Blasphemy: Atonement

It’s hard to say which I find more offensive: Gary Glitter, or Ian McEwan’s ‘masterpiece’ Atonement.

When it comes to intellectual stimulation, I would willingly choose a Hollyoaks omnibus over rereading 371 pages of formulaic, contrived and empty-headed posturing. If there is one thing I can’t stand it’s lazy literary navel-gazing masquerading as a historical novel.

For those lucky few who are unacquainted with this dubious stain on McEwan’s otherwise spotless record, Atonement is a bog-standard war-story romance with all the twee trimmings and typical pseudo-intellectual literary references that plague McEwan’s works. The story is standard Booker-fodder: you don’t really need to know the plot because it’s establishmentera McEwan, who writes to a really shoddy formula of repression, innocence, and poignant twists of fate.

Come on, you know the story because you saw the film. It’s a deep insight into the vagaries of the human condition, remember? Anyway, if the flimsy excuse for a narrative twist doesn’t put you off, the sheer hype surrounding the book surely will.

How one miserable little tale of some posh bird and her sexual inhibitions can generate almost as much hysteria as Princess Diana’s funeral is testament to the sad fact that ‘dumbing-down’ is becoming an cultural institution. This is Tate Modern for people who can be bothered to read.

I don’t find all of McEwan’s work such a dull insult to my intelligence. The Cement Garden, The Innocent and Amsterdam were all competent studies of guilt, envy and sexual tension, but McEwan is no Margaret Atwood.

Atonement tarnishes a decent reputation. In 2006, McEwan was accused of plagiarising Lucilla Andrews’ autobiography No Time for Romance. Predictably, the British literati jumped to McEwan’s defence, but the truth remains that Atonement is essentially a derivative rehash of the life of a less than minor literary figure.

Why McEwan insists upon marring perfectly average narratives with fawning references to Oxbridge, the class system and other people’s work is a mystery to anyone who has even looked at a book recently. However, there is one thing I can say in defence of this self-consciously convoluted postmodernist waffle: at least it’s not as bad as the film.

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