Vernon God Little

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

What did it win?

Man Booker Prize 2003

What’s it all about?

A fifteen-year-old Texan boy is suspected of being involved in a mass killing. He runs away to Mexico, but is captured and brought back to face trial.

Was it really any good?

It was certainly a divisive choice. Not for the Man Booker jury – its selection was nearly unanimous and immediate – but in the critical response to the award. People were angry at this book, and even angrier that it won such a prestigious prize. Why?

Because it’s a lousy book? No. There have been any number of lousy books that have won the Booker to no great objection. And while Vernon God Little is not a great book, or even very remarkable as a first novel, it isn’t that bad.

Instead, I have a theory that what really fueled the anti-VGL backlash was politics.

In the first place, the Man Booker Prize has been in the news a lot the last couple of years because of all the debate over whether it should take books by American authors into consideration (for my thoughts at the time, see here). So far it hasn’t happened. And now here’s DBC Pierre, a variously transplanted Australian, winning the big prize for writing a satire on America in a Texan voice!

The critics do have a point: V. G. Little doesn’t sound remotely Texan. He doesn’t even sound like a fifteen-year old. He sounds like an adult British Commonwealth writer trying to sound like a Texan boy. His “fucken” obscenities sprinkle the text like they’ve been thrown in by some kind of random writing program. As Twain, a master of the vernacular, understood, bad language is music first, feeling second. It’s part of the sing-song of the natural spoken word. It’s main function is rhythmical. Vernon’s voice is simply too literate, and not just in the obvious ways. Even Caliban, after all, is a poet. I mean in simple little sentences like “The door stands ajar.” Think about it.

So a poor approximation of Texas speech is made worse by the fact that this is an appropriation of voice! And the Booker still isn’t open to the real thing. Where’s the reciprocity? Sharpen the blades.

As if that weren’t enough, this is a book that is anti-American. Writing in Canada’s Globe and Mail, reviewer Ron Charach “wondered if the [Man Booker] judges had fallen for an orgy of anti-Americanism.” American reviewers expressed concern that Europeans – even their strategic allies! – saw the United States as a nation of gun-toting, ignorant rednecks addicted to junk food, Internet porn, and home shopping. Satire is one thing, but you don’t expect to see this kind of stuff winning literary prizes in the New World Order of Bush and Blair.

Again, the critics have a point. Pierre’s satire is over-the-top, cartoonish, and not even terribly original. But I think the political angle gave the response to VGL a lot of its edge. VGL is no more anti-American than, say, Eric Bogosian’s Mall. But “anti-American” is a label now.

(As a final note on the response to Vernon God Little I should say something about the slack reading skills shown by some of today’s professional book reviewers. While Laura Miller’s review in Salon made a number of excellent observations, I had to wonder who “the vacuous blonde Vernon yearns for” was. Taylor Figueroa is blonde? Then there was Michael Lind calling Pierre out on the Texan hayride: “My family has lived in the state since the mid-19th century, and I’ve never heard of a hayride in Texas. The hayride – a ride through the countryside, often by city folk or tourists, in a hay-filled wagon in autumn or winter – is a custom of New England and the upper midwest that is unknown in the south and southwest.” Good point. But Pierre makes it himself when he has Vernon say this a little later: “A hayride, gimme a break. We don’t even have fucken hay around here, they probably had to buy it on the web or something.” Let’s pay closer attention to the text folks.)

But while politics may have given the critical knives some edge, the truth is that this is only a decent first novel. And it is very much a first novel. It took me a while before I realized that the subtitle – “A 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death” – really was a subtitle and not just a blurb. Who would give a novel a subtitle like that?

At times the writing is downright clumsy. When Pierre wants to introduce a philosophical problem from Immanuel Kant into the text (and just wanting to bring Kant directly into the text is bad enough), he does it like this:

“Man, remember the Great Thinker we heard about in class last week?” he asks.
“The one that sounded like ‘Manual Cunt’?”
“Yeah, who said nothing really happens unless you see it happen.”

So subtle you hardly notice it at all.

At its best, and the book is not without its moments, Vernon God Little is a book about needs. When he stop to show some sympathy for his characters is when they become most real.

Fate puts Vaine Gurie in the Pizza Hut opposite my bank. She sits by the window, hunched over a wedge of pizza. Sitting by the window ain’t a sharp idea for a diet fugitive, but you can see the place is overflowing with strangers. I stop and fumble in my pack, watching her through the corner of my eye. Strangely, I get a wave of sadness watching her. Fat ole Vaine, stuffing emptiness into her void. Her eating strategy is to take six big bites, until her mouth’s crammed to bursting, then top up the gaps with little bites. Panic eating. Here’s me yearning for Mexico, there’s Vaine hogging herself slim, just another fragile fucken booger-sac of a life. I stare down at my New Jacks. Then back at Vaine; detached, sad, and furtive. I mean, what kind of fucken life is this?

Stuffing emptiness into the void. Aren’t we all? “Learn their needs” is finally revealed as the secret of life, a “learning” Vernon has already received before he enters prison. There are the needs of his mother for love, of Jesus Navarro for understanding, the needs of the novel’s many perverts for sex, and the needs of its other villains for fame. Like Vaine stuffing down her pizza, everyone in the novel is hungry, yearning for something to fill the void.

We feel these needs in the novel’s quietest moments. More than once I found myself wondering why Pierre even bothered with the Columbine plot. The book would have been better if it had only been the story of a boy and his mom. Most of the slapstick is comic buckshot, only hitting a fraction of its target, and the stereotypes are narrative lead.

For such a colorful character, DBC Pierre (a pseudonym for Peter Finlay) has the briefest bio-line I’ve seen in quite a while: “DBC Pierre is in the process of writing his second novel.” On the strength of Vernon God Little, I’ll probably read it. But I hope he’ll take some learnings from the first.

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The New Industrial Art

“What man, worthy of the name of artist, what genuine lover of art, has ever confused industry with art?” – Charles Baudelaire

When Baudelaire asked that question he was making a rhetorical point. In the twentieth century our attitude has become less certain. Complaints about the industrialization of the arts and their dissemination by global media corporations have taken on a political dimension. In addition to being soft-hearted and fuzzy-minded in a William Morris kind of way, they are also viewed as elitist. Didn’t Walter Benjamin think the loss of art’s “aura” through mechanical mass production was going to be a good thing? Wouldn’t it help bring the experience of art closer to the people? At least the idea seemed credible, even as the debate itself was becoming moot. Finally, as the century came to a close, we had to ask, pace Baudelaire, whether any man (or woman) was able to distinguish between industry and art. Where were we going to draw the line, even if we wanted to?

In my essay “What Has Changed” I looked at some of the features that I think define the spirit of our literary age. As I pointed out in conclusion however, these were really best thought of as ongoing trends. In the present essay I thought it would be worth finishing what I started and consider where those trends are taking us. In doing so, I think it will also be possible to broaden the discussion and consider the likely fate of the arts in general.

Continue reading “The New Industrial Art”

The Gathering

The Gathering by Anne Enright

What did it win?

Man Booker Prize 2007

What’s it all about?

Her brother’s suicide leads an Irish woman to reflect upon her life.

Was it really any good?

Well-written, but in the end rather weightless. One thinks of Enright’s own description of the book as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepy.” Essentially it tells the tale of an upper middle-class woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Liam’s death is the trigger, but Veronica’s memories of him are as vague and indistinct as his ghostly apparitions. One suspects that what’s really getting her down is the fact that she’s getting old. The kids are growing up, sex with her terribly-decent-but-boring husband isn’t happening, and even shopping no longer provides a thrill (when she goes to the mall she just starts to cry). Booze helps, but mostly what she needs is to get in a car and drive, get in a plane and fly – find some time alone. Though solitude itself can become a drug.

One of the consequences of getting older is that we become more aware of our bodies. And it is an unpleasant awareness. Veronica’s distaste for the body (her body, any body) is reflected in her choice of language, which emphasizes gross physicality. Typical is the description of her mother – one of a generation of parents who “bred as naturally as they might shit” – as a “piece of benign human meat, sitting in a room.” Now in her seventies, her hands are “a tangle of strings and knobs and bones, like ship’s rigging.” But at least dear mammy’s breeding days are over, which inoculates her from the worst of Veronica’s imaginings. These tend to be fixated on a spot just below the waistline, occupied by threatening erections (the so-unlikely spawn of “a purple thing on the verge of decay”) and Arcimboldish vulvae (“her pubis like the breast of an underfed chicken,” “the meaty flower of my cunt”).

Yes, I think it’s fair to say, this is a woman with body issues. Ones that even infect her sense of loss:

I am a trembling mess from hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling – somewhere between diarrhoea and sex – this grief that is almost genital.

I like this for its disorienting effect, though I have to admit I’m not sure I fully get it. That may be a function of my male perspective. On the other hand, I pulled a total blank on Nugent’s feeling something “stir in the deep root of his penis.” What, or where, is that? His prostate?

The book’s structure has its work cut out trying to overcome the terrible “I have a secret” opening sentence: “I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.” You can be damn sure from this that you won’t be finding out what might have happened in her grandmother’s house anytime soon (the revelation, for those of you wanting to skip ahead, starts on page 142 of the paperback). And while such an opening alerts us to the fact that this will be an unreliable narrative, the reasons for this are, in my opinion, a bit dodgy. Apparently what happened in grandmother’s house has become a repressed memory, revolving around some experience of child sexual abuse – “probably” of Liam, possibly of Veronica herself. Which would explain her attitude toward erections.

The key to it all is Veronica’s belief that “History is only biological . . . What is written for the future is written in the body, the rest is only spoor.” As I read it, this does not mean that we are all genetically determined. Instead, we somehow create our own biological past and future destiny through a process of selective memory: “We pick and choose the facts about ourselves – where we came from and what it means.” Which means that perhaps the threatening penis is something from a later period in her life (she tells the story of one ambulatory erection chasing her into a church) that she has projected into her past.

Then again, maybe she means something else entirely.

What I found most disappointing about the book was Enright’s inability to create any memorable or even interesting characters around Veronica. Liam is left a blank. The siblings all blur together. Husband Tom is a boring professional type and daughters Rebecca and Emily a pair of names. Even Ada failed to stick in my head.

At least one reason for this is the lack of dialogue. The entire third chapter is built around the notion of nothing being said. Action is interior, conversation something felt and understood. This is a shame, since Enright can fashion realistic dialogue. Realistic, however, doesn’t always mean gripping. The things we say rarely are. Like a fight over cleaning the dishes:

“What are you doing?” says Bea to her.
“Clearing up,” says Kitty.
“Oh.”
“What?”
“Oh. No, please do. Please do clear up.”
“Fuck off.”
“No, there’s always a first time.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“Well, scrape them first, would you? Scrape it, would you? Scrape it, and stack it over there.”

This is the background music of the gathering. Which may be why, for melancholy, withdrawn Veronica, it remains a gathering of one.

Eunoia

Eunoia by Christian Bök

What did it win?

Griffin Poetry Prize 2002

What’s it all about?

A poem in five chapters, with each chapter making use of only one vowel.

Was it really any good?

For what it is . . .

And just what is that? The short answer is Oulipo, a school of writing named after “the avant-garde coterie renowned for its literary experimentation with extreme formalistic constraints” (Bök’s note). What’s more, Eunoia is great Oulipo. Overcoming your initial surprise at what Bök is doing (“Look! A dancing dog!”), you are impressed with just how well he is doing it. Judged on its own idiosyncratic terms (Bök is making up his own rules, after all) it’s an almost total triumph. It has a charging, headlong beat (the absence of articles in the i, o, and u chapters contributes to the feeling of abruptness), a wisp of narrative structure (the chapters often track the movements of a single character through life passages such as eating, sex, sickness, and death), and a lot of self-conscious verbal wit. And it’s also one of the funniest books of poetry to be published in a long time. You have to smile at such rhythmic, nuanced nonsense as “Hassan has a dacha at Kazakhstan, and at a small shack Hassan can hatch a dark plan”, or ribaldry like “Blond trollops who don go-go boots flop pompoms nonstop to do promos for floorshows.” Yes: “Wow!”

As a critic, there are two ways of approaching a book like this. In the first place you can look at how well Bök manages to colour within the lines. At times he does appear to struggle with his own strictures (and even cheats a bit, as with his spelling of “blonde” in the passage quoted above). Examples include his various fall-back techniques for getting himself out of a jam or burning through his word-list. The parenthetical language dump is one device that often comes in handy. It couldn’t have taken seven years to come up with stuff like this. Seven minutes with a good dictionary would do the trick:

. . . the sleek green eels feed themselves the excrement (the expelled feces, the excreted dregs) . . .

 

Hassan can scan an atlas that maps Madagascar and all lands afar: Java, Malta and Japan, Chad, Ghana, and Qatar, Canada and Lapland, Rwanda and Malabar. Hassan can scan an almanac that charts facts and stats at Dallas, Savannah and Atlanta (Kansas, Arkansas and Alabama).

 

Midspring brings with it singing birds, six kinds (finch, siskin, ibis, tit, pipit, swift) . . .

 

Zoos known to stock zoomorphs (crocs or komodos, coons or bonobos) . . .

Another tic is his habit of falling back on sound effects in the more difficult final chapters, ending sections with stuff like “swoosh, swoosh,” “hoo, hoo,” and “pow, pow – boom.” A lot of this just seems tacked on. And given the context – a poem where nothing has any logical necessity – seeming tacked on is quite a negative accomplishment.

The other way of coming at Eunoia is to question its guiding premise. This is to open a debate not only over Oulipo but the whole question of “experimental” literature. And this is because Eunoia doesn’t have any kind of purpose or point to it except as an experiment. Its prime directive is the only thing it has to say.

Let’s start with asking an obvious question: Why experiment at all? Two explanations come to mind. The first is reactionary and backward looking: Traditional literary forms have all been exhausted. Nothing new can be said within the existing conventions. We are bored with the old and hungry for something – anything – that is new. Only a radically different, experimental kind of writing will release us from the current prison-house of language and allow us to express our world in a way that is contemporary and genuine. Of course the New Writing and its new rules (or total lack of rules) will seem ridiculous at first, but that’s partly because it’s making fun of the old way of doing things. After we get over the shock of the new we might even come to accept it as something natural, inevitable, even commonplace.

Or the literary experiment may be a kind of scientific quest. If the author does this, what will happen? Throw the pages of a novel unbound in a box, mix them up, then read them in whatever order they present themselves and what have you got? Force yourself to use only a certain number of letters or words and what’s the result? There’s no telling in advance. If there was, it wouldn’t be an experiment.

The reason I’m going on about this is because, as I said a few paragraphs back, Eunoia is pretty much a pure experiment. It doesn’t have any kind of meaning or point except as an experiment. You can respect the energy and labour that went into its production (indeed, its purpose is to make a “spectacle of its labour”, so you’d better appreciate it), but you’re always left with the big tease of its conception: Why did Christian Bök choose to write a book like this?

In his own words: “to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought.” This aesthetic of duress, the idea that “writing is inhibiting” and that somehow language might fire in little implosions of accidental grace the more it is crippled and constrained, is not so different from the extension of consciousness and lack of restraint that characterizes free verse. I say this because the poem is the experiment, the experiment is the form, and the form is wholly personal and whimsical. The rules are not something external to the poem or to poetry or to language. They are his rules. By using them does he still manage to throw off something uncanny? Sublime? And is the point then that these qualities are merely random and arbitrary? That literary grace is, at least on some level, inherently accidental? If a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters, each missing a “y” and four other vowel keys, got to work on it, would they produce Eunoia?

This sort of speculation is the kind of thing that makes Eunoia interesting. Otherwise it really is a bunch of enjoyable nonsense, the product, I think, of the kind of frustration and burn-out I talked about earlier. After all, the book is dedicated “for the new ennui in you”, and the epigraph tells us that “The tedium is the message.” But as a manifesto-in-action it is peerless. For what it tells us about the relationship between form and content, inspiration and its raw materials, the spirit and the word, and for the energy of its expression, exploding piston-like in every paragraph, it is surely one of the most remarkable poems this country has produced.

But all the same, I wouldn’t want another.

The Corrections

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

What did it win?

National Book Award 2002

What’s it all about?

A disintegrating mid-West family drags itself together for one last Christmas.

Was it really any good?

Some of it.

In the beginning there was the hype. That was a story in itself, but it would be unfair to judge the book by its media. On the back of my paperback edition I find a blurb from Elle saying “hype be damned” (and which then goes on to add to the hype). I couldn’t agree more. Let all the controversy over the Oprah (dis)invitation and the huge advance rest. Let’s get down to brass tacks.

And let’s start by taking another look at the blurbs on the back cover. Here is the Vancouver Sun: “You’ll want to start reading all over again, just to feel the energy of a genius at work.” And here is the Toronto Star: “I cannot recall the last time I reached the end of a book thinking I would like to go back to page one and start reading all over again.”

I begin with these quotes because they are both so opposed to what was the strongest impression I had while reading The Corrections: That it was a very easy book to put down. It took me over two months to get through. While reading it I think I completed six other books. At one point (it was during the Denise section) I left it unattended for over a week. And when finished I had no desire to read it “all over again.”

I think this is because Franzen, whatever his strengths (and I hope to say something about them in just a bit), is a lousy storyteller. The novel proceeds in narrative chunks focusing on individual family members which are themselves built out of set-piece episodes that don’t go anywhere. Things that seem as though they might be important are simply dropped. Initially I was surprised to find the thread of Chip’s relationship with Melissa abandoned without explanation part way through his section. Then I noticed the pattern. The impending execution of a murderer named Khellye Withers pops up a few times, but like one of those mechanical gophers at the amusement park it soon ducks back out of site, leaving no indication of why it was mentioned in the first place. What dramatic purpose is served by sending Chip to Lithuania? Aslan comes and goes. Much is made of the Correcktall treatment, but it ends up playing no dramatic role in the novel. Even Alfred Lambert’s dealings with the Axon Corporation are discarded. There may be a thematic point in all of this, that life is without plot or structure and that nothing ever connects or is resolved, but it seems as though Franzen is just constantly coming up with new ideas and then losing interest. And the effect is contagious.

In terms of style Franzen is a self-professed disciple of Don DeLillo, and the influence has not been all good. Right from the prologue we are introduced to a slick imitation of DeLilloese: a discontinuous ironic montage of brand names hurried into long run-on sentence fragments. This is DeLillo as the author of ConsumerLand, but Franzen’s prose simply doesn’t have the same depth or intelligence. His style is ad style. The introduction of the Correcktall process reads like a prospectus, and the fact that it’s a parody prospectus did nothing to allay my fears that this sort of thing is Franzen’s real métier. In the many descriptive riffs he indulges in, especially when describing food or making food analogies, one senses more than a breath of ad-copy. Here is Alfred inspecting a rotting rail-line:

Alfred saw crossties better suited to mulching than to gripping spikes. Rail anchors that had lost their heads to rust, bodies wasting inside a crust of corrosion like shrimps in a shell of deep-fry. Ballast so badly washed out that ties were hanging from the rail rather than supporting it. Girders peeling and corrupted like German chocolate cake, the dark shavings, the miscellaneous crumble.

Ask yourself this after reading such a passage: Do you see the railway or the German chocolate cake? Playing with food is an easy author’s trick and Franzen indulges it far too often. That son Chip becomes a professional ad-writer while daughter Denise becomes a professional chef is, given the bent of Franzen’s style, inevitable. (The same superficiality even infects the sex, leading to such self-indulgent cutesy stuff as “the jismic grunting butt-oink. The jiggling frantic nut-swing.”)

Along with this glossy insert prose goes some pretty unconvincing dialogue. In particular, Franzen’s penchant for building a scene out of cross-purposed, overlapping chatter is quite ineffective. The voices Gary overhears in the elevator or the conversation around the dinner table on board the Gunnar Myrdal (to take only a couple of examples) simply don’t work. They are hard to follow and never develop any kind of rhythm through counterpoint. One has the sense Franzen is trying to do Robert Altman, with what should have been predictable results.

But the main reason the dialogue fails to convince is the fact that so much of it is spoken by cartoon figures. While the individual members of the Lambert family are fully realized stereotypes – and I don’t mean that as a contradiction – they inhabit a fantasy world. Chip’s awareness that if he wants to be a writer he has to “make it ridiculous” only goes so far in practice. Lithuania is all a comic book adventure, ending with those cartoon co-eds Cheryl and Tiffany and their “like”s, “oh my god”s and “duh”s. Denise’s visit to Cindy von Kippel and her arrogant boor of a husband in Vienna is more of the same. And the list goes on.

To summarize: I think that Franzen’s incompetence at narrative, superficial style and clumsy handling of drama and dialogue distinguish The Corrections as the work of a conspicuously second-rate author. Technically, he is a bad writer, and in terms of the book’s intellectual content a downright backward one. That the world of quick fixes, the world of the pitch and the ad, is a lie is no revelation. When Franzen tries to go deep and discursive he comes up with such empty nets as Alfred’s nighttime thoughts at sea: “There was another world below, this was the problem. Another world below that had volume but no form.” Is this meant to signal a discovery of the unconscious? When you compare DeLillo’s concept of the Underworld with Alfred’s simple sexual repression we can hardly see an advance.

And yet . . . I like this book.

I like it mainly because its five main characters are so dislikable. They present the reader with a moral challenge. The Corrections is a book not of thought but of feeling, and its emotional tone skillfully balances the attraction and repulsion, love and resentment, sympathy and exasperation that are part of family life everywhere. Whatever his other faults, Franzen is not, and this is surprising given his apparent values, a sentimental writer. Sentiment, like sympathy, only rears its head in this novel for an ironic comeuppance. What makes the force of characters like Enid, Alfred, Gary, Chip and Denise all the more remarkable is the fact that they move through such a satiric, two-dimensional world and represent such crude stereotypes of repression. Despite their environment there is something of the magic of Dickens in the way they come to life, and stay in life after the book has ended. And for all its quality of just being too much (too much plot, too many words) there are also spots of time in the novel that arrest us with the force of poetry. There is DeLilloesque observation, but also Joycean epiphany in a moment like this:

Chip sat on a freezing guardrail and smoked and took comfort in the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce, the unpretending metal and plastic roadside hardware. The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled, the humility and promptness of its service. And a 99¢ Big Gulp banner swelling with wind and sailing nowhere, its nylon ropes whipping and pinging on a galvanized standard. And the black sanserif numerals of gasoline prices, the company of so many 9s. And American sedans moving down the access road at nearly stationary speeds like thirty. And orange and yellow plastic pennants shivering overhead on guys.

No, I wouldn’t want to read The Corrections more than once. In both a good and a bad way, once was a lot.

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman

What did it win?

National Book Critics Circle Award 2002

What’s it all about?

Boswell’s struggle to write the Life of Johnson.

Was it really any good?

It’s certainly an enjoyable trip down a well-traveled road. But it’s also hard to recommend to anyone already familiar with Boswell’s story – which I imagine is pretty much anyone with an interest in reading it. Sisman is obviously going after Simon Winchester’s audience, but Winchester’s light-reading pop histories have taken relatively obscure and neglected historical figures for their subject (James Murray and W. C. Minor in The Professor and the Madman, William Smith in The Map That Changed the World). Sisman can hardly say the same.

The story of Boswell’s presumptuous task is the stuff of literary legend, but not because it has grown in the telling. Johnson scholars (and Boswell, in this regard, ranks among the first) have always been a hard-headed bunch when it comes to getting the facts. To their awesome mountain of Johnsoniana Sisman has nothing new to add, and little insight to offer (his conclusion – that the Life of Johnson is a unique work, and that “never again will there be such a combination of subject, author and opportunity” – struck me as particularly weak). Instead, the most interesting material in the book is found on the margin. Sam and Bozzy are well-known characters, but for introducing us to as marvelous a villain as Boswell’s would-be patron James Lowther, Lord Lonsdale, Sisman deserves a special round of thanks.

Except for the final chapter, describing the critical fall-out over Boswell and his great book, the quick pace of the narrative never flags. But then a biography of James Boswell would have to try very hard to be dull. It is difficult to think of another major literary figure who has provoked so much exasperation. Perhaps some of this is due to the fact that he was so transparent. One wonders if his famous journals would have revealed anything that wasn’t already evident to those who knew him. But isn’t knowing too much, and feeling that it is too much, what makes him our contemporary? Wasn’t everything about him presumptuous?

Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan

What did it win?

W. H. Smith Literary Award 2002

What’s it all about?

Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis falsely accuses a young man of rape. She spends the rest of her life imagining how she will atone.

Was it really any good?

Very good. The kind of novel that might almost have been written a hundred years ago – which isn’t a backhanded compliment (in this case), but a sad comment on the state of the art of fiction.

The major knock against it is the structure. The long middle section dealing with Robbie Turner on the retreat to Dunkirk seems particularly awkward. And yet the fact remains that this book has a total structure. Speaking of Harold Pinter, the British film critic Leslie Halliwell once characterized postmodern writing as intelligence without meaning and plot without structure. Whether the latter point was an academic outgrowth of chaos theory and “resistance to closure”, part and parcel of magic realism’s affinity for wandering, fabulous narratives, an artistic surrender to Eliot’s chaos of modern life, the product of too many memoir-style novels, or just plain laziness on the part of the author, I find myself agreeing with Halliwell more and more. Too many novels these days just . . . go . . . on. Are these authors only throwing clay at their editors and expecting them to give it a shape? Not McEwan.

That Atonement is such a deliberately crafted work is only part of its old-fashioned charm. This is a book that summarizes a whole century of fiction writing. At times it seems as though McEwan is trying to do for the twentieth-century novel what Joyce did with the English language in the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter of Ulysses, but in a way that takes the novel out of history (progress, evolution) and into that imaginative space where all great works of art maintain a present existence. Take the nature of the narrative. For any student of modern and postmodern fiction the questions will be familiar: Is McEwan really playing with different centres of consciousness? Just how conventional is that middle section? How are any of the parts meant to relate? Is Briony a “reliable” narrator? Are we reading Briony’s book?

All of this also means that McEwan risks making Atonement too self-consciously literary. Whenever I come across a character in a novel who spends a lot of time reading I start to get the feeling that this is another novel about the writing of novels, and that maybe I should just go and watch TV. McEwan walks a fine line, but Briony is such a believable and engaging fantasist, and her predilection for creating fictions is such an integral part of the story, it all works. The book talk never seems heavy-handed. And, as passages like the discourse on “cunt” make clear, McEwan is obviously enjoying himself:

the word was at one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross.

How wonderfully imagined! Then you think of the anatomical drawings in Robbie’s medical text which gave rise to his letter, and go on to consider the three figures as the three main female characters, Robbie as Christ, a foreshadowing of Briony’s atonement . . . Who cares if the “almost onomatopoeic” part doesn’t make a whole lot of sense?

The novel does have an uneven pace. Nothing quite measures up to the first section, leaving me to wonder if McEwan made a mistake in leaving his usual “to be read in one night” comfort zone. But in every other way Atonement is a triumph. Little aggravations in the writing – living so close to Toronto, I have to take special exception to the improbable description of German dive bombers circling “like Raptors” – are offset by the care taken in designing the whole.

Is there time for a word about Robbie and Cecilia in the library? Well, it’s some of the best sex I’ve ever read.