Sunday, April 02, 2006

Realism, Convention, and Ian McEwan's Atonement

(Cross-posted at The Valve)

I've been sitting on a link to this article on realism in the novel by James Wood for awhile (thanks Shehla A.). Recently it came to mind while I was teaching Ian McEwan's masterful novel Atonement in my contemporary British fiction seminar. I was also thinking about what defines something as realism in painting when I visited the Andrew Wyeth exhibit that just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Below I'll comment on all three, and argue that they all share certain concerns.

* * * * *

Let's start with James Wood, who begins his essay with a pair of attacks on realist fiction, from Rick Moody and Patrick Giles, and then moves on to carefully defend a somewhat updated version of realist fiction, uncoupling it from any presumed ideological orientation or strong philosophical grounding. If some people might find realism to be a dead genre, or worse, a quiet ally of 'phallogocentrism,' Wood argues that it need not be so. First he gives three sentences from Moody:

"It's quaint to say so, but the realistic novel still needs a kick in the ass. The genre, with its epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement, its conventional humanisms, can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it's politically and philosophically dubious and often dull."

And then the response to them:

Moody's three sentences efficiently compact the reigning assumptions. Realism is assumed to be a "genre" (rather than, say, a central impulse in fiction); it is taken to be mere dead convention, and to be related to a certain kind of traditional plot, with predictable beginnings and endings; it deals in characters, but softly and piously ("conventional humanisms"); it assumes that the world can be described with a naively stable link between word and referent ("philosophically dubious"); and all this will tend toward a conservative or even oppressive politics ("politically and philosophically dubious"). This might plausibly describe a contemporary novel by Anne Tyler or Kent Haruf, but it is almost an exact inversion of the 19th-century realist novel, which was often politically and philosophically radical. Often, and most notably in Flaubert, it overwhelmed the world with words, with elaborations of style, even as it claimed exactly to match word with referent; and often it dealt savagely and pessimistically with its fictional characters.

So the response to the claim that realism is a dead genre is to say that it isn't a genre but a set of conventions. It also need not be understood as adhering to predictability in plot or description -- especially if one invokes someone like Flaubert (or McEwan, about whom more below). And certainly one shouldn't assume anything about a writer's politics either positively or negatively from their style of writing: it's not true that postmodernists are necessarily politically progressive, while realism (socialist realism) was once the province of political radicals and can still be so.

Wood's essay gains something from the fact that he knows the major figures in American postmodernism quite well. He also knows his Barthes, and spends quite a bit of time responding to some of Barthes' major arguments about the "reality effect" -- the idea that any attempt to represent the world realistically is always bound by a set of narrative conventions that can be decoded or unmasked. But unmasking the conventions doesn't necessarily undo their hold over the imagination, nor is it clear that readers can do without them:

There is, I would argue, not just a "grammar" of narrative convention, but a grammar of life—those elements without which human activity no longer looks recognisable, and without which fiction no longer seems human. WJ Harvey, following Kant, long ago proposed the notion of a "constitutive category," something which "though not in itself often the object of experience, is inherent in everything we do actually experience… without it life would be random and chaotic." The four elements of this category are, he suggests, time, identity, causality and freedom. I would add mind, or consciousness. Any fiction that lacked all five elements would probably have little power to move us. The defence of this idea of mimesis should not harden into a narrow aesthetic, for it ought to be large enough to connect Shakespeare's dramatic mimesis, say, with, Dickens's novelistic mimesis, or Dostoevsky's melodramatic mimesis with Muriel Spark's satiric mimesis, or Pushkin's poetic mimesis with Platonov's lyrical mimesis.

To some extent Wood's critique of Barthes rhymes with some Valve-ish critiques of constructivism in cultural studies: just knowing that something is culturally constructed doesn't take us anywhere. And while I can't speak to Muriel Spark or Platonov, I agree with Wood's idea that there are a few basic elements that are to be found in all fiction, though I'm a bit concerned that we can't pin down which four or five elements we think of as absolutely essential.

Critics of Wood might find this to be a suitable starting point: if we don't agree as to which elements are essential, why do we think that anything at all is essential?

* * * * *

(spoiler alert) This brings me to McEwan's Atonement, which is as much a manifesto of a kind of contemporary realist fiction-writing as it is a successful example of it. An imaginative, writerly thirteen year old girl named Briony Tallis, who accuses her older sister's boyfriend, Robbie Turner, of raping another family member. The young man was the son of a servant, who had been sponsored by the family, and educated at their expense. When he's accused of rape, however, the family abandons him and he is jailed. He's released just as the Second World War is beginning, and is drawn into the army.

Having grown up some years later, the accuser attempts to atone for her false accusation, which was in some sense the product of a novelistic imagination that had gotten carried away with itself. In a sense, "atonement" can be read as realism itself: the insistence on fidelity to describing what has occurred as a matter of basic responsibility. But the frame narrative that appears at the end suggests that even that might not really be the case: Briony reveals that even in her careful account of her own crime of accusation, her version of her sister and Robbie Turner's romance has been helped somewhat, happy-ending-ized. But sometimes realism demands too much. She couldn't bear to describe what actually happened to Robbie Turner at Dunkirk, or her sister Cecilia in the Blitz:

How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn't do it to them. I'm too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I face an incoming tide of forgetting, and then oblivion. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism. . . . No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there's always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish.

This might seem to be a slightly different issue from the one James Wood raises in his essay, the question of narrative fidelity rather than realism vs. postmodernism. But in fact they are versions of the same question. Briony insists on her right to imagine a happy ending to the lovers' story because it's the only kind of ending that could, in its imagining, actually enable her to atone for her earlier crime. The only way to correct an errant act of the imagination is more imagination, not a turn to a narrow kind of realism.

Broad realism. While the self-reflexive element frames the central narrative in McEwan's novel, it doesn't necessarily displace it or take away from its power. Moreoever, the psychological emphasis -- shifting perspectives, and the use of free indirect discourse -- are merely an expression of what must be understood as a species of realism, psychological realism.

* * * * *

Finally, a brief note on Andrew Wyeth, whose exhibit I walked into yesterday without any expectations. This American realist painter disregarded virtually all of the ideas of 20th century art in favor of a continued emphasis on traditional realistic painting, and an obsessive and careful attention to nature.

But two things struck me when looking at some of Wyeth's better paintings (like "Groundhog Day"). First, in the obsessive attention to natural textures and details one sees in some of the landscapes in the 1940s and 50s are shades of what might be thought of as an abstract sensibility after all. The subject isn't the beauty of nature, it's a big slab of granite. Secondly, many of Wyeth's paintings figure absence -- clothes hanging on a peg, doors that are forbiddingly shut, window frames on sad little houses. In many of these paintings, there is a level of attention to framing and composition -- exactly as one sees in McEwan's novel -- that is of a piece with realism but also goes beyond it in some ways. Especially with the emphasis on framing what isn't or can't be contained in the image itself, Wyeth reminds me of Wallace Stevens: full to the brim with nothingness.

Two Wyeth paintings that do what I'm talking about: here, and here.


Ruchira Paul said...

Thanks for the excellent review of "Atonement". I recently posted an unsatisfactory "five word review" of it on my own blog. And no, you didn't spoil anything. One would have to read the book to get it.

I have read three books by Ian McEwan. Actually, that should be two and a half. "First Love, Last Rites", a collection of his early stories was so creepy that I gave up half way through it even though I pride myself in possessing a pretty strong stomach. "Amsterdam" though clever, was strangely soulless. "Atonement" is a perfect novel. It is disturbing, touching and even though we know that the "real" ending may not have been what Briony tells us it is, her explanation is surprisingly satisfying.

12:51 PM  
Anonymous said...

Atonement is now being made into a movie, if you can fathom such a thing. It will star James McAvoy and Keira Knightley and Joe Wright will be directing.

Thoughts, if any?

8:06 AM  
Amardeep said...

It actually makes pretty good sense -- a 'prestige' period piece with a top star...

The one hard part would be solving 13 year old Briony/18 year old Briony. You can't really use two different actresses. So I imagine they will solve it using flashbacks and dress and make-up.

Also, I wonder if they might just start with Robbie Turner walking through France in the British retreat to Dunkirk... and explain the whole narrative up to that point using flashbacks... That would be a very hollywood thing to do. They don't like abrupt changes of tone.

And finally, I suspect they'll have to cut out the part where Briony reveals she made the story happier than it actually was, though they'll probably still keep the '1999' bit, if only to reveal who really did rape Lola.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous said...

Actually, Knightly is playing McAvoy's romantic interest.

What's interesting is that McAvoy and Knightly's proposed characters are very much supporting parts. The central focus is Briony. I don't know if they'll keep it that way or if they'll adjust the material to capitalize on Knightly's emerging stardom.

10:07 AM  
Manish said...

'Atonement' is one of my favorite novels. 'Saturday' didn't quite go to the same heights, but it was pretty good too.

By the way, I've got a novel out. Not 'out' as in published, out as in out of me. Whether it will be picked up remains to be seen; thus far, no signals in that direction. Which isn't good for me because I gave up everything for it. Now I need to find a way to keep myself from starving....

Anyway, I just wanted to get the word out. I reckoned I might elicit more sympathy from fellow South Asians. Ordinarily I wouldn't play crybaby, but this is the end. Might as well do all those things in life that you don't do when the end's staring at you.

Okay, I'll let you get back to your discussion. Have fun and I'll try to stay sane.

9:14 PM  
Anonymous said...

thanks for the review, I'm doing course work on it and its really helped. I just wondered what people thought about the opening part of the novel, do you think it fits into the theory of realism ?

3:28 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home