Friday, October 19, 2007
I am reading Atonement. Huh? You English teacher you, why didn't you read it when it came out?
Um, probably because I was too busy teaching English?
Anyway, here I am, not quite half way through and really not enjoying, but determined to finish because of course I will be going to see the film because it stars that pint-sized hottie James McAvoy. Well, actually, to digress, I don't fancy him - I almost certainly would kick him out of bed because he's cute but not my type. However, I do think this boy can act. I first caught him in State of Play, and he totally held his own against stalwarts like John Sims (now, him, there would be no kicking), David Morrissey and Bill Nighy. State of Play, in case you missed it, was the best conspiracy series on the BBC since Edge of Darkness which aired in 1985. For more info on SofP, check out this link http://www.bbc.co.uk/drama/stateofplay/
Oh, I'm not writing about Atonement? You noticed? Mmmm. I feel really shabby about not liking this book. I've flicked through it, I've read enough reviews to be totally spoiled and to understand why others admire it, but I am hating the book. Not the plot, which is why I am perfectly happy to see the movie, which I happen to think will salvage the best of the novel and make up for the utter irritation of the characters because Keira Knightley is lovely to look at and Saoirse whatsit and James McAvoy can act so they will fill the empty heart at the centre of this novel. Because the impression I have so far from reading the first third properly and skimming through the next two sections is that it is an exercise for the writer which exemplifies what's wrong with the British novel: too much self-consciousness, insufficient soul, too little passion, plenty of self-regard. I won't go into the whole business of McEwan's research and his dependence on the memoir of Lucilla Andrews because I think he is perfectly honest about his debt to her work.
But when I think of the gutsy, interesting novels I've read in the past four-five years, Atonement is a flickering night-light in the shadow of arc-lights. Carter Beats the Devil, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the People's Act of Love, The Corrections, Middlesex, Cloud Atlas, A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly, The Time Traveller's Wife. Now these are great books, readable, interesting, lively, engaging, rich, rewarding. Beside it, Atonement is a conceit. Now, John Donne wrote conceits, those wonderful, dense, allusive lyrics to mistresses and his wife, exploring emotions and yearnings and jokes through precise and sometimes mannered metaphors, but McEwan's writing in Atonement is like a conceit with no emotion. Yes, I know, I know - I can't say what I know for fear of entering Spoiler Territory. But what I want to get at is that a conceit is fine in a poem, but stretching it across a novel to make points about the nature of the novel is so self-referential that it actually destroys the worth of the novel as a fictional construct - obviously some people love this kind of thing, but I am of the philistine school that says that James, Woolf and Joyce who led the pack in the playing of authorial games were a dead end, and that James's contemporary Conrad was a far truer (and no less playful) artist. I don't think anything can substitute for the constituents of a really good story - plot, characters with whom the reader can engage and themes that look beyond the novel itself and explore the real issues of the human condition - truth, beauty, love, oh yes, and of course, freedom, thank you Baz and the green fairy.
Of course, McEwan touches on the big themes - especially love, to some extent truth and beauty. But it's like the touch of tissue paper - it looks good, but it dissolves too easily under scrutiny.