Evidently, we have reached the point in literature where nothing is true, nothing is awe inspiring, nothing sets the heart beating and the mind racing unless it can be demonstrated to be true, i.e., spelled out so clearly that a child, or a pundit, or a Sony pet will feel as if the author speaks their language. Take, for example, the curious case of Ian McEwan, a writer whose novels are so carefully conceived, so ploddingly executed, so deliberately airless that they don't excite so much as capture and then asphyxiate the reader's imagination. One can easily imagine McEwan, in his next life, inspiring awe and gratitude as the warden of a maximum˝security prison, dispensing favors to the docile and delivering swift retribution to any malcontent who would dare upset his system. With his most recent book, the ecstatically praised Atonement, McEwan raises the ante from his eight previous novels by re˝creating the claustrophobic environments of home (an upper˝crust country estate in 1930s England), of warfare (the British retreat at Dunkirk), and of the hospital (nasty nurse superior, gruesome war wounds, etc.) and then assigning the blame for the sum total to a fictional novelist, the seventy˝seven˝year˝old Briony Tallis, the villain of her own story and an author in search of . . . atonement. Get it?
In an admirable attempt to let some fresh air into the narrativeˇhis style, like Kazuo Ishiguro's, is a vacuum˝packed variant of realismˇMcEwan adds a coda to the book revealing that life turned out somewhat differently for Atonement's characters than the novel by the same name would allow, it being Briony Tallis's act of atonement after all. McEwan, ever vigilant against the unspoken or ambiguous, can't keep himself from fouling the atmosphere with a final "meditation" on the burdens of authorship. Here's Briony:
. . . how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.
Has writing a novel ever sounded like a more horrible, grinding, unforgiving experience? (It's not all that fun, of course, but why dwell on the invisible underpinnings?) Who else but Edgar Allan Poe, or perhaps Stephen King, would have written such a grim ars poetica? Don't forget: This is the same author who has just subjected his cast of characters, variously, to a sexual assault, an undeserved jail term, the brutal retreat at Dunkirk, gruesome war wounds, and, perhaps most memorably of all, betrayal and (false!) redemption by Briony Tallis's hand. I would not for a second wish to argue the merits of a literature cleansed of the full and dynamic range of human suffering, but let's admit there's something perverse about turning the novel into a handheld torture device, as McEwan does so readily, and then indulging in maudlin reflections on the Godlike power of the novelist. The point of writing, I've always believed, is to protest the fact that life is often hard and cruel and unforgiving (when it's not outright lovely)ˇforget about the elective discomfort of writing fiction, which is more akin to wearing a new pair of shoes directly out of the store than it is to wrestling with "absolute power of deciding outcomes." (If the author "is also God," then how come we need literary agents?) Novelists, after all, are guardians of a flat and unreal planet, while the real, the actual, remains elusive to all powers of description; it's the primary source and inspiration for every form of artifice there is, the substance that we venerate, for itself, when we turn it into fiction.
If the virtues of McEwan's fiction provide a welcome respite from the wasteful cycle of excess and second˝guessing that afflicts so many of our narratives these daysˇclarity of line and purpose, modesty of formal means, respect for the reader's wish to be valued, respected, as well as teased and entertainedˇthen might I suggest an alternate palliative to all that ails the written word? Muriel Spark. You'll know her name, most likely, from the girlhood˝coming˝of˝age blockbuster The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but you may not know that, quietly and steadily, New Directions has been reissuing Spark's "backlist" from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s and making a persuasive case for the lasting relevance of a novelist whose work, though a staple in the libraries of summer homes from Puget Sound to coastal Maine, had passed out of the public imagination (and largely out of print), at least here in the United States.
Spark's novels, like the Gospels of the New Testament, are rife with the mysteries of faith, the subterfuge of community life, and enigmatic statements from a controlling authority, like the following from Loitering with Intent (1981): "Sometimes I don't actually meet a character I have created in a novel until some time after the novel has been written and published." This confession comes to us from Fleur Talbot, an admired novelist looking back on her life in postwar LondonˇSpark is a master preservationist of this setting, equal, in her own way, to Henry Greenˇduring the time when she was composing her first novel, Warrender Chase. Talbot, despite financial straits, is possessed by the spirit of her novel ("[It] took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better") and inspired, in the practice of both life and art, by an opposed pair of textual masters: John Henry Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua, a spiritual autobiography; and the rapturously secular Life of Benvenuto Cellini, which provides Talbot with her signature line: "I am now going on my way rejoicing."