Real Fiction (II)

In Ian McEwan`s Atonement fiction is as ambiguously portrayed as in Kennedy`s “Original Bliss”. But McEwan goes further. He not only portrays the two-faced nature of fiction, he also strongly accentuates its aesthetic potential as well as showing how fiction functions as an instrument of inadequacy.

Briony – a thirteen-year-old girl – is the protagonist of the novel and an author in the works; she`s writing stories and is setting up plays. From the start, fiction is portrayed as an educational instrument. For Briony, the thought that all people are equal to her and that everyone sees themselves as the centre of the world, like she does, is hard to grasp. But fiction allows her to develop some kind of understanding for this truth:

She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. […] And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.[1]

But the novel quickly turns away from this rather innocent portrayal of fiction and reveals its dangerous potential: Briony witnesses incidents which are connected to the evolving romantic relationship between her sister Cecilia and Robbie, the housekeeper`s son. Because she cannot grasp the nature of it completely, she uses her imagination again and the outcome is disastrous.

The first incident Briony notices, takes place at a water fountain on their estate. The reader already knows this scene: Cecilia and Robbie are arguing (on the surface) about a vase that has to be filled with water. They struggle a bit and by accident a piece of the vase breaks off and falls into the basin of the fountain. Cecilia, furious and irritated by her own feelings towards Robbie, undresses herself to her underwear and plunges into the fountain to retrieve the missing part of the vase. Robbie is left stunned and perplexed at the scene. Now, we experience the scene again, this time through Briony`s eyes who is watching it from a distance. Her version of the events is strongly influenced by her limited knowledge. Furthermore, it becomes obvious that her knowledge is based solely on stories:

[…] standing by the basin`s retaining wall was her sister, and right before her was Robbie Turner. There was something rather formal about the way he stood […] A proposal of marriage. Briony would not have been surprised. She herself had written a tale in which a humble woodcutter saved a princess from drowning and ended by marrying her. […] It made perfect sense. Such leaps across boundaries were the stuff of daily romance.[2]

But what happens next stands contrary to her expectations:

She [Cecilia] was out of her blouse, now she had let her skirt drop to the ground and was stepping out of it […] What strange power did he have over her. Blackmail? Threats? […] there were further surprises. Cecilia […] was climbing into the pond […] The sequence was quite illogical – the drowning scene, followed by a rescue, should have preceded the marriage proposal.[3]

The scene is illogical, because it does not fit into the plot line Briony has chosen. She is therefore left puzzled. She senses that the world of adults holds secrets she cannot comprehend, yet.

As in “Original Bliss” the story`s dynamic consists of an interplay between two elements: a certain expectancy – that is purely based on plot lines – and a derivation from that ideal that leads to irritation and the problem of knowledge and how to attain it. Without fiction, Briony lacks  concepts to apply and does not know on what to base her judgement. It becomes clear that fiction can also serve as a kind of organizing force; it supplies stability, however illusive. It does not interrupt and disturb reality like it does in Pynchon´s The Crying of Lot 49.

The second incident overcharges Briony in a similar way. In a love letter from Robbie that Briony was asked to deliver to her sister, she reads the word “cunt” – a word that was not intended to find its way into this letter. Now, for Briony this clearly hints at some danger: “With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness [..].[4] It is this viewpoint that will change Robbie`s life forever. Because now, she sees him in a completely new light: “Real life […] had sent her a villain in the form of an old family friend […]”[5] She turns Robbie – with incredible conviction and author-like power as we will see – into a villain. And with that she becomes the “hero”, a good character that protects the innocent. (This same radicalness in devoting oneself to an  identity that was in some way forced upon you can be witnessed in “Original Bliss”, also. Here the main protagonist Mrs. Brindle completely surrenders and limits herself to character of a victim. )

During the course of a family dinner, two invited children disappear and search parties for them are sent out. Also on the search for the children, Briony is observing another incident, one which she, again, cannot understand – at first, however:

[…] the bush that lay directly in her path – the one she thought should be closer to the shore – began to break up in front of her, or double itself, or waver, and then fork. It was changing its shape in a complicated ways […] The vertical mass was a figure, a person who was now backing away from her and beginning to fade into the darker background of the trees.[6]

The scene with the changing “bush” is revealed as an attack on Lola, Briony`s elder cousin, who has been raped by the mysterious figure that Briony was seeing backing away. Following this scene, suddenly a language of certainty is introduced that mirrors Briony`s state: “[…] in an instant, Briony understood completely […]”, “She had no doubt.”, and finally: “’I saw him.’” [7] Briony thinks she has identified Robbie as Lola`s attacker. Although her cousin is unsure about this, Briony – in order to protect her cousin – takes on full responsibility by identifying Robbie as Lola`s perpetrator.

Since the novel implies on several levels, that Robbie is innocent (and also provides a convincing alternative attacker), she simply cannot have seen him. She appears to be overwhelmed by her sudden attainment of power – she has been made an author, finally: “Everything connected. It was her own discovery. It was her story, the one that was writing itself around her.”[8] This kind of power seduces her to stick to her initial accusation. As a result of Briony`s testimony Robbie is sent to prison.

The novel goes on and shows how during Robbie`s prison time and his service in World War II., Cecilia and Robbie are maintaining contact. They meet again and are taking up that romantic relationship that Briony`s deed interrupted so harshly. At the end of the novel one finds out, that all this was written by the adult Briony who is now around 60 years old and has become an accomplished author in the meantime. In addition, the reader learns that the part which depicted how Robbie and Cecilia find a glimpse of happiness is nothing more than pure fiction; it is part of Briony`s fictitious novel only and has not actually happened. The truth is brutal: Robbie and Cecelia not only have never met again, they also got both killed during the war. This also means, that the outcome of Briony`s action, initiated by a simple sentence (‘I saw him’), could not be revoked in any way as it was implied before.

This twist is simply overpowering. It makes one acknowledge the power of fiction from a first-hand experience and one simply cannot take on an ironic distance towards it. The reader learns that he was in a sense fooled by the beauty of fiction, but this beauty is only attainable when realizing one was seduced. The deception was necessary and therefore cannot be reduced to mere playfulness. Without it, there would be no emotional involvement and without that the effect of beauty could not have been created.[9]

To rewrite the past is for Briony an attempt to atone – one that has to fail inevitably in her opinion: “[…] a final act of kindness […] to let my lovers live und unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.”[10] Writing fiction provides a possibility for Briony to feel understood. However, it cannot change reality in any way. Briony has to live with her guilt.

At this point, I can apply the same conclusion I drew about A.L. Kennedy`s “Original Bliss”, namely that fiction is not a mere escape and it is not challenging reality as an equal. It is an inherent part of the world, since it belongs uniquely to the creative human mind.[11] And as in Kennedy`s case fiction serves a purpose; it functions like a tool to repair something that is broken – but an inadequate tool. It is applied to fix something, but it has to fail in the face of something that simply can`t be undone or by the limitedness of its own construction.

Here, I recognize a very similar mentality that Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker pointed out, when explaining their concept of metamodernism. They introduce two artists, Ader and Rubsamen, to display the attitude of metamodernism.[12] Both artists develop projects that seem to exhibit their failure to do something. But this has not the same desperate incentive as Oedipa Maas` failure to find out about the reality of her world. In fact, it serves another purpose as Vermeulen and van den Akker make clear:

The reason these artists haven’t opted to employ methods and materials better suited to their mission or task is that their intention is not to fulfill it, but to attempt to fulfill it in spite of its ‘‘unfulfillableness’’. The point of Ader’s journey is precisely that he might not return from it; of his tree climbing precisely that he cannot but fall eventually.[13]

Briony`s effort is hopeful, exactly because it is futile. This tentative hope and this overall trying attitude are rewarded – in Antonement it is by beauty. Paradoxically by trying to undo the crime that she, in an author-like act, has committed, the adult Briony affirms the core element of that crime – treating reality like fiction – by the act of narrating; by using the inadequate instrument of fiction. And with this paradoxical movement that is fueled by a hope that can never be fulfilled, she makes something else possible, she creates a by-product which allows her to have something that reality only cannot provide (nor can any postmodern novel): a blissful seduction, or beauty.

[1] McEwan, Ian: Atonement, Vintage Books: London, 2001, p. 40

[2] ibid., 38

[3] ibid., 39

[4] ibid., 113

[5] ibid., 158

[6] ibid., 164

[7] ibid., 164-165

[8] ibid., 166

[9] The idea of an enforced and bracketed beauty in Atonement and its consequences for reader`s reception is taken from Eshelman, Raoul: “Originary Aesthetics and the End of Posmodernism”, in: Adam Katz (ed.), The Originary Hyposthesis: A Minimal Proposal for Humanistic Inquiry. Aurora, Colarado 2007, p. 72

[10] Atonement, 372

[11] See “Real Fiction (1)” on

[12] See Vermeulen, Tim J. and Robin van den Akker: “Notes on Metamodernism”, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 2, 2010 DOI: 10.3402/jac.v2i0.5677

[13] ibid.

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