Art and Craft
New books dissected over email.
March 18 2002 4:08 PM

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Dear Geraldine,

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Rumor has it you've been misbehaving badly in the Antipodes. I trust you are now once again hewing to the straight and narrow. The Book Club here at Slate requires a certain rectitude of its members, you know.

There are a great many things to be said about Atonement, Ian McEwan's new novel, a book I admire enormously and without much in the way of reservation. But before we descend into crit speak, before we discuss some of its ingenious structural elements and its deliciously paradoxical Post-Modernist elements and so on, let me begin by saying something about how very accomplished it is, in the most traditional sense of the word. Although in the past I've admired McEwan's intelligence and skill—it's impossible not to—I can't honestly say I've been a huge fan; I could always sense the gears grinding away beneath the smooth surface, and I sometimes found his considerable cleverness to be deployed in service to rather small, even trivial, aesthetic effects. Atonement, on the other hand, seems to me the work of a major artist, a writer who has triumphantly integrated style and subject, brought them into near perfect alignment.

On the level of the sentence and the paragraph, it contains absolutely splendid writing, full of vividly sensuous detail and precise observation. Take this: "As she stepped out into the brightness, the rising scent of warmed stone was like a friendly embrace. Two swallows were making passes over the fountain, and a chiff-chaff's song was piercing the air from within the sinewy gloom of the giant Cedar of Lebanon. The flowers swung in the light breeze, tickling her face as she crossed the terrace and carefully negotiated the three crumbly steps down to the gravel path." The scent of warm stone, the sinewy gloom of the tree, the three crumbly steps; even film rarely offers this degree of immediacy.

Or consider this, occurring when one of the main characters, after half a century, revisits the house in which she grew up, which has since been converted into a hotel: "The house was silent. Briony's view past the open front door was of a stretch of floral lino, and the first seven or eight stairs which were covered in deep red carpet. The brass rod on the third step was missing. Halfway along the hall was a semicircular table against the wall, and on it was a polished wooden stand, like a toast rack, for holding letters. It was empty. The lino extended past the stairs to a door with a frosted-glass window which probably opened onto the kitchen out the back. The wallpaper was floral too—a posy of three roses alternating with a snowflake design."

I quote so extensively because these passages are probative testimony to the remarkable quality of McEwan's writerly imagination; he doesn't write his scenes unless he has first found a way to experience them internally.

He brings a similar vividness to moments of psychological or emotional significance: "She was surprised that he should think she was raising the question of money. That was ungenerous of him. Her father had subsidized Robbie's education all his life. Had anyone ever objected? She had thought she was imagining it, but in fact she was right—there was something trying in Robbie's manner lately. He had a way of wrong-footing her whenever he could." A phenomenon we've all experienced, surely, but one I've never encountered so accurately and economically described in print.

Or take the following exchange:

…[S]he said, "Leon's coming today, did you know?"

"I heard a rumor. That's marvelous."

"He's bringing a friend. This man Paul Marshall."

"The chocolate millionaire. Oh no! And you're giving him flowers!"

She smiled. Was he pretending to be jealous to conceal the fact that he was?

Additionally, moments of dramatic suspense—the sort of thing sneered at by comme-il-faut post-modernists, but essential to successful narrative strategy nevertheless—are sustained, and sustained over long spans, with an unapologetic technical mastery worthy of the great novelists of the 19th century. For example, Part One's eighth chapter ends at a moment of almost unendurable tension, when a character suddenly realizes he has accidentally sent to the woman he loves a vulgarly obscene, rage-inspired screed in place of the modest, carefully-composed, delicate declaration of affection he intended. What follows is three chapters, comprising 37 pages, of … well, of other stuff. Beautifully written, marvelously sustained, psychologically true, and absolutely crucial to the plot that will unfold, but without any clear direct reference whatsoever to the immense, the irremediable, the unforgivable social gaffe that we know has been committed, and whose consequences we are desperate to discover. It's a virtuoso bit of literary architecture, and effects of similar mastery recur with stunning regularity throughout this superbly realized novel.

I notice I haven't even hinted at the book's primary plot in this first posting. Perhaps that's for the best, since plot, like suspense, is one of the old-fashioned pleasures McEwan is conscientious about supplying us (and whose very presence is in fact one of the hidden themes of this novel). You and I probably won't be able to maintain this level of discretion over the course of our club, but still, I'd be reluctant to give too much away. McEwan has brought such consummate artistry to the unfolding of his plot, readers deserve to discover its elements in the manner he has so skillfully contrived.

OK, I've given you a few extra hours to recover from your misbehavior. Now it's your turn. Are you as enthusiastic about Atonement (as opposed to atonement, which may also be on your agenda) as I?

Best,
Erik

Erik Tarloff is the author of Face-Time and The Man Who Wrote the Book and is a member of Slate's book-reviewing team.

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