Atonement.

Warning – review contains spoilers, since there’s no way to discuss the book’s merits without discussing the ending.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a wonderful novel undone in just sixteen pages, the length of an ill-considered epilogue that says the first 95% of the novel doesn’t mean anything like what you thought it meant. It succeeds from a critical perspective, but as a reader, I felt cheated.

The atonement in question revolves around Briony, the thirteen-year-old daughter of the Tallis family, and the way she lets a girlish fantasy and her lack of knowledge of adult relations (physical and emotional) spiral out of control, thus ruining the lives of two people close to her. McEwan has to stretch a little to get to the critical sequence where Briony falsely accuses a man of rape, including the use of a vulgarity I won’t repeat here and that would be almost out of the question for the man in question to have used in that fashion, but in general, the way he progresses through the novel’s first 95% is strong. The seemingly omniscient third-person narrator takes us inside the heads of the three central characters, and there’s a single jump in time that pushes the plot forward past several years where nothing of direct relevance happens, which turns out to be a solid decision that allows the second sequence of events to coincide with (and create parallels to) the dark opening of World War II. The book’s pacing and prose have the feeling of classic 19th century British literature, and while there’s no confusing Atonement with Jane Austen’s work, there’s no doubt McEwan drew Briony as the flip side of Northanger Abbey‘s Catherine Morland.

McEwan himself is an outspoken atheist, thus the novel’s central theme of a search for earthly redemption without reference to or hope for a spiritual one or one in an afterlife. (To be clear, religion or lack thereof is not an explicit theme in the novel.) Briony’s search for redemption – what she calls atonement, but what really is an external forgiveness from both of the parties she so directly wronged – affects her choices early in life, driving her away from education into a nursing job that takes on importance after the war comes home to Britain during the evacuation of British troops from France in 1941. Thus limited by the need for a redemption in the here and now, she seeks out her estranged sister to try to bring about a reconciliation through admission of her own crime.

Or does she? McEwan throws the entire book into doubt in a muddled, tacked-on epilogue. Is what came before a full representation of the actual history of events? An incomplete one? A complete fiction? Briony tells us how, as an author, she can play God and rewrite events, but can not ultimately redeem them – or herself, or fix the lives she ruined. But what then is the responsibility of McEwan? This is his universe, his reality. He can give Briony the atonement she desires, in full or in part. But he needs to be honest with his readers. In fact, by not telling us until that 95-percent mark that what we have read to that point is a meta-novel, a fictional work within a fictional work, with most details true to the fictional reality (stay with me) but some not, and oh-by-the-way he isn’t even clear in the final pages how much of the preceding novel is reality, he’s dishonest with his readers, using our credulous nature – that we step into a novel prepared to believe its reality, to suspend our disbelief, to accept the characters as real people as long as they’re drawn true to life – to his advantage to pull a nasty trick on us. Instead of a deeper look at redemption, atonement, or just plain old-fashioned forgiveness, McEwan turns the book into a writer’s lament, that one can not undo reality or even find catharsis through fictionalizing real-life events and altering them to suit one’s needs. Well, no shit, Ian.

On page 334, I was prepared to praise Atonement as a clever, well-written work with expertly crafted characters and brilliant descriptive prose. In sixteen pages, McEwan tore that opinion apart, turning the book into a wicked bit of sleight of hand that still has the same characterization and prose but that proves terribly unsatisfying as an actual novel because of the betrayal of the reader’s trust.

Watchmen.

I can not offer any comment on whether or not Alan Moore’s Watchmen is, as so many critics and readers say, the greatest graphic novel ever written.

I can, however, say that as novels, graphic or otherwise, go, it sucks.

Watchmen is a thinly drawn (hah!) paranoid agenda-driven short story, made novel-length by the inclusion of pretty pictures, which, by the way, take the place of the descriptive prose that makes the written novel an art form. There is no character development. The plot is linear, with characters’ stories provided for background, but they neither show changes in any of the characters nor are they remotely interesting as subplots. The story rests on a base of anachronisms, both historical ones (the Soviet Union was already in the throes of an irreversible economic collapse when the book was written) and political ones (nuclear power is mentioned in passing as a major environmental threat). And the whole thing was just beyond boring.

Even when the book got a little interesting in the final two chapters, Moore screwed up his writing. You’re telling me that of the four people in the room in Antarctica in the final chapter, not one of them realizes that the artificial peace is strictly temporary, or at least argues that it is? The smartest man in the world thinks war is over, forever, unless the event that triggers the peace is repeated at unpredictable intervals? If he’s the smartest man in the world, we really are a race of orangutans with safety razors.

I always felt that the TIME book critics added Watchmen to their top 100 novels list as a token entry, as if they felt the need to put one graphic novel on there to head off criticism that they had ignored this burgeoning genre, but reading the book confirmed my suspicions. And really, this was a more deserving entry than Cry the Beloved Country, Brave New World, or Tender is the Night, just to name three works of actual literature? Or, if we’re into tokenism, how about a token novel written by an African (A Grain of Wheat), a token mystery (Murder on the Orient Express), or a token comedy (something by Wodehouse, perhaps).

There is simply no comparison to the thematic and textural depth provided by a traditional novel and the superficial treatment inherent in the graphic form. And, since everyone seems to think that Watchmen is the genre’s peak, I think I can safely ignore graphic novels from here on out.

The Simpsons Movie.

I was cautiously excited to see The Simpsons Movie. I was a dedicated Simpsons watcher for most of the ’90s, but lost the habit some time during B-school as the show started to feel repetitive and the laughs became fewer. I hoped the movie would be a return to that style, since they’d have to pull out all the stops for the first feature film, right?

Didn’t happen.

I understand I’m in the minority on this one, but I didn’t find the movie to be all that funny. Early Simpsons episodes were packed with jokes, and often had a strong bit of social commentary. The movie felt like it had the same number of jokes – funny ones, that is – and degree of social commentary that you’d find in a 22-minute episode, spread out over 78 minutes. (I know the listed run time is 87 minutes, but that includes the credits, which had a few Easter eggs … but still, they’re credits. They don’t freaking count in the run time.) The humor was inconsistent, so I laughed hard a handful of times, although I had only one moment where I had to pause it (Ralph Wiggum’s sole line in the film), but it wasn’t as relentless as it should have been, and too much of what was funny was easy physical comedy – easy because you can draw a cartoon character hitting himself in the eye with the claw end of a hammer, but good luck getting an actor to do that on film.

The social commentary was just as disappointing as the humor. The target is the current Administration, but the line is dated – Cheney’s running the show, the government is incompetent, Halliburton, etc. In 2002 or 2003, it would have been funny. Now, we’ve heard these jokes for years, and they’re stale. And some of them are so incredibly forced that it’s painful to watch. When a government robot overhears Lisa saying that they’re fugitives, the scene cuts to a giant NSA room of agents listening in on private conversations. The agent listening to the Simpsons’ conversation jumps up and shouts, “The government actually found someone we’re looking for! YEAH, BABY, YEAH!” There was a good joke in there somewhere, but that wasn’t it. Besides, the government found Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and dropped a bomb on his head while this movie was in production; I’d say that counts as finding someone they were looking for.

The bar for animated movies now is quite high. Pixar has churned out one brilliant movie after another based on strong writing, but the plot of this film was thin (of course, the show’s the same way) and the snarking missed its mark. The first two Shrek movies were dense with jokes (“Catnip.” “That’s … not mine.”) in a way that The Simpsons Movie wasn’t. And the fact that two of the funniest bits in this movie were in the commercial – the Spider-pig segment, and the ten-thousand-tough-guys rant – didn’t help matters either. If this is one of the funniest movies of 2007, we have let our standards for funny slip, because there just wasn’t enough of the funny in The Simpsons Movie, and there wasn’t enough of the other stuff to balance it out.

Wicked.

I have a rule when it comes to novels: If there’s a map of a fictional place in the front, move in the other direction. I can’t think of a book since the Lord of the Rings series that had such a map at its start and didn’t end up the worse for it.

The fact that the author took time to make up a country or a region or a continent or whatever does not impress me; it tells me he was more enamored with the creation of irrelevant details than he was with things like plot, character development, or themes. This preference for creation over craft bedevils the fantasy genre as a whole, and it’s the reason why I rarely bother to read anything from that section of the store.

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West has sold over three million copies, earned mostly positive reviews, and spawned a massively successful Broadway musical. So I want to hesitate before calling the book something of a bore, a revisionist fantasy that reflects the awkward worldviews and odd fascinations of a teenaged boy even though it was written by an adult man. I won’t hesitate, but I want to.

Wicked is a parallel novel, telling the “other side” of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by providing a backstory for the Wicked Witch of the West, as well as her sister, trying to make them sympathetic characters. The Wicked Witch of the West is given a name, Elphaba, which in and of itself has a mythology in the novel, and she’s a Hermione Granger sort of child, an intellectual who takes up the causes of the oppressed; she’s shunned from birth because she was born with green skin (a point which is explained later in the book in what I found to be a very unsatisfying way), and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that until her death she has major daddy issues.

Wicked struck me wrong in multiple ways. Reusing someone else’s characters and setting is unoriginal; recasting them and altering facts or personality traits is unethical. Maguire alters entire characters and turns chunks of Baum’s original story on its head. He also clearly intended for this to be a novel of ideas – it’s a superficial one at best – and again, if you’re going to do that, make up your own universe first. Wicked‘s text also includes some awkward descriptions of sex and bodily functions, almost as if the book was written by a teenaged boy or someone who had that particular species’ fascination with those two subjects and unfamiliarity with the former. I admit that it’s not easy to write about sex – there’s an entire award devoted to the problem – but Maguire’s style is just painful, from perfunctory descriptions of the mechanics of sex to oddly jarring mentions of defecation or regurgitation.

The novel moves quickly despite some clunky prose and the aforementioned problems, because the material itself is so lightweight. I don’t mind lightweight reading if it’s entertaining and was intended to be lightweight, but Wicked is almost devoid of humor and suffers under the weight of some of its pretensions, including an explicitly stated question on the nature of evil that is only sparingly addressed. I’m tilting at a windmill given the book’s success and the way it has opened up a cottage industry for Maguire, who has since written similar books revising Snow White and Cinderella to his liking, but I’d like to see someone dump some water on Maguire before he desecrates another classic work by writing an adolescent retelling.

Love in the Time of Cholera.

I’m a big fan both of Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez’s work and of magical realism in general, so I was excited to pick up Love in the Time of Cholera , which promised to take Garcí­a Márquez’ style and apply it to an epic romance. The result is more the story of a man who refuses to grow up, and in the end, is rewarded for it.

The plot of Love in the Time of Cholera revolves around the long-suffering Florentino Ariza, who falls in love with Fermina Daza when the two are teenagers, only to see her reject him and marry the wealthy young doctor, Juvenal Urbino. Florentino decides that he must wait for Dr. Urbino to die, at which point he can resume his pursuit; in the meantime, he will get his rocks off with almost every woman who crosses his path (the novel claims he has 622 affairs over the 51 years of Fermina’s marriage, not including one-night stands, seemingly a mathematical impossibility for a man with a full-time job, even granting that Florentino conducted some of those affairs simultaneously), with a particular jones for widows. (I’ll give you all five seconds to glean the significance of that. Got it? Excellent. Let’s move on.)

It seems that this is intended as a soaring romantic tale of a love that wouldn’t die, that transcended the years, and so on, but that feeling disappears from the novel the moment Fermina rejects Florentino until after Dr. Urbino dies. Garcí­a Márquez (GGM, from here on out) tells us Florentino’s emotional state is due to his immense ability to love, but it seems to me that Florentino was suffering from a case of arrested development. When he approaches Fermina just hours after her husband has died to reiterate his undying love for her, he’s not being romantic – he’s acting like a self-centered teenager, tone-deaf to the emotions of the people around him. It is as if he has caught a disease and doesn’t wish to be cured.

That ending is one of the book’s brightest spots; it’s a clever and unexpected resolution to a plot that looks to be headed toward a predictable, Hollywood-style ending (they get together, one of them dies, the women in the audience cry and see it over and over again), and it includes some of the book’s best writing. GGM does have an incredible gift with prose, and uses it to great effect in parts of the book about love and sex, fear of aging and death, and familial relationships:

But in her loneliness in the palace she learned to know him [her son], they learned to know each other, and she discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children but because of the friendship formed while raising them.

One negative aspect I’ve noticed in other GGM works shows up again here – his obsession with bodily functions. For example:

Even when it was not the season for asparagus, it had to be found regardless, so that he could take pleasure in the vapors of his own fragrant urine.

Wow. Thanks for sharing. Good thing this wasn’t a scratch-and-sniff edition. One of the fantastic things about GGM’s masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude , is that it transports the reader into a sort of dreamstate, where closing the book results in a brief moment of confusion that’s akin to waking up in the middle of a vivid dream. Yet Love in the Time of Cholera continually interrupts any of its own attempts to create that immersive, dreamlike feeling with verbal tritones about urine, feces, vomit, or semen.

By tying up the romance story and fading out the various little subplots one by one, GGM leaves the reader with a satisfying ending that’s not unrealistically happy (one of the subplots ends very badly, although it’s brushed off a bit in the broader context). The problem is the meat of the book, where the reader sees Florentino and learns he’s not a romantic hero but a juvenile antihero unworthy of the exaltation that the ending seems to give him.