The opening chapters of McEwan’s Atonement present me with a bewildering perplexity: I had to ask myself, repeatedly, Just who is telling this story, and at what remove? The perplexity concerns the narrative voice. The narration of the novel seems to start out as a straightforward omniscient viewpoint, telling the tale of a 13 year old literary ingénue named Briony, who is eager – frantic really – to stage a play she wrote herself in celebration of her older brother’s return to the family estate from Cambridge for summer holidays. She is determined to enlist the aid, as cast members, of her three cousins (two younger, one older) who have also just arrived to spend time with her family and to escape the domestic squabbles of their parent’s divorce. So far, so good --one would think.
But it quickly becomes apparent that the characterization of Briony is incredibly improbable –indeed, just flat out and literally unbelievable. On page after page she is described not just as a precocious and inordinately talented 13 year old, but as a veritable microcosmic reiteration of literary history in the flesh, a fully matured and deeply insightful psychologist, and as a critic and philosopher with the subtlety and acumen of Tolstoy. This is preposterous, of course. And by page 40, I was inclined to think of the narrator as omni-gullible, or maybe just hopelessly ill informed about children. Then on page 41, disbelief takes a turn—perhaps for the worse—when we are informed in one long intrusive paragraph of pseudo-explanation, that Briony will have concocted, and maintained throughout the next 60 years of her life, a very self–aggrandizing myth about her own precociousness and early whirl-wind development as a writer. This voice from above, so to speak, addresses all the annoying exaggerations that have so far cluttered the story and provoked, in me at least, a rebellion of incredulity. Aha! So, the previous narration of the events of a terribly fateful day, in an intentionally mock-heroic style, was all used to artfully and ironically render or suggest Briony’s enduring self-satisfaction?
But how can we then make sense of (integrate) the passages concerning her older sister, Cecelia, whose meeting and confrontation with a childhood friend, Robbie, at the marble fountain – a meeting that is fatefully witnessed by Briony – is rendered in the modality of straightforward omniscience that we were led to expect and accept from the start? How many voices are involved here, and to whom do they belong?
The conceit, as best I can make it out, seems to be a concoction of sorts. It is a story at least partially told at one remove, as though the omniscient narrator – whoever that is – is both telling the tale of that fateful day and channeling Briony and her awareness of these past events. But to make matters even more confusing, this narrator is channeling Briony, not as her 13-year-old self, but as Briony eventually (some 60 years later?) would come to see her younger self and the tragic events. This coupling of perspectives is not signaled by a division into sections or by any other technique, but is simply and (apparently straightforwardly) interwoven as one multi-voiced (dare I say, schizoid?) account! It is annoying and discomfiting to say the least, and finally, unconvincing.
Now, I am not against narrative subtlety or complexity. Quite the opposite is true. I can recommend a favorite author or two who employ such techniques skillfully and with marvelous effect. For example:
-- Henry James wrote a wonderful and ghostly (even ghastly!) tale of terror – “The Turn of the Screw” – in which he used the techniques of a twice-told tale and the unreliable narrator to great effect. I think he did so to achieve, for himself as author, an ironic distance from the macabre and supernatural subject matter, so as to more fully overcome the readers’ reluctance to suspend disbelief. A brilliant and clever strategy! It was a tale told by the narrator as a story overheard in extravagant detail, from an acquaintance he wishes to vouch for, but for whose sanity he cannot offer assurances. (But is her dubious sanity the cause of her obvious belief in the outrageous story she tells, or an effect of the trauma the story relates?) And his motive in telling it is, or becomes, deeply suspicious! This only heightens the sense of mystery and suspense. Therefore, the story ‘s veracity is ultimately corrigible, though it is nonetheless chilling. It is a true paragon of its kind by a great master of style.
-- In a totally different mood, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote stories and sketches that he characterized as, and even collectively named, “Twice-told Tales” to achieve an effect of irony that omniscience alone cannot offer: near perfect credibility, and a resulting charm. It is as fascinating as it is counterintuitive, that this type of irony – a tale told at one remove, so to speak – actually seems to boost the narrator’s credibility with the reader, precisely because it makes a special claim on the reader’s willingness to cooperate, to suspend disbelief. It seems to say to us, you’re going to have to help me now (or, at least, bear with me) to validate this story, since it is only something I have heard. We are drawn in as if by a spell, and all the more willingly bear with him the burden of making the story credible. We are seemingly cajoled into credulity. It has the effect of doubling the magic of that all important phrase “Once upon a time . . . “ which implicitly begins every work of fiction; a magic which is at least as old as fiction itself, and is the imaginative legacy of anyone who has ever heard a bed-time story.
Maybe it’s just me or my present narrowness of focus, but I think it is interesting and important to note that this technique seems especially useful to authors of stories that make a greater claim on our sense of mystery and/or suspense, as well as stories that provoke a relatively higher degree or level of fear and/or wonder. No doubt there are other qualities and attitudes that may be equally well served (up) in this way, but that discussion must await another time.
Suffice it to say, that I am convinced of the technique's value and legitimacy. What I am wondering is, Is anything so clever and skillful going on here? (Half as much would be good enough to keep my respect!) Is the technique being employed here with a similar or same intent by McEwan, in Atonement, as those other examples? Indeed, is it even the same technique? (And if so, why is it not working?)
I don’t think so. In fact, I think something less artful and ingenuous is at play here, not least because of the covert manner of its use; i.e. because the authorial moderator (?) comes out of the blue (on page 41) to clarify a confusing situation but afterwards recedes as mysteriously as he appeared. Or does he (it?)? I don’t know, since now, I don’t know what to trust! At the moment of clarification, however, this equivocation, this voice from beyond the narrative, seems to be simply a disembodied and unidentifiable, 'outside' voice: an intruder. One confusion displaces another. This authorial moderator is not a character in the drama, per se, but overtly and dramatically acts to influence our assessment of characters and events and to shape our attitudes – at least temporarily - towards them. It is more like a case of semi-divine, meta-fictive intervention than ironic distance. Is this “meta-fictive” intrusion the vaunted “heteroglossia” (read: multiple voices) that Post-modernist philosophy has hailed as its own invention? (Cf. Mikhail Bahktin, 1895 – 1975, and his followers.) Yikes, what an awkward development!
Perhaps there is hope that this strategy will yield startling and wonderful results, in exchange for subverting the old order of things, viz. the presumptive contract between the reader and the writer, which demanded a mutual respect of intentions and sensibilities to achieve significant results. And, in Atonement itself, this may turn out to be the case –I’ll know by tomorrow. But in the meantime I cannot help but realize, with some dismay, that a line has been crossed. My willingness to believe has been chastised for effect. But what effect? Is it worth it to lose the readers’ trust in order to be post-modern? What has been won, and what lost?
Another writer who uses a similarly subversive brand of exposition is Patrick McGrath. He used a literary "rope-a-dope" strategy in the beautifully written novel, Port Mungo (2004). Like McEwan he employs an unreliable narrator to lead us astray in our assumptions only to eventually – gradually, at first, and then, at the end, suddenly - pull back the curtain, so to speak, and reveal that the hero we have been sympathizing with is really a monster, and the narrator we have been relying on, and have come to regard as devoted and capable, is in fact, twisted and pathetic. The effect is very chilling and even profoundly so – because of the depth of sympathy that heretofore has been built up in the reader, which is a testament to the fact that he is an extremely talented writer and he uses his skill at evocative description so convincingly– but, in the end, one cannot help but feel tricked. Our own willingness to suspend disbelief has been rewarded with, i.e. turned into, a foolish gullibility. The actual betrayal is roughly proportional to the author’s success at achieving his effect— viz. our surprise and anguish at the ultimate revelation.
Perhaps it’s just true, that one must have a stronger tolerance for practical jokes than I do to appreciate this fare; i.e. maybe it is just me. (I have to admit that I am likewise appalled by the shenanigans of the “players” of Aston Kutcher’s popular reality TV show “Punk’d”, which take the harmless fun of practical jokes - such as had been the norm in such precursors as “Candid Camera” and “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment - to a whole ‘nother level, often bordering on pseudo-cruelty and -terror to achieve its effects.) It seems to me a matter of scale. A reader may be led astray to good effect; --but only for so long before the bond of trust – and the spell of fiction – is broken. There is a fine line between fictional technique and mere deceit. The first effects us like a charm (and is usually welcomed for the experience of it), while the latter has the sour aftertaste of manipulation and/or deception.
In the final analysis, this seems to me a matter of ethics: a question of respecting - or, conversely, subverting - the dynamics of the writer-reader relationship. Given that most artistic effects depend upon illusion, pretense, posturing and all manner of fictions, etc., it is not a case of do it or not, but to what extent and to what effect--and for what reason. In other words, it is a question of when the writer has crossed a line he should not cross. The harm may be only the damage done to the reader's pride or to his willingness to cooperate further (lets say, in future books), but it is harm just the same. Unless it can be justified by some appeal to a new and better dynamical relation between reader and writer, I don't see the point, nor can I forgive the insult.
In case it goes otherwise un-noticed, I will point out that there is still nothing fundamentally new here. Lawrence Sterne spent 600 pages of tom-foolery subverting readers’ expectations in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, way back in 1759! His effort was variously hilarious and exasperating (and sometimes boring) as it toyed with the conventions governing the novel and the dynamic of the reader-writer relationship. Traditionally, that relationship has been based on trust and cooperation: it seems now a new deal is being struck. At the very least we can say, this new aesthetic does not rely on tact. If and when the new convention is established that the writer’s tongue-in-cheek play, or any other form of chicanery, need not be signaled or admitted, then the whole deal is off. If the writer need not respect or cooperate with his/her readers in that older and most fundamental bargain, then readers cannot and should not trust anything a writer says, at least until the end. If you ask me, something precious is being lost in this negotiation.
It is not the end of the world, of course, nor is it the end of the age of fiction per se, but it may be the end of the age of magic in fiction. Instead of 'suspended disbelief,' perhaps we will learn to settle for a chary indulgence of an author's gimmickry. Perhaps we will have to pretend not to notice the props and the guy wires; or, if all else fails, become fans of panache only and forget about stories. Tactless, indeed.
But this is a lot to think about on an empty stomach. But now I wonder: Did you really want to know that?