I’m fascinated by how we cross-evaluate ideas in the various realms of fiction. We can have what is essentially the same narrative idea, but it’s worth is continually judged not only on its merits but in the context of its expression.
To my mind there is no clearer example of this than Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Now that the acclaimed book is going to receive even broader exposure thanks to the recent movie adaptation with Scary Keira Knightly, I’m reminded of this issue.
Don’t read any further if you wish to remain unspoiled for either the book or the movie, because what I’m going to talk about is the Big Shocker Ending which played such a fundamental role in the acclaim for the novel.
The book concerns how one lie taints the entire lives of a dozen or so people. The movie’s press would of course have you believe that the lie is a “small” one, when it is relatively huge–as it involves falsely implicating a man in the rape of a young girl.
The novel plays out in four acts, as we watch the various characters live their lives as changed by the initial false witness. The first act sets up the lie, the second act shows the conflict of the ramifications of the lie and the the third act has a happy ending where the truth is told at last and all is made right with the world. The last stage–the twist, which in the movie is played by Vanessa Redgrave–is that there is no happy ending. The book’s “author” reveals that SHE is the liar and SHE wrote the book with a happy ending in order to atone for her sin. Which in ‘reality’ has a sadder, more realistic outcome.
All of this is written by Ian McEwan and is very well-crafted and literary.
But none of it is particularly shocking to anyone who watched the last two-part episode of Rosanne.
Because that popular TV show ended the same way, with the same authorial conceit of a fictional author rewriting the fictional story with a fictional sad ending. That was about 5 years before Atonement was published, of course. At the time it was considered lazy writing, vulgar and a disappointment to fans.
Of course, Roseanne was not ever shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
And that’s what fascinates me–that constant need we have to not only weigh the merits of a thing on its ideas but on its packaging.
Roseanne was a lower-middle-class, populist sitcom. It doesn’t seem unconventional now that there have been so many lesser imitators, but the show was groundbreaking. However, it was a groundling entertainment directed at the masses. So it’s not the literary acheivement of a “shocking” work like Atonement.
But it was, and is, the same stuff. The same ideas. The same challenging of preconceptions. Why is one high art and the other tossed aside in the afternoons wrapped around Bart Durham ads?