Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
Excerpt from Atonement by Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan is such a good writer that there were times, when reading this book, when I had to just put it down, and absorb it. I needed time to let it filter down. Not just the plot – which is devastating, inevitable, like a Greek freakin’ tragedy – no way out … but the writing itself. There were times when I was left almost baffled by how good he is. He’s good in the big stuff, and he’s also good in the minutia. Like, I know that I SEE things in this world, and I see things that are so specific, and so … indicative of other things … in the way that McEwan does … but could I describe it?? I’m not being self-deprecating, I know I’m a good writer, but McEwan made me want to be better. But he’s also so good that it seems daunting. For example (and this is just one of many in the book):
She should have changed her dress this morning. She thought how she should take more care of her appearance, like Lola. It was childish not to. But what an effort it was. The silence hissed in her ears and her vision was faintly distorted — her hands in her lap appeared unusually large and at the same time remote, as though viewed across an immense distance. She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in the finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it? There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self — was it her soul? — which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.
I know exactly the experience he describes so perfectly there. I have done that. I have wondered those things. But to put it into words like that … Atonement took my breath away on nearly every page.
But it was also one of the most wrenching reading experiences I have ever had. The only book I can think of that RUINED me at its end in the same way was Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn (post about the book here). I burst into sobs at the end of that book. That’s never happened before. And I remember where I was when I finished Atonement. I was living with Jen in Hoboken, and I was sitting on the floor of my room. My door was closed. I came to the last sentence, and it was like there was a tiny hiccup deep inside of me – which let loose the flood gates. If you’ve read Atonement then you know that up until almost the very last sentence you think things are one way … and then you realize that no, things are not that way at all. They are this way. And any germ of hope you might have been hanging onto is shattered. I started sobbing – and it immediately became about my own losses in life, my own disappointments, the things I have lost that I can never get back, the love I had that I lost and had to find a way to go on living … I was a mess. Poor Jen was doing yoga in her room or something and heard me start howling, and a soft knock came on the door … “Sheila? You okay?” “Yup! I’m fine!” I sobbed in response. “Just finished Atonement, that’s all!”
The book upset me so much that last year I picked it up to read it again, got through one page and then thought: Nope. Cannot put myself through it. Nope.
Written from many different points of view – which is essential to the book’s success, I think. Because the book is about, in so many ways, how trapped we are in our own skins – how we look out of our own eyes and see the world one way, and we can never enter another’s experience. We see things happening, and we may mis-interpret – but to us, it is reality. There is no overlap. There is no possibility of connection. Briony, the 13-year-old girl who is really the key to the whole book, the linchpin, is a fantasist, it is true. She writes stories and plays, and is deathly serious about all of it. She doesn’t make things up, that’s not Briony’s fatal flaw. It’s that she dramatizes life, she makes up narratives – and I guess all little kids do that, but Briony does it in this particular situation – and two lives are ruined. Well. More. I would say her life was ruined as well. Although she does turn it to her advantage much later in her life – her way of “atonement” – but seen in that light, the “atonement” of the title is horrifically ironic. It becomes a ghastly joke. How do you atone for something like that?
I remember as I was reading the book (and I knew nothing about it, I did not know which way it would go, or what would happen – I had avoided reviews with spoilers) – things were going so badly, like – so unbelievably badly – that you can sense the ruin approaching. It’s horrible. You want to leap in and intervene – which, in my opinion, would mean, saying, “Everybody: Don’t listen to a word that Briony says. She’s a little fantasist and she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” I’m still mad at her. But anyway, I remember saying to my dad something like, “Well, I’m halfway through … and things are going really bad … but I’m hoping that the title … well, the title is Atonement … so hopefully that will mean something.” My dad (who hadn’t read the book) said, “I don’t think it’s a happy ending.” “No, I know. I can feel it.” It’s awful, because you know you’re approaching the end … and you have already been through so much with the rest of the book – the terrible events of that weekend party … and then you skip ahead in time, a couple of years … and WWII has started … and now we’re in London … and you hope … you just hope that maybe things worked out in that little blank interim we had. Maybe McEwan is holding something out on us. Well, he sure is. And he releases it at the end, and shatters all your hopes and dreams. Thanks, bro!
I’m writing about this book as though I am afraid of it. I actually did feel fear for almost the entirety of the book. It tapped into a deep well inside of me, from almost the first page … and I guess there’s nothing worse (on a small level, and on a large level) than being completely misunderstood. Or when you hurt someone by accident … and you SO didn’t mean to hurt them!! … but it happened anyway … and oh God, what an awful awful feeling that is. A sense of urgency comes over me when I am in that situation. I must fix this IMMEDIATELY. It’s terrible. And misunderstanding is at the heart of so much of the world’s tragedies – and the misunderstanding that happens in Atonement is devastating. It seems small, at first. Briony saw something, and misinterpreted what she saw. That happens a lot. Especially with little kids when they encounter something in the adult world that they do not understand. No biggie, right? But the way McEwan writes about it … you just start feeling this overwhelming sensation of dread. Like: oh God. No, Briony, what you saw is what you THINK you saw, and because you make up little stories you’re making this one up, too – what you saw is NOT what you think you saw. You have made the whole thing up! But Briony is not one to let things lie (witness her play rehearsals … she’s obsessive, serious, and … there’s something rigid about her that makes you know she is headed for a huge fall – I recognized myself in Briony, I really did – which is why I think I had such a violent reaction to her.) … Briony becomes fired up with her interpretation of what she saw. She casts herself as the Rescuer, the Savior. She will “save” her sister. Then everyone will know how special Briony is! What a heroine she is!
And so. Briony makes an accusation. And then, just watch how the events unfold. Inevitably. Doors clanging shut behind everyone involved, no way back, no way out.
You could live until you were 110. You could never atone for something like that.
I won’t say anything more about the book. Obviously it’s one of the most powerful books I have ever read. So powerful that I’m not sure I can ever go through it again. In fact, I dreaded today’s excerpt. The book gives off a malevolent glow on my bookshelf, full of its terrible truths, its bleak death-knell of hope. But still: McEwan’s writing is something else, man. He has written many books, but this is his masterpiece.
Here’s an excerpt. It’s from early on in the book. Before the shit goes down. But it’s building here. Briony intercepts the note. The note that has that word in it. “Cunt”. But the context it is in (it’s a love note) is beyond her understanding, and she already has misinterpreted the moment by the fountain … she feels the danger in the air, she senses the threat (even though she is totally wrong). She’s gathering her forces. I know she’s just a little girl, but her desire to be admired, to have attention, to elevate herself into visibility – is not only her downfall, but the downfall of the other two parties involved.
It makes me want to scold her. “Now, Briony, this is grown-up stuff, and you are just a little bratty girl, don’t flatter yourself that you understand anything. Run away and play now, and let the grown-ups carry on with their grown-up lives. You are not a part of it yet. Don’t flatter yourself.” I would like to condescend to her within an inch of her life, I would like to crush her spirit, to see her crumble into insecurity – to have her KNOW that she doesn’t know anything … That’s what the book brings up in me. It’s devastating.
But … and this is the most difficult level … it’s also a book about writing. Briony is NOT just a silly little girl who makes up stories. She is a writer. And her later life will play that out. She knew who she was … even back then. She is a writer. Everything that happens to her, even as a small child, is grist for the mill (you can see it in the excerpt). I was like that as a child. I am like that now. Sometimes “the urge to be writing [is] stronger than any notion of what [I] had of what [I] might write.” It’s totally true. The writing-urge is within her. She’s playing God, in a sense – and isn’t that what writers do? Play God? Moving the characters around, unleashing tragedies upon them, seeing how they react? Briony does it in her little plays as a girl, she does it in her life – with brutal consequences – and she does, indeed, become a writer of some renown.
I also don’t think it’s an accident that it’s a WORD that starts Briony on her terrible journey. It’s the WORD that confirms her fears of what she saw at the fountain. A writer. Responding to the call of the word, however mistaken.
But again. There is no atonement. There is no taking back that devastating moment when she made that choice.
Excerpt from Atonement by Ian McEwan
The very complexity of her feelings confirmed Briony in her view that she was entering an arena of adult emotion and dissembling from which her writing was bound to benefit. What fairy tale ever held so much by way of contradiction? A savage and thoughtless curiosity prompted her to rip the letter from its envelope – she read it in the hall after Polly had let her in – and though the shock of the message vindicated her completely, that did not prevent her from feeling guilty. It was wrong to open people’s letters, but it was right, it was essential, for her to know everything. She had been delighted to see her brother again, but that did not prevent her from exaggerating her feelings to avoid her sister’s accusing question. And afterward she had only pretended to be eagerly obedient to her mother’s command by running up to her room; as well as wanting to escape Cecilia, she needed to be alone to consider Robbie afresh, and to frame the opening paragraph of a story shot through with real life. No more princesses! The scene by the fountain, its air of ugly threat, and at the end, when both had gone their separate ways, the luminous absence shimmering above the wetness on the gravel – all this would have to be reconsidered. With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in her excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help.
The word: she tried to prevent it sounding in her thoughts, and yet it danced through them obscenely, a typographical demon, juggling vague, insinuating anagrams – an uncle and a nut, the Latin for next, an Old English king attempting to turn back the tide. Rhyming words took their form from children’s books – the smallest pig in the litter, the hounds pursuing the fox, the flat-bottomed boats on the Cam by Grantchester meadow. Naturally, she had never heard the word spoken, or seen it in print, or come across it in asterisks. No one in her presence had ever referred to the word’s existence, and what was more, no one, not even her mother, had ever referred to the existence of that part of her to which – Briony was certain – the word referred. She had no doubt that that was what it was. The context helped, but more than that, 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. That the word had been written by a man confessing to an image in his mind, confiding a lonely preoccupation, disgusted her profoundly.
She had read the note standing shamelessly in the center of the entrance hall, immediately sensing the danger contained by such crudity. Something irreducibly human, or male, threatened the order of their household, and Briony knew that unless she helped her sister, they would all suffer. It was also clear that she would have to be helped in a delicate, tactful manner. Otherwise, as Briony knew from experience, Cecilia would turn on her.
These thoughts preoccupied her as she washed her hands and face and chose a clean dress. The socks she wanted to wear were not to be found, but she wasted no time in hunting. She put on some others, strapped on her shoes and sat at her desk. Downstairs, they were drinking cocktails and she would have at least twenty minutes to herself. She could brush her hair on the way out. Outside her open window a cricket was singing. A sheaf of foolscap from her father’s office was before her, the desk light threw down its comforting yellow patch, the fountain pen was in her hand. The orderly troupe of farm animals lined along the windowsill and the straitlaced dolls poised in the various rooms of their open-sided mansion waited for the gem of her first sentence. At that moment, the urge to be writing was stronger than any notion she had of what she might write. What she wanted was to be lost to the unfolding of an irresistible idea, to see the black thread spooling out from the end of her scratchy silver nib and coiling into words. But how to do justice to the changes that had made her into a real writer at last, and to her chaotic swarm of impressions, and to the disgust and fascination she felt? Order must be imposed. She should begin, as she had decided earlier, with a simple account of what she had seen at the fountain. But that episode in the sunlight was not quite so interesting as the dusk, the idle minutes on the bridge lost to daydreaming, and then Robbie appearing in the semidarkness, calling to her, holding in his hand the little white square that contained the letter that contained the word. And what did the word contain?
She wrote, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.”
Surely it was not too childish to say there had to be a story; and this was the story of a man whom everybody liked, but about whom the heroine always had her doubts, and finally she was able to reveal that he was the incarnation of evil. But wasn’t she – that was, Briony the writer – supposed to be so worldly now as to be above such nursery-tale ideas as good and evil? There must be some lofty, godlike place from which all people could be judged alike, not pitted against each other, as in some lifelong hockey match, but seen noisily jostling together in all their glorious imperfection. If such a place existed, she was not worthy of it. She could never forgive Robbie his disgusting mind.
Trapped between the urge to write a simple diary account of her day’s experiences and the ambition to make something greater of them that would be polished, self-contained and obscure, she sat for many minutes frowning at her sheet of paper and its infantile quotation and did not write another word. Actions she thought she could describe well enough, and she had the hang of dialogue. She could do the woods in winter, and the grimness of a castle wall. But how to do feelings? All very well to write, She felt sad, or describe what a sad person might do, but what of sadness itself, how was that put across so it could be felt in all its lowering immediacy? Even harder was the threat, or the confusion of feeling contradictory things. Pen in hand, she stared across the room toward her hard-faced dolls, the estranged companions of a childhood she considered closed. It was a chilly sensation, growing up. She would never sit on Emily’s or Cecilia’s lap again, or only as a joke. Two summers ago, on her eleventh birthday, her parents, brother and sister and a fifth person she could not remember had taken her out onto the lawn and tossed her in a blanket eleven times, and then once for luck. Could she trust it now, the hilarious freedom of the upward flight, the blind trust in the kindly grip of adult wrists, when the fifth person could so easily have been Robbie?