An unsent reply to James Farrell

The receptionist’s fingers paused over the keyboard. The heat was making it difficult to think and the din of hundreds of amorous black cicadas wasn’t helping. She wanted to show Mr Farrell how completely he’d misunderstood Ian McEwan’s novel, but at the same time she didn’t want to seem like an arrogant know-it-all. After all, it wasn’t Mr Farrell’s fault. In McEwan’s narrative Briony had written a novel. But — and this was the disturbing part — James Farrell had seen a film. No wonder everyone was so confused. Her fingers found the keys and she began:

Dear Mr Farrell,

I was sorry to hear that you went to see Atonement at the cinema and came away unsatisfied. To be honest, I was surprised to hear that they had made Atonement into a movie. I can’t imagine how this could work Judging from your review, neither could the film’s writers or director.

It seems to me that Atonement is a novel within a novel

The receptionist paused again. Atonement might well be a story within a story within a story within… but surely this is making things too complicated. Where should she begin to explain — the end perhaps? Just then Dr Troppo walked into the waiting room. As usual there were no patients and the doctor was bored and irritable.

"What are you tap tapping about over there?" asked the doctor. The receptionist looked up from the screen and peered at his bearded, pock-marked face."Just an email to a friend" she said and turned back to look at the screen.

The doctor wasn’t an attractive man, at least not in a physical sense. Even he knew that. But there was something about the way he went about things that made the receptionist squirm in her chair and wonder what that bristly face would feel like if… but now he was gone — back to his office to do whatever it was he did with the door shut and the internet connected. She began again:

You see James, the first part of the book is not Briony remembering what happened in 1935. What they tried to show you in the film was a novel — a novel that the 77 year old Briony tells us she has been writing since 1940. While the elderly novelist assures us that she is telling us exactly what happened (p 369), we know this is not true.

There are clues. In the novel, Briony receives a rejection letter from Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon (p 311 – 315). It seems she sent the magazine an earlier draft of the novel we are now reading in the hope that they might publish it (this novel ends on page 349). The letter makes a number of suggestions for improving the book. For example:

A young man a woman by a fountain, who clearly have a great deal of unresolved feeling between them, tussle over a Ming vase and break it (More than one of us here thought Ming rather too priceless to take outdoors? Wouldn’t a Sèvres or Nymphenburg suit your purpose?) …

Evidently, Briony agreed. Check page 24 and you’ll see that she swapped the Ming for a Meissen. And it’s not the only thing that changes. Briony’s novel is filled with events that took place outside of her view. How could she know what Cecilia and Robbie said to each other at the fountain. How could she know that Robbie wrote more than one letter?

But the most obvious reason that Briony can’t simply be remembering is that most of the action takes place in other people’s minds. For example, on page 111 we eavesdrop on Cecilia’s thoughts as she realises that she is in love with Robbie. Private thoughts and emotions are used to give meaning to public actions. Without knowing their thoughts other people’s actions are confusing and mysterious. And that’s how we live our lives — without the aid of an omniscient narrator to tell us what’s really going on.

This is what Briony realises on page 40 when she decides that novels don’t have to have teach a moral lesson:

She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had equal value.

So James, this is why it bothered me when you wrote that Cecilia’s leap into the fountain could have served its purpose in story "just as well without Briony’s having observed it." At least one person has commented that atonement "is really a novel about problems of perception. In the book this point was clear. But I suppose a movie director struggles to deal with point of view in quite the same way…

The receptionist’s fingers paused again. There was something she didn’t quite understand about James’ reaction to the film. Everything she had written so far was obvious to anyone who had read the book and, presumably, the movie. So what was James looking for — a muscular narrator to nudge them in the direction of correct judgment? Did he want a morally satisfying conclusion instead of a lesson on the nature of story telling?

She needed to think and she needed a cigarette. As usual, this was a problem because the doctor had strict rules about smoking. According to Dr Troppo’s rules, he was the only person who was allowed to smoke in the office. So, looking furtively over her shoulder, she fished a Bic lighter and a slightly bent menthol cigarette out of her handbag and pushed open the window. And it was just as she was balancing on one buttock with the Bic in one hand and the Alpine in the other that Dr Troppo burst into the waiting room.


The third floor room was empty. A hot breeze blew through the open window and scattered papers across his receptionist’s grey laminex desk top. The doctor paused to study the furniture. A person’s choice in furniture said a lot about them, he thought.

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13 Responses to An unsent reply to James Farrell

  1. The Receptionist says:

    Dr Troppo,

    In future I would request that you leave me out your amateurish fictional experiments.

    I am aware that men can’t help but imagine that all the women they meet are romantically interested in them but the polite thing for them to do is to fantasise in silence.

    And, for the record, I have never smoked cigarettes in your office.

  2. Rex says:

    Very good Dr. Troppo, and nice to see you back.

    Speaking of problems about perception, I might just take this opportunity, in case you dissapear again, to ask you advice on whether it would be considered cool to wear a Kevin-07 T-Shirt in Brunswick St, and if not, where one might go where it would be considered cool. (It’s still in very good condition you see).

  3. patrickg says:

    Yeah, see, I understand that the narrator was about as reliable as a Lleyland P76, but that just made me dislike the book more not less. I don’t want to read some snivelling intellectual’s craven postulations about her bad behaviour, at least not for two hundred and fifty pages…

  4. Laura says:

    What Do you want to read then Patrick?

  5. patrickg says:

    Well, I guess I want a character/s that I find interesting – whether it’s because I like them, or just because they intrigue me I’m not so fussy.

    As I say, I’m not blind to McEwan’s talents as a writer, but I feel like I’m reading different books sometimes when I compare my reactions with the reviews and bloggers I read; I just want that veil ripped aside, you know? So I can see what everyone else does.

    That said, I’m old school, too; I like character development, and – and I’m sure others will disagree here – I didn’t feel like any of the characters in Atonement developed very much. Certainly their feelings changed, but I just didn’t feel they really changed very much as people, particularly not the protagonist.

  6. James Farrell says:

    My Dear Dr Troppo,

    I am still pinching myself — is it but a dream that I am the beneficary of the singular honour of a personal tutorial from the world famous semiotics professor and author of the best-selling novel The Gnome of the Rays?

    Words cannot do justice my admiration, sir, at your cunning deployment of that ingenious narrative Russian doll to convey the concept of a story-within-a-story, an abstraction that you guessed — shrewdly — would otherwise be beyond my conceptual reach. But if that insight rocked me, the next revelation left me positively giddy — namely that an incident can be seen from several points of view. I can barely wait to reread all those Agatha Christie stories, full of contradictions that invariably left me floundering in frustration and anger — Colonel Plumb says ‘It’s still warm’ but Miss Peacock nevertheless asks the maid to light the fire, and so on — because they will probably make sense to me now I have the key.

    But most of all, I must thank you for causing me to realise what is, as you pointed out, obvious to everyone else, namely that I must stop worrying about the fragility of relationships, the hazards of moral judgment, the nature of atonement, and all the other naive preoccupations that prevented old fashioned writers like Dostoyevsky, Henry James and so on, from grasping the true nature of storytelling. Next time I watch a film based on a modern novel, I will be content to revel in the hall of mirrors created as the voices of author, author’s narrator, Author’s characters, characters’ narrators, characters’ characters, and characters’ narrators’ characters multiply, bounce one off the other, and refract around me. Ah, yes, I see it now! The nature of storytelling — indeed I am dizzy with the anticipation of my future life as a reader, now you have shone your beacon over the dark horizon of the modern novel.

    In the faint hope, learned Doctor, that you might condescend to check my progress next time I venture a film post, to gauge whether I have absorbed at least a small part of this lesson, I remain

    your most obedient servant



    At least that is what James might have written if he had been in a defensive and sarcastic frame of mind after reading Dr Troppo’s letter.


    Nicholas (Sorry, James, for abusing my administrator’s privileges)


    Or was Nicholas’s intervention merely James’s fantasy? Who, after all, doesn’t sometimes dream he has a big brother to stand up for him?

  7. The Receptionist says:

    Thank you Nicholas, that was lovely.

    Rex, I’m sure Dr Troppo will get around to helping you with your t-shirt problem but at the moment he’s in a bit of a state.

    When I came in this morning he was onto his second bottle of single malt and was yelling something about the novelist being God. He wouldn’t thank me for telling you this, but I think he identified a little too strongly with Briony.

    It’s almost as bad as the time he read Heart of Darkness six times in a row and ended up hiding under his desk whispering “the horror, the horror” in a bad American accent.

    If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go an rescue my Jane Austen novels from his office. Last time he got like this he tried to set fire to them with a Zippo and a bottle of my nail polish remover.

  8. I think Nicholas is now suffering from performance anxiety.



  9. The Receptionist says:

    Oh dear. I’m getting quite confused.

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  12. Nabakov says:

    What fwomrhza hfozsv said.

    And is this thread going to end up as an epistolary novel? If so I have few suggestions about my character development. Or lack of it rather.

  13. Nabakov says:

    No doubt some smartarse is going to say I rezembla that remark. I hope it’s not me.

    And also is there any magazine in this waiting room that isn’t at least three years old?

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