TOWARD THE END of Kate Atkinson’s newest novel, Transcription, about a hush-hush deputation of MI5 agents tasked with spying on English fascist sympathizers in the early days of World War II, one of the novel’s many shadowy counterintelligence figures chides the protagonist: “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong.”
This quip, like most everything in Atkinson’s novel, carries the fact of its own double-agency capering within it. On the one hand, it’s meant to provoke a little startle of ironic laughter on the reader’s part, who is never for one moment not in a novel with all the requisite spy-craft trimmings. On the other, however, it’s presumably meant to send the reader spiraling into a contemplation of Transcription’s many thematic dilemmas: Is history itself not a fiction of sorts, tailored by the one who tells it? What do our attempts to record and interrogate history amount to in the end but patchy, imperfect transcriptions of truth, like the ones that Juliet Armstrong snatches from the mouths of Nazi sympathizers communing in a bugged flat? What are our lives if not classified files crammed to bursting with fear and confusion and hope?
In Transcription, the life under scrutiny is Juliet’s. Acerbic yet kind, naïve yet sly and a very quick study in all things top secret, Juliet gets pulled early in the novel from her secretarial position in the English Registry to monitor would-be fascists by wire from an innocuous flat in Dolphin Square under the tutelage of the dashing and enigmatic Peregrine Gibbons and the deep-cover operative Godfrey Toby. But as we’ve come to expect from Kate Atkinson, the author of Case Histories, Life After Life, and A God in Ruins, Transcription is rarely so straightforward.
Technically, the novel begins not in 1940 but in 1981, when Juliet, 40 years after the transformative events of the war, is struck down by a car outside of a Shostakovich concert. “Lying on the pavement of Wigmore Street” with her life flashing before her eyes, Juliet’s POV floats topsy-turvy through time, revealing her life in jagged flashes. In addition to the 1940 timeline of Juliet’s involvement with MI5, there’s Juliet a decade hence, working as a radio producer for the BBC in post-Blitz London. There, living a life of staid disillusionment, Juliet is interrupted at her producer’s desk one day by an unmarked envelope containing “a single sheet of ruled paper, quite small, torn from a notebook” which reads: “You will pay for what you did.” Juliet’s subsequent efforts to root out the identity of the sender and what he or she might mean by the missive propel her on journeys both actual and metaphorical — throughout London and its outskirts, poking various wasps’ nests of wartime relations and continually, dizzyingly, into the past, where Juliet’s time with MI5 reveals itself as far more fraught than even her spying would seem to imply.
If all of this plot-work sounds over-determined, that’s because it is. The time-shifts in Transcription, while not necessarily confusing, tend instead to be uprooting, dismantling the reader’s interest just when things are getting good, not to mention the fact that, cumulatively, they stand as a glaring monument to authorial intrusion in a plot that would seem to tell itself. When that shadowy bloke baiting Miss Armstrong toward the end of the novel highlights the fact that they’re not in one, the strenuousness of the book’s storytelling starts to lean its full weight on what’s already happened and nearly crushes what’s to come. For the reader and for Atkinson, it almost feels like giving up.
Even so, nearly the entire first half of Transcription, with Juliet firmly embedded in the 1940 timeline for over a hundred pages, is engrossing and well orchestrated indeed. This is mostly a credit to Juliet’s understated expansiveness as a character who, as her sojourn with MI5 stretches on, the reader begins to perceive with immediacy, marching through imagined rooms and wheeling through the flow of time. Equal parts ingenue and premature cynic, with a fierce skeptical intelligence and biting English wit, Juliet doesn’t roll like your typical spy but, refreshingly, like a vibrant young woman, painting the town when she’s not at her desk protecting Britannia from what lies in wait. “[Juliet and her friends] went out together almost every night,” Atkinson writes,
bumping their way through the streets in the blackout — Juliet was black and blue from nightly encounters with post boxes and lamp posts. […] [T]here was no end to the entertainment to be had during the war. They were pushed around overcrowded dance floors in a blur by a succession of men in different uniforms, temporary swains who seemed like mayflies, their faces hardly worth committing to memory.
When Juliet is at her desk in a dingy innermost chamber of the Dolphin Square flat that “[contains] an array of recording equipment,” rationing Ryvita crackers from the bottom of her handbag and “[rubbing] her temples” with the strain of transcribing, she throws herself into intelligence gathering that is, curiously, rendered all the more thrilling for the humdrum realism Atkinson uses to depict it. The Nazi sympathizers under investigation aren’t raving devils but rather “our neighbors” — Dolly, Betty, Victor, Walter, Trude, and Edith. And the nature of the sympathizing itself doesn’t reach Juliet in Machiavellian soliloquys, but half-heard snatches from the mouths of “seemingly ordinary people” that Juliet herself is often hard-pressed to recognize as the “cast of perfidy” that her MI5 superiors believe them to be. Atkinson meticulously recreates Juliet’s transcriptions on the page, transforming them into found documents that, for all their verisimilitude, seem slightly alien, like something coming to us from an alternate dimension:
GODFREY. And that man — BENSON (HENSON?)
BETTY. He said he doesn’t like MOSLEY very much, he seemed to be talking
mostly from a B.U. angle
(four words inaudible)
GODFREY. Yes, I see.
GODFREY leaves the room. Some inaudible whispering between BETTY and TRUDE. GODFREY returns.
When later in the novel Juliet is plucked again from her desk and, after an obscure vetting process by her superior Perry Gibbons, gets sent into the field to infiltrate “the Right Club” — a faction of well-to-do fifth-columnist sympathizers led by the sinister Mrs. Scaife — things only grow thornier. Juliet is no longer Juliet now, but Iris Carter Jenkins who “[works] in the War Office, something clerical” with “a fiancé in the Navy, a lieutenant, Scottish.” In fact, Juliet’s MI5 persona has been specifically designed to “appeal” to Mrs. Scaife, a decorous tearoom socialite given to “pleasantly” stating things like, “Judeo-Bolshevism — that is the enemy, and if Britain is to be great again then the foe must be eradicated from these shores.” Atkinson’s many expert depictions of fascism-in-the-offing are some the novel’s most disconcerting pleasures; the syndicate of Nazi sympathizers Juliet infiltrates isn’t comprised of “people of doubtful demeanor hiding furtively in dark corners,” but “a couple of matronly Englishwomen chatting sotto vocce,” “a man in a worn suit [with] a large briefcase at his feet.” They’re everyday citizens, hoisting a flag, and they embody precisely what Hannah Arendt described — no less relevant now in the United States and throughout much of the West as it was in Arendt’s own time — as “the banality of evil.”
“[Juliet] knew them,” Atkinson writes.
Atkinson’s knack for ironic juxtaposition and creeping ambiguity isn’t confined to the many tense moments between Juliet, a.k.a. Iris Carter Jenkins, and Mrs. Scaife and her cronies — not to mention the seemingly endless parade of double-agents who, in addition to Juliet, have been loosed among the innermost circles of the Right Club. The tensest and, in many ways, most perplexing dynamic in the novel exists between Juliet and Peregrine Gibbons, an elegant, “mercurial” man more than a decade older than Juliet in whose presence Juliet imagines herself “his field, waiting to be plowed and sown.” Juliet’s starry-eyed crush on Perry is as robustly imagined by Atkinson as Perry’s enigmatic interest in Juliet and the contradiction of the man himself; “[he] had the frugal presence of an ascetic,” Atkinson writes, “strangely at odds with both his exemplary taste in restaurants […] and his rather flashy style. The Oxford bags, the rakish fedora, the bow-tie all seemed to indicate a different Perry.” If you’re already getting vibrations of the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy variety, you’re not far off (see also: http://the-toast.net/2015/11/24/signs-youre-about-to-be-in-a-gay-subplot-in-a-period-drama), which isn’t so much a spoiler as an affirmation of the fact that Atkinson’s hand tips too far toward revealing Perry’s true “nature” too early on — and even then, it isn’t much of a revelation. Before this happens, though, the reader can be thankful for the fact that Atkinson renders many of the encounters between Perry and Juliet with a cringing awkwardness so intense it approaches the sublime. Take, for instance, the following bird-watching ramble they take together, which makes Juliet “feel like an unfortunate Brontë sister, traipsing endlessly across the moors after unobtainable fulfillment”:
For a moment she thought he was going to open her coat. To unwrap her like a gift. (I am a gift, she thought), but he contented himself with fiddling with one of the buttons. He took his fedora off and placed it on the ground next to them. […] “I studied to be a priest, you know,” he said. The balance tilted away from seduction.
That distinctly British wryness, on full display throughout Transcription, is one of Atkinson’s strongest suits as a writer; all the same, it can get in her way. In the novel’s 1950 timeline, which has Juliet producing educational radio shows on the Medieval Ages for the BBC, Juliet has just received the anonymous, threatening note at her desk (“You will pay for what you did”). She storms around the office building, attempting to root out the sender, and ere long she encounters “the bolshy girl on reception” about whom Juliet entertains arch fantasies of having been “consumed for lunch by the Minotaur in the basement.” “‘Who gave you this?’ [Juliet demanded of the girl], returned intact, apparently, by the Minotaur. […] I am Ariadne, mistress of the maze, Juliet thought. (Was a maze different from a labyrinth? How?).”
In Transcription, it’s passages like this — and there are many — that highlight two of Atkinson’s most irritating quirks in the novel: Juliet’s third-person limited close POV — so close as to constitute what James Wood referred to as “free indirect style,” in which the narrator takes on the central protagonist’s presumed way of speaking and thinking — is never not inflected by a kind of hyper-educated sardonicism that seems like it’s Juliet’s most of the time, but could just as well be Atkinson’s in Juliet-clothing. And then there’s those parenthetical reaction shots, ubiquitous throughout the novel, that clutter and over-stretch Atkinson’s syntax. In the first half of the novel, which mostly spans the first of two 1940 timelines, these asides could be said to represent what Juliet knows to be true, but cannot say — as a recent initiate into the workings of MI5, as a professional woman caught in the matrix of World War II–era British patriarchal culture. In its latter half, however, the parentheticals become merely annoying, sidetracking the reader in the midst of charting subtle shifts in Juliet’s evolution as a character, which grows markedly less distinct as Transcription plods forward, or interrupting dramatic denouements. At last, these interjections come to represent not what Juliet, but Atkinson, can’t resist saying, even if only to herself.
And so, sadly, after a taut and finely calibrated first half, Transcription’s second movement stumbles and falls. The Juliet’s-life-flashing-before-her-eyes conceit of the novel’s opening begins to seem less classic than it does canned; the kaleidoscopic effect of the shifting narrative timelines, hobbled by a 1950 section with far too many characters in which very little happens, manipulative in a way that a writer like Sarah Waters, say, might’ve pulled off with less machinery peeping out around the edges. This is especially the case when, back in 1940, a seemingly pointless act of violence enters the narrative in a way that gives the impression Atkinson had begun to feel the plot enervating and wanted to punch things up a little.
Things do punch up, yet stay the same. The last third of Transcription, riddled with busy plotting and dramatic implausibility, banks on incoherence. Unfairly, to the reader at least, the book seems to want to justify its confusing climax and subsequent reveal with the thematic dictum of so many espionage narratives that things are never what they seem; a mole is never just a mole. It’s as though Transcription means to mimic, at the molecular level, the scrambled bits of communication Juliet overhears from her adjoining room in Dolphin Square in the novel’s promising first half in the hope that it will mean something more than it does. But, as Atkinson writes toward the end of her novel, “[Juliet] no longer believed and that was another truth. But what it did matter? Really?”