*-Juliet Armstrong, the heroine of Kate Atkinson's Transcription, spends WWII as a secretary for MI5. As the novel's title suggests, her job primarily consists of transcribing the bugged conversations of the local fifth columnists--otherwise "normal," uninteresting middle- and upper-class types, mostly women--for her bosses, Perry Gibbons (on whom she nurses an unrequited crush) and John Hazeldine/Godfrey Toby (who is, as more than one reviewer points out, an obvious Smiley knockoff). Although periodically given to fantasizing herself in the middle of romance narratives ("I would be nothing without you, Miss Armstrong" ), her life is otherwise dull until she gets caught up in some spy work of her own, infiltrating the local pro-Nazi circle in search of the mysterious Red Book purportedly containing the names of the entire network. Needless to say, this too goes not as expected, as Juliet winds up inadvertently causing the death of a servant and contributing directly to an even ghastlier death later on. (Both the dullness of intelligence work and its moral ambiguity are inherited from Le Carre, whose spies have occasional bursts of excitement interspersing the bureaucratic backbiting, personal misery, and self-betrayal.)
As there are by now plenty of reviews covering Transcription's reworking of spy novel tropes, I want to focus on the relationship between the titular act of transcription and the novel's narrative strategy, including the apparently sudden revelation with which it concludes. Juliet is hired to, in effect, be an extension of M15's bugging system and the typewriter. But some reviewers, like Jonathan Dee, have pointed out the linguistic uncertainty built into the transcription system, thanks to the machinery on which it depends: "The microphones are muddy, no more or less attuned to human speech than to things like rustling paper, and her transcripts are full of question marks, gaps, misheard words." Far from being a purely mechanical act, in which the conversations in one room turn into intelligence scripts in another, the act of transcription requires the ability to conjecture, even characterize. Juliet is "secretly pleased" to find that a temporary replacement "hadn't learned how to fill in the gaps" (60), but she repeatedly complains about the "daily tedium" (94) of her job and, for that matter, the "tedium" of the records themselves (110). The looming ominousness of the subject matter (after all, these people want Hitler to invade) is in stark contrast to both its own dullness, the frequently trivial and superficial quality of the language, and the equal dullness of taking it down. This sort of labor is compared not-so-implicitly to that of the servants, as well as Juliet's own mother, a dressmaker, not least because Juliet also winds up fetching the coffee and doing literal cleanup. Women work the typewriters, whereas men manage the high tech. Yet Juliet's skill at "fill[ing] in the gaps" is taken to its obvious conclusion when, as part of a cover-up operation, she must invent transcriptions of a character now dead. She becomes a scriptwriter (ironically prefiguring her later job with the BBCr, which often requires her to rewrite scripts), producing fictional intelligence that will be filed interchangeably with the factual (or is it?) intelligence, with no government official the wiser. The invisible typist, supposedly part of the machine, makes the text intelligible or leaves it unreadable; she is visible only in the moments when the machinery fails to work as promised.
The novel's key joke on the reader, it seems to me, rests in its limited omniscient narrator. Between Juliet's constant prevarications and (failed) romanticism, in the one hand, and the novel's nonlinear structure, on the other, the reader is primed to think of Juliet as, well, probably not the world's most reliable character. Yet because she isn't the narrator, we are tempted to relax our guard a bit: it's a given that the narrator won't know anything the focalizing character doesn't, after all, but we may naively expect that the narrator will tell us everything we need to know about the character. Perry Gibbons provides a useful bit of misdirection. Because we are provided with so many obvious clues that he is gay, clues that Juliet completely fails to notice (and, when pointed out to her, certainly fails to understand), it's easy for the reader to relax their suspicions about any narrative sneakiness elsewhere. We are, the novel invites us to think, Juliet's obvious superior in terms of our abilities to decode such clues, no matter how she prides herself on guessing at words and filling in gaps. But--and here's where transcription comes in as a figure for the narration as a whole--the reader who focuses on text and subtext may fail to notice the gaps, even when we witness Juliet producing them (as when she destroys a recording of a children's program gone amok). Without giving away the Big Reveal,* one of the most significant moments in the novel involves Juliet performing a totally mundane act of apparent kindness that isn't--but we don't know that until much later on, because the narrator simply omits the next step and expects that we will fill in the chronological gap incorrectly. The Big Reveal also reveals the narrator, whose text turns out to be much more opaque than originally anticipated; the novel does not, after all, work quite as it is initially presented.
*--A number of readers have complained about just how well set up the Big Reveal is, or isn't. There are clues, in addition to significant gaps, but I think part of the point is that we aren't supposed to be able to predict the outcome, in much the same way that Juliet never finds out the truth about Toby, that the car accident book-ending the novel is never explained, that the cause of Perry's death is never known, etc. The listening machinery does not provide access to perfect knowledge, as it were.