Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Below is nothing but spoilers, because the reasons I found this story both infuriatingly annoying and genius cannot really be talked about without giving the story away. If you want to be surprised by this novel and plan on reading it, come back once you are done with it. I knew nothing about Atonement before I started reading it besides that it was highly acclaimed and it was made into a movie. Now I wonder how on Earth they made it into a movie...? Anyway!

***spoiler galore begins here****

I almost did not finish this novel, because stylistically it was annoying as hell with its prose that was so close to purple that I was wondering whether I'd been given the wrong book to read and not the praised Atonement. I understand taking liberties with punctuation for artistic reasons, but having multiple pages of text be paragraphs upon paragraphs of seemingly just one sentence, comma-spliced to hell was just a headache to read.

The twist at the end, however, is that that's how it was meant to be! Once I read the very last pages it dawned on me: it was crappy on purpose! So genius! But unfortunately, it's like making misogynist jokes ironically--you're still making misogynist jokes. Or growing a mustache ironically: you're still... You know what I mean.

The story of Atonement takes place in 1935 and focuses on a thirteen-year-old girl, who loves putting up plays and lives in a sort of a fantasy land of her own. She sees her sister have an encounter with a man they all grew up with; a servant's boy. The man gives this little kid a note to give her sister, but realizes that he had given her the one that was extremely inappropriate, written in crazed passion. Of course the little brat reads the note and begins to fantasize that this man they once knew is an animal who should be arrested for being too dangerous around women.

When some other kids disappear during a dinner party and another girl is raped, the brat claims to have seen the young man do it. The raped girl claims she saw nothing. The police come and take the young man away, professing his love to the brat's older sister.

Then, cue war time. Now, I admit: this is where I almost stopped reading the story, because it went from purple prose to the most boring thing I have ever read. I started looking for sentences that would have some substance in them, but everything was just blahdeblah. I felt like McEwan was just going through the motions and putting something on paper. And the cockney accents on paper, my god...

We follow the young man who has been imprisoned and now is part of the war effort, and we follow the brat who is now eighteen and a nurse, feeling a bit guilty about what she did.

Toward the end, the brat decides to contact her sister and tell her of an elaborate scheme to reveal who the real rapist was and clear the young man's name. Too bad this is years later and the whole family has been torn apart. The sister throws the brat out who swears that everything will be OK once she confesses.

Then, the story ends there with the brat's initials and the year 1997.

The next page is from her diary, or a letter--I can't remember--where as an old woman she reminisces about her childhood. She says that since the awful events of that day she has been writing and writing this story to get it published, to get the real culprit imprisoned and to be atoned (geddit???) for her sins. Unfortunately, her publishers have always turned her down, saying that she cannot use real names, or she cannot make the ending this or that because of libel, but finally now, as an 80-year-old, she has finished the version she wants to publish. The real rapist is still out there, an old man, but our former brat is dedicated to publishing her story once he dies. She also tells us that the real story was much sadder than her newest version, where the young lovers live happily ever after.

We also see letters from her publisher commenting on her writing style and her plot points.

So, you see? The novel begins the way the 13-year-old girl, full of fantastical thoughts, would have written a book: pompous style, pseudo-poetry with comma overload and imagery. The older and more ashamed of her actions she gets and the worse the real life events become, the more stilted is her writing, which eventually crescendos into an adult's fantasy of having everything be all right, and her getting absolution from her sister whom she has alienated and wronged with her stupidity as a kid.

And hey. The brat ended up being an unreliable narrator--my weakest of weak spots in literature. How could I not like it?

I thought that was genius, and I would now read it again seeing that it was all wonderfully on purpose. I almost started reading it again right away after finishing!

However... Is it enough that five pages at the very end reveal why the rest of it was annoyingly written? After all, what I still ended up doing was slog through prose that made me want to throw the book away in disgust.

Yes. It is the best worst book I have read in a while.


Oh my pete.

What if...

What if the last few pages were an atonement for the rest of the novel?

If that would be the case, this novel would be even more amazing!

1 comment:

  1. Atonement is one of my all time favorites (and the only McEwan book I've ever read, as I'm afraid to read another one by him because my expectations are just too high)!