The Modern Writer Needs Neither Characters Nor Plot

by Charlotte Reads Classics

The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite her journal sketches, she no longer really believed in characters. They were quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed. Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels could no longer turn. A modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony. It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it.

There is a joke between my friends about readers splitting into two camps: reading for plot or reading for people. I confess that most of the time when deciding to read a book, I don’t really consider the plot. I’ve started many famous novels with no idea what they are about but they have passed my first line test regardless. I won’t ever buy a book without reading the first line. My plot driven friends have decided that the books I like to read are ‘full of people chatting in drawing rooms’. So, when I read this passage in Atonement, there was no way I could let it pass without comment. The novelist in the paragraph above is Briony Tallis, the narrator, the younger sister, the one who needs to atone.

Virginia Woolf and her stream of consciousness novels influence Briony’s writing, and  Ian McEwan may be following his own advice. This is the second of his novels that I have read (the other being Enduring Love) and there are similar methods of writing in each: Plot and characters come second place to impression and small unusual events. In Atonement it is a play, a broken vase, a fountain. In Enduring Love it is  a hot air balloon, a picnic, a child. The writer picks out a detail of life that wouldn’t feature in the lives of characters in any other novel. Ignoring an outright description of character makes for the strongest impressions. I think you can never truly know how you would react in certain situations unless you are in them, but the way you react tells you more about yourself than any mundane description could. McEwan uses this idea to his advantage and creates truly real characters. Without seeming to strive to create them at all.

Now having said that plot isn’t an issue, Atonement is a fabulous story. It manages to explain broad concepts in humanity like love and war through a concentrated set of characters. There is childhood, there is a war, there is the home left afterwards. I really enjoyed the constructed nature of Atonement. All the references to Briony’s writing, as well as being told from the start about her ‘crime’ makes the purpose of the story clear, but it never unfolded the way I would have predicted.

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?

The ending, perfect fiction. In a few words, the meaning of the novel changes. It is the cleverest thing I have read in ages. (I remember the very same effect in Enduring Love!) The story is a brilliant one and as clichéd as it may sound I feel like I’ve come full circle with the people in it.

The edition I have is part of the Vintage 21st birthday series. Each novel is a different colour, Atonement is much more green than my photo makes it look: it is exactly the colour of Cecelia’s dress worn that evening in the library…

I am now reading The Report by Jessica Francis Kane. It is about the events at Bethnal Green tube station during the blitz, ever so slightly (sob) linked to Atonement.