another, it is radically meta-fictional, tackling head-on the gap of human incomprehension and the novelistic project to bridge that gap.
Atonement begins on a hot summer day in 1935, in an English countryside setting unusual for this author who is often drawn to extreme situations. Writing a quintessentially traditional third-person narrative, McEwan dances in and out of the minds of his characters, members of the Tallis family, cousins and friends. Central to the novel is an adolescent would-be writer, Briony Tallis, whose taste for drama and demand for attention lead her to tell a terrible lie about a family friend, Robbie Turner. McEwan fans will not be disappointed by the agonizing (and extreme) consequences that ripple out of her decision.
McEwan is often labeled a cold fish, and not without justification, but in this novel he makes us care more deeply about his characters than in any other that I’ve read. I personally found it hard to put down the book, I was so worried about the fate of his almost helpless dramatis personae. This is particularly true in the second portion of the novel, which leaps ahead to the early days of World War II. Robbie is in the British Army, in its infamous retreat to Dunkirk, while Briony and her sister Cecilia are nurses in London. McEwan’s portrayal of this agonizing period in history is fantastic; Briony describes waking up every morning with an almost excited sense of something important about to happen, and then remembering what it is: a German invasion.
I won’t ruin the novel’s conclusion, and I’d recommend avoiding any “spoiler” reviews, because the shock of the epilogue is part of what makes this the best novel of the year, and the most unexpectedly metafictional. Having presented us with a prose narrative so conventional it is almost Victorian, and proven that the traditional novel retains its power to bridge the gap between people, McEwan trips off a final explosive charge that reverberates after the book is closed, and reminds us again of the paucity of the interpersonal fossil record.