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.