I never find that knowing the ending of a novel or film limits my enjoyment of it, but many people do, so fair warning: as you many have heard, Atonement ends with a certain revelation which you may wish to be surprised by, and I intend to talk about it, so look away.
It has now become somewhat common among certain circles to dismiss McEwan's recent work (and particularly Atonement) as airport-fare—what I believe the French call "romans de gare." I find that to be far too peremptory, neglecting the fact that McEwan's work relies on a knowledge of English literature which most McEwan-condescenders evidently lack.
For instance, many read Briony's auto-exculpation at Atonement's close as roughly coterminous with McEwan's own thoughts on the power or redemptive nature of fiction:
How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with the absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.
Hoorah for novelists! But this is silly; check out Atonement's epigraph: from Northanger Abbey, Briony is Catherine Morland, updated, her obsession with fictional worlds similarly self-destructive.
However, I would not say that McEwan's citation adds real depth to the novel; indeed, I would argue that it merely defers the question of how much McEwan believes in fiction: in pairing his novel with Austen's, does he mean to also pair Briony's obsession with Woolf-like modernism with Catherine's passion for the Gothic? If so, this is quite interesting. Here is Briony speaking of her passion for the new novel, and one can't miss the tone of McEwan's disapproval:
What excited her about her achievement was its design, the pure geometry and the defining uncertainty which reflected, she thought, a modern sensibility. The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite her journal sketches, she no longer really believed in characters. They were quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed. Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn. A modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony. It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it. If only she could reproduce the clear light of a summer's morning, the sensations of a child standing at a window, the curve and dip of a swallow's flight over a pool of water. The novel of the future would be unlike anything in the past. She had read Virginia Woolf's The Waves three times and thought that a great transformation was being worked in human nature itself, and that only fiction, a new kind of fiction, could capture the essence of the change. To enter a mind and show it at work, or being worked on, and to do this within a symmetrical design—this would be an artistic triumph.
McEwan's novels, clearly, have a lot to do with character, although I would say that he rather finds the characters in modernism (cf. Saturday as a revision of Mrs. Dalloway) than that he seeks to recuperate the traditional novelist's chores and craft which were cavalierly discarded by modernism. But I find this coupling of modernism and the gothic provocative: is this what McEwan is doing? Briony only finds her (internal) atonement by giving up on modernism and turning to essentially what we have in our hands as we read McEwan's novel—something which can easily be read as an old-fashioned love-story, finding a pleasant and suitable home on the airport paperback rack, and on the best-seller list.
The issue now becomes whether Briony's concession to unreality—her "kindness" to Cecilia and Robbie by ending her novel with them together—is McEwan's concession to popularity or to populist address—the conscious decision to write for a non-defined public.
If McEwan is pairing Briony's beloved modernism and Catherine's glut of gothic romances, then we now have another curious resemblance between the two novels: both struggle to remove the author's complicity in the character's transgressions (which is obviously what Atonement is about). Briony's turn from modernism's characterlessness actually admits the inability of modernism to extricate itself from character, proving modernism no different from gothic novels, which seek to subsume character under pure tone but similarly fail—or rather only truly succeed when they actually have strong characters, as is the case with modernism. [Sorry, this is messy, but this is a blog.]
This commonality—the admission of the novelist's ineluctable complicity with the characters and (consequent) inability to remove character from the novel— produces another: both novels seem to be arguing that the author's complicity in his/her character's transgressions is redeemed by the morally exemplary value of the novel when read by a wide and diffuse public. The author/character's (usually venial) sins are absolved by their transmission to a non-complicit, undefined audience as a moral lesson about those sins. This is the reasoning behind the allusion to Clarissa early on in the novel: it is precisely the Richardsonian defense of the novel.1
However, McEwan follows up that reference (notably made approvingly by Robbie) with Cecilia's reply that she prefers Fielding, who vigorously opposed the very idea of this redemption business. So just which side is McEwan on? This is the deferral I spoke of earlier—we've merely jumped from "Does McEwan agree with Briony?" to "Does McEwan agree with Richardson?" Which is fine, but gets us nowhere, as the question remains centered on the author, and not on the issue—whether the author's complicity is redeemable within the confines of art. McEwan does pose this question, but only in a secondary position. Which, I suppose is right: if the question is about the complicity of the author, how can the issue precede the actual author?
More bothersomely, the answers to any of the pertinent questions of the novel are about as equally valid; we are as likely to accept a 'yes' as a 'no'—"No, McEwan agrees with Fielding," or "Yes, he agrees with Briony." The ambiguity of the novel is self-reinforcing, and self-justifying. McEwan has rigged the game so that the presence of ambiguity justifies either option. The converse of this is not, however, moral (or aesthetic) absolutism, but ambiguity which undermines either option, which undermines the author, which is attritive rather than additive. McEwan's novel is vacant in that department; every frame of the novel—Briony as character, Briony as author, McEwan as author—adds to the novel's ambiguity, reinforcing (in reality, duplicating) the ambiguous values of the last frame.
Back to the question of depth: because McEwan's "deeper" questions—Richardson and/or Fielding, gothic and/or modernist, populist fantasy and/or private redemption—are really no different from the stultifyingly obvious questions "Does McEwan agree with Briony?" or, even more superficially, "Is Briony right?" I would not say Atonement does have real depth. Its depth is limited by McEwan's confidence in parallel structures—the frames of the novel which are in the end a hall of mirrors. Depth is built not on parallelism, but on perpendicularity, angular objections to the novel, to the author and, above all, to the audience—objections which I believe McEwan (and Richardson and Northanger Abbey) lack.
1Thus the novelist is a sort of anti-Christ—rather than taking on the sins of mankind upon himself, the novelist seeks to absolve his sins by diffusing them over mankind. This is, as you may recognize, Satan's tack, justifying Blake's assessment of Milton: "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it." Is McEwan of the Devil's party without knowing it? Perhaps he knows it. But is he a "true poet?"