Saturday, December 19, 2009

On McEwan

It must be a little infuriating for Ian McEwan, that most nuanced of writers, that praise and criticism for his work are anything but nuanced. There is a vehemence against McEwan’s work from certain quarters that almost makes him the James Blunt of literature, bought by all, praised by few. This story was played out again this week, when Sam Jordison's playful "worst novels of the decade" blog post brought out a flurry of McEwan haters, and, a long (and slightly mad) response from David Sexton. Poor Sam, who'd only mentioned one McEwan in his own blog post, for getting the response "by and large, bloggers remain writers who have not been able to find more rewarding outlets for their work and are therefore pre-packed with resentment, whatever subject they address." It was, one would have thought, the commenters on blogs, rather than bloggers who'd singled McEwan out. And poor McEwan to have such a perceptive critic as David Sexton on side, who, reviewing McEwan's books, "enjoyed and admired them all," kind of proving Sam's point.

It is, of course, this kind of unquestioning praise, that raises the McEwan haters' ire. Rare, it seems that you can appreciate McEwan's craft (as I do), but be baffled by the adulation for some of his weaker books. Perhaps, given a long enough career you'll create a few hardened positions on both sides, even as your audience grows book by book. Part of the dismay that some find in later McEwan may be because of his career trajectory, from dark, edgy short story writer to an elegant chronicler of (small c) conservative England. England is his subject, even when his books travel far and wide. Whereas the younger McEwan’s stories seem set in an entirely fictional milieu, a parallel world to the real seventies going on around him, his later books have found him at his best writing about a certain type of urbane England, past and present, which, on closer reflection, is where he came from. 

It is strange that a writer who is engaged with writing about the contemporary condition, as McEwan is, should be chastised, in part, for being true to himself. The later McEwan (perhaps since “Amsterdam”) is interested in a sub-class that few of us ever know or meet, yet it’s a class that in many ways does run the country – and we’re lucky, that in the absence of someone with Gore Vidal’s connections, McEwan has belatedly made it his subject. That his books still have the very readable mechanisms of love story, thriller or historical novel makes him that rarity, a literary writer who is widely read.

Looking back, the McEwan of the seventies and eighties wrote more interesting books, yet they are often na├»ve pieces of works, pushed along by a certain sense of impending doom. The protagonists of his early stories and novels are often unlucky ciphers, caught adrift in a world that they don’t quite understand, but through their actions have come to pass. This existential trepidation had its high point in the remarkable cold war thriller The Innocent. A piece of studied noir, to me, it was his most achieved work until Atonement.

Something changed with Enduring Love, in many ways a tour de force, but a book that shows too clearly McEwan’s faults as well as his achievements. It’s essentially a book about a marriage breakdown, hidden behind a psychological thriller that wouldn’t be too out of place in an episode of Cracker or the Fixer. There’s a real disdain in the novel for characters who are in any way coarse or ordinary. It is clear that McEwan's sympathies now lie with the educated, and occasionally, in Enduring Love, and to a greater extent in Saturday, it is this lack of sympathy for the characters from outside the professional classes which stands out so glaringly. Someone else once mentioned that despite taking place on the day of the London Stop the War march, none of McEwan's characters actually go on it. It's used as a backdrop only. Yet I don't think this is a failing, rather a failing of us to understand what McEwan is now doing. Go to David Peace if you want event reportage in your novels, for McEwan is now examining the psychological state of a particular class. 

Atonement, in many ways is key to this. A writer of great set pieces, you've sometimes seen the stitching together too easily, even a powerful work like Enduring Love, but with Atonement, the different sections are handled evenly. It's a construction, a fake, just as the stories that lie behind the novel are, and a reader could feel manipulated (you're meant to feel manipulated) by the novel's extended lie, it's slow reveal; yet it's this holding back that makes the novel work so well. We feel we know McEwan's characters, yet their flaws are held back, we need to grow an understanding of them. Like Iris Murdoch, with her intellectual menage a trois's, kind of romantic fiction with a PhD, the later McEwan novels seem to have "found a way" - his subject is becoming clearer, he is interested in the psychological stresses of his characters, faced with first the ordinary stresses of life, and then, ramping up the pressures (and nobody does invasion of space quite like McEwan), the extraordinary ones. I'd be surprised, now he's found this groove, if he doesn't stick with it for the remainder of his career. If there is some "class envy" about the well-to-do characters in these novels, then I'm not surprised. See them not as societal statements (as unfortunately some critics still do) but as psychological explorations and McEwan remains always worth reading. His novels are not without their faults, but it seems to me that a writer should receive a proper criticism for what he is, not for what he is not.

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