As a voracious consumer of pop culture, it's strange when I find myself at odds with the zeitgeist - when a bunch of people think something is cool or fun or awesome that I myself think is dumb, or uninteresting, or over. Grey's Anatomy is one such example of this. The book Atonement is another.

Atonement is book by Ian McEwan, that was widely praised by critics and readers alike, and that I did not particularly care for. It's out in film form, now, and it may make a better film than a book. I probably won't see it, mostly because I don't see how it's fatal flaw, for me, can be resolved.

(I know, I know, I shouldn't be talking smack about Atonement, but I'm going somewhere with this and I need an example. Plus, I'm pretty sure the Ian McEwan isn't going to be hurt by my critique, you know? He's a finalist for the Booker Prize, for Pete's sake, and I'm a wannabe YA writer.)

Here's the rundown on the plot (and, by the way, I haven't read this in a while, so bear with me if I make some errors) - there's a fairly well-off family with an older sister and a younger sister. They have a gardener, and the gardener's sun was sent to school by the father of the well-off family and now may make something of himself. Older Sister likes Gardener's Son, but that sort of thing is Not Done, so she's conflicted about it. Little Sister sees someone (a friend of the family or something) raping one of her teenage cousins, and blames Gardener's Son, who's arrested based on Little Sister's testimony. Big Sister and Gardener's Son spend the rest of their lives trying to be together but not actually being together. Little Sister spends the rest of her life feeling guilty. It's the classic tale - Boy Meets Girl, Boy Nails Girl, Boy Gets Accused of Sexual Assualt by Girl's Little Sister, Boy Dies in the War. You know how it goes.

But it's not the plot that's a problem for me. It's the fact that Little Sister is believed. This is my pet peeve - no one asks a damn question! Big Sister knows that Gardener's Son did not rape Cousin, but doesn't say anything. Her parents, who have known Gardener's Son since he was a kid, have no problem believing Little Sister, even though she's prone to making stuff up. No one even thinks "hey, what about this other guy, brought home by our oldest son, who we don't know at all, instead of Gardener's Son?" Nope. Instead, they decide to ruin the Gardener's Son's life by believing a 13-year-old story teller about the situation and no one who knows the truth steps forward to say it couldn't be true.

(Disclaimer - I only read this book once and, in fairness, McEwan may have tried to address this issue in the story itself in ways I don't recall. But if he did, it didn't work. Because I remember being disgusted by this turn of events even as I was reading it.)

God, I hate characters who don't ask questions. The family has known Gardener's Son ALL HIS LIFE, and it doesn't occur to them that he didn't do it? Really? This is the kind of thing that happens on soap operas all the time - a character decides to Keep a Big Secret, which involves much Turning the Back on The Other Characters and Voiceovers to the Camera, and which ultimately destroys whatever relationship the Secret Keeper is having at the time. And the other character is confused by the Secret Keeper's evasiveness and secretiveness and leaves the Secret Keeper to fall into the arms of another, when the whole thing could be solved by, say, ASKING A DAMN QUESTION. "Hey, why are you acting so weird?"

Now, I get that this goes against the necessary melodrama of the soap opera, where everyone has to have a Big Secret, or the show would grind to a halt, but it's not exactly a narrative strength. Here's my rule:

When something weird is going on, characters should ask about it.

Now, that doesn't mean that the characters should get answers to their questions. There are a number of ways to avoid answering these questions - lying, evasion, interruption by someone else, simple refusal to answer, lack of information - you can get around the answers in innumerable ways. But someone's got to raise the questions, or else the characters look like a bunch of idiots.

Or, alternatively, the character maybe doesn't ask the question (which looks like I'm undermining my point - bear with me). But the character has a Really Good Reason not to ask the questions. It needs to be a substantial and rational reason for the particular character at issue - the one that seems to work most often is that the character who should ask the question doesn't want to know the answer. For example, the mother of a teenage boy sees signs that her son is on drugs: his behavior changes, his friends change, his room smells funny, he has strange paraphernalia in his underwear drawer. Obviously, this character should ask her son "hey, kid, are you hitting the smack?" But she doesn't, because she doesn't want to know. She can't face the fact that her beloved son, who she's raised as a single mother for 15 years, who is normally such a great kid, could be throwing his whole life away for something so stupid, something he should know better than to do. She can't deal with it. She can't ask, because asking means that it might be true.

The Not Asking angle also loses credibility the more people know about it. If the kid's mother tells her best friend, and the kid has a girlfriend who also thinks something's going on, and the kid has a best friend who's feeling isolated from the kid, and a teacher also notices signs, well, then the fact that no one is asking the question is a bigger problem than if the mom is the only one who sees anything strange going on. Because that's a whole hell of a lot of Really Good Reasons that have to be believable. Which is fundamentally my problem with Atonement - the Older Sister, her parents, the cousin, the Older Brother, the legal authorities - all of them have to have Really Good Reasons not to challenge the Little Sister's versions of events. And most of them don't.

But I've never been nominated or the Booker Prize, so what do I know? :)


Newer Post Older Post Home