Tuesday, December 30, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

It was perhaps inevitable, that in its frequent coming together with the "information age" that literary culture would eventually churn up a novel that was ostensibly on the button about our dependence on social media, ubiquitous connectivity, and ever more complex devices and that it would be hailed as a significant book about the way we live today. Equally inevitably, that that same book would get things so terribly, terribly wrong.

That was my conclusion after the first hundred pages of Joshua Ferris's 3rd novel "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour", which was unaccountably shortlisted for the Booker this first year of American eligibility. Paul O'Rourke is a successful New York dentist who has steadfastly refused the lures of the modern world - his practice doesn't even have a website. When one day one appears, followed by a Facebook page and Twitter feed also in his name it looks like we've got some savvy identity thriller.  When he eventually gets in touch with the unknown creator of the website things turn strange - for this has been their slightly unusual way of getting in touch with him to intrigue him about him being one of a small number of people with a pure bloodline making him an "Ulm", an early Old Testament tribe who have been forgotten by history. Rather than techno-thriller this is something with the weariness of a parodistic Dan Brown or Umberto Eco. First, though that digital element. So painstaking is Ferris in describing the takeover of O'Rourke's non digital presence that its painful to read to anyone who knows anything about the online world. Let alone the capitalisation of Internet throughout - here Ferris seems torn between being all modern and tech-savvy on the one hand and being crass enough for an older audience on the other, and it doesn't work at all. The tech-thriller angle is just a ruse, but here's the thing, it feels like it from the first, and its awkwardness gets out of hand - with Paul, our scabrous narrator talking about phones as "me machines" like a Saturday Night Live sketch from 1991 taking the piss out of mobile phones.

Even the post-ironicists haven't quite worked out how to "write the internet" - "Infinite Jest" was just about a pre-internet novel after all - yet it shouldn't be so hard. Douglas Coupland has been doing it brilliantly for years, Stephen King managed to come up with a credible web-enabled plot for his excellent "Mr. Mercedes" and David Eggars had enough handle on the psychology of technology in "The Circle" to make this novel seem lazy, and shoddy in comparison.

But though it takes a while, the novel slowly unwinds from its clunky beginning. A dentist is a fine character to have centre stage. He sees into human mouths rather than human souls, but in how we treat our teeth he can make any number of moral judgements. His own moral life is perplexingly narrow, like a sitcom character, aware of the multitudes of opportunities on offer in New York, but stuck with the rituals of watching the Friday night game, and the three co-dependent women in his practice, one of whom, Jewish Connie, he was in love with and has only recently stopped seeing.

O'Rourke is that other everyman of American fiction, the curmudgeon who can't quite understand why the world is so shit, why he himself is so unhappy, and why people can't just leave him  to be unhappy and go on about the world being shit. There's a Heller-esque feel to the story at times, but I'm more thinking, Bruce Gold, the jaundiced Jewish professor of "Good as Gold" rather than "Catch-22." Too much of the early part of the novel is a series of funny, but slightly stale riffs. Describing his chequered love life O'Rourke talks about being a man who has several times been "cunt gripped", a horribly unedifying description of his love dependency, where, not content with falling for a particular girl, he also has to fall for her family and - bizarrely - their religion as well.
Is this then a novel about the lost gentiles love of the Jewish ideal? Partly so, it seems. Not for the first time I'm puzzled by hip Young American writers obsession with religion - for here its centre stage - a novel about belief that calls to mind certain bits of Michael Chabon for instance. How strange that we have a novel about a non-Jewish dentist who is an unbeliever who becomes obsessed with finding whether or not he belongs to a "cult" of other ancient unbelievers who may or may not have been the sworn enemy of the Jews. If this seems parochial its because of that trope of so much American fiction of "finding oneself" being so writ large. Given we only have O'Rourke's take on things we wonder if he is indeed writing these letters and emails to himself in a kind of "Fight Club" style dual-identity.

As the novel unwounds, the riffs keep on coming, on ancient religious lore and on his lost faith in the Boston Red Sox ever since they've broken the habit of a lifetime and become winners. Some of this is undoubtedly funny, once you get past how frequently annoying it is. One of the problems is O'Rourke, who is not just insensitive but crassly so. He's as jaded as a latterday Brett Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney character but there's a cynical, nasty side which seems to come from him as much as from the society he's part of. He's clearly still traumatised by his father's suicide - yet we get to know nothing about the why? nothing about the man his father was - and therefore this quest for meaning feels hollow. There's more humanity and humour in a single episode of "30 Rock" for instance - yet here we've three hundred pages of mordantly humourous angst, paranoiac conspiracy theory and dental practice comedy. The latter of these three furnishes the novel with most of its strengths..

As the conspiracy theory takes hold - and O'Rourke meets others who have been identified as Ulms, the novel improves conspicuously and the last third would have made a Paul Auster like New York novella - but even here the over-egging of O'Rourke's (and maybe Ferris's) obsessions, reminds me a little of the untrammelled nature of Ned Beaumont, clever enough, but to what purpose? Once the internet (with or without a capital I) recedes into the background there's less plainly bad about the book and the dental comedy is suitably grim but fiendish. Having read that strange religious dystopia, Ben Marcus's "The Flame Alphabet" earlier in the year, it falls incredibly flat in comparison, and it seems a novel struggling to bring in big themes whilst wanting to retain a flippancy. New York - the world, even - recede into tiny worlds as a result of this - and the narrowness of the novel despite these big themes is both a strength and a weakness providing with a claustrophobia that fills well with the brightly lit dental studio at the same time as making it all seem a little irrelevant and unbelievable.

For a British reader, the endless pages on Boston Red Sox baseball are enough to make me think this is  a novel that shouldn't have crossed the Atlantic never mind got a berth in the Booker shortlist, yet its the obsession on antique faiths which seems oddest about the book. Neither fish nor fowl I'm not sure who it will please, other than those Booker judges, who I think must have liked its traditionalism (that Heller-esque quality) whilst pretending to applaud its (faux) modernity. Even on its own terms, as a story about a middle aged man's breakdown in the complexities of the modern world it falls down badly, especially when compared to something as masterful as A.M. Homes. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

End of Year Lightning Review

With just a couple of days to go its probably time to sit down and do favourite this, favourite that, this year. I've had a bad cold since Christmas day and its proving persistent so I'm not much in the mood for anything too philosophical or creative. I might expand on each of these later...or not as the case may be.


A few highlights:

Appearing in "Bare Fiction" with 3 poems earlier in the year. New magazines are often hard to judge - but this one has come on in leaps and bounds out of seemingly nowhere - with a clear aesthetic, a good (and unusual) mix of fiction, poetry and drama, and some great writers. I was particular pleased that my poem "Impressions between places" found a home.

Online can be hard, but valuable. Ink, Sweat and Tears remains a great site with new content daily. It feels by poets for poets. They published "Scott in the Burnt House" recently. 

I don't really like writing to "commission" as I'm not that good at it - but occasionally get asked, and something unexpected comes along. When Angela Topping was editing 3 pamphlets of poems inspired by the Brontes, Shakespeare, and Austen, though I tried a Shakespeare, it was Austen that I was happiest with, and it subsequently appeared in "Advice on Proposals."

I saw less poetry than usual this year, partly as I was away a lot, but regular nights like "The Other Room" and "Peter Barlow's Cigarette" as well Liverpool's "Storm and Golden Sky" (which I've yet to get to) continued. At PBC, the Saturday afternoon session with Jonty Tiplady was a bit of a highlight, as he read from various language-intense works in progress.  Good to see a healthy mix of different poets on the "next generation" list, it felt a lot more wide ranging than the one from ten years ago, highlighting the plurality of contemporary poetry scenes, and especially good to see Melissa Lee Houghton included.

In terms of books, magazines and collections I didn't read that much but had a lot of time for Bobby Parker's "Blue Movie" which somehow managed to fix this least-fixable of poets between the pages of a "conventional" first collection.


My personal music highlight was finishing another album "Meet the Relatives" which was all recorded using my newish Korg Monotribe attached to my 30 year old Juno 6.  I was also pleased to have another old track on the 90s edition of the ever excellent "Bedroom Cassette Masters" series.

In terms of other people's music I bought a lot - though mostly secondhand - and listened to a bit less. Of new albums there were a few highlights. Krautrock meets psychedelia on "The Silver Globe" by Jane Weaver, the "Bitches Brew" stylings of "You're Dead" by Flying Lotus", the surprisingly effective mining of early Simple Minds for Manic Street Preachers' best album in years "Futurology", and the surprise breakout hit "LP1" by FKA Twigs; I was surprised how listenable the Sun O}}} Scott Walker collaboration was as well.  Other albums that were more widely acclaimed all had their moments - St. Vincent, Royal Blood, Caribou, Sleaford Mods - as well as some good debuts from Young British Artists and September Girls, but I wasn't really paying as much attention as usually.  I enjoyed Sounds from the Other City where YBAs, Bernard and Edith and Pins were amongst the acts playing; also Pixies at Castlefield Bowl and Sleaford Mods at Club Academy. A strange highlight was the Thurston Moore trio at Cafe Oto back in March. Realised how much I sometimes prefer the avant garde and the improvisional over other more conventional musics.

There were some good singles of course - not least Lonelady's return with "Groove it Out". The new pop was still just about working this year, with end of year smash "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, and earlier, "Real Love" by Clean Bandit.


Only just got hold of this year's Booker list, and so not read any of them yet - I'm not even sure its a reliable arbiter of anything these days anyway. Again writers like Nicola Barker and David Mitchell seem to not get much further than the longlist  yet are clearly head and shoulders above so many others. The best novel I read all year was belated prize winner "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing".

Everywhere we're hearing its renaissance time for the short story but the plethora of awards and prizes seem to have quite a prescriptive view of short stories. (One point: the longer stories that seem to win the BBC short story award would have very little chance of being published unless by more established writers as most competitions/magazines have very low word limits.) Colin Barrett's "Young Skins" was one of several much lauded collections this year that looks promising - though wonder if it would have done so well if it had been set in smalltown England - the Irish seem to have much more confidence in their literary culture than us. I'm going to try and get to grips with a few of the collections and anthologies I've bought this year over Christmas, as I'm sure there are some gems - yet I'm wary of renaissances.

For me it was a good year - I'd really tried to concentrate on writing more fiction (even as I pulled away from poetry) and it seemed to pay off with 3 stories published this autumn. Of course, the cupboard is now bare, so I need to write a few more over the holidays to keep up the momentum. I'm also writing what may well be a novel, but we'll see how that goes.


How do you find the time? people ask. And the answer is, I don't. I've seen much less art this year than I would have liked whether new shows or old. Catching a few things in Manchester, and one or two round the country as the months have gone by. Liked an exhibition of photography curated by friends John Sears and Patricia Allmar, "Taking Shots", William Burroughs photography last January at the Photographer's Gallery, and enjoyed catching the Tove Janssen show at Helsinki's gallery in June, as well as regular shows at Castlefield Gallery and the Holden Gallery in Manchester. Note to self: more art in 2015.

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

About a year ago I began writing a piece of fiction that had at its heart another piece of fiction, and I remember asking via social media for other examples of books within books. By coincidence or serendipity I've since read two novels that are quite close in intent to my own aims, last year's First Novel by Nicholas Royle and now, Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark's Booker shortlisted novel from 1981.

I read (and saw) "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", Muriel Spark's most famous book, a long time ago, and have been meaning to get around to another of her many novels since - especially since I would see her name increasingly mentioned as being something of a British avant gardist, something that the wry, comic style of Brodie didn't really indicate. Like Burgess with "A Clockwork Orange" or Golding with "Lord of the Flies" the one book has towered over the others in the public imagination. Popular as she undoubtedly was, its rare for me to come across her novels in the second hand shops - unlike, say, Iris Murdoch, a novelist with who shares an appreciation of ideas and philosophy if not necessarily a similarity of tone.

"Loitering with Intent" begins with a young woman - Fleur - sat in a park, contemplating the last period of her life, a period that has just come to an end. This foreshadowing is a tease in some ways, allowing her to introduce us to the idea of the Autobiographical Association, a strange "memoirists" club which she had been secretary to over the last couple of years. Invited to the position by a friend of hers - who subsequently plays little part in the narrative - she immediately becomes immersed in the life and household of the founder of the club, Sir Quentin Oliver, and his odd household, finding an ally in his 90-year old mother. So far, so straightforward. A classic British tableau of eccentrics out of any stock Miss Marple production then appear; but here the "mystery" isn't a murder mystery - at least not directly - but an altogether more literary puzzle. For Fleur is also writing a novel - has already written much of this novel - and it seems that bit by bit the characters of the Autobiographical Association come to take on the life of the characters she has written.

Set in a very specific time and place - London's boheme fringes around the end of rationing at the fag end of the 1940s, the novel is a literary satire that questions the idea of where ideas actually come from. Is Fleur really telling the truth here? The pages of her novel "Warrender Chase" are mangled with her own life - deliciously at times, yet at the same time we're in a strange hinterland in time when a young female novelist can bounce between lovers without too much care in the world, can hobnob with the remnants of a dying aristocracy, whilst at the same time hang out with impoverished poets. At one point, she steps into a pub in literary London and the real life poets, Dylan Thomas and Roy Campbell are said to be drinking there. Given that one of the themes of this novel is the idea of the "roman a clef" then is it really a surprise that it teases that it might be one itself?

Spark - writing in 1980 - has revisited a millieu that reflects her own beginnings and yet its all done with a customary humour, but with an undertow of serious purpose asking about the very role of autobiography. Those in the Autobiographical Association have been cajoled to write their candid memoirs as they are "important people" to be found in Who's Who, and their books will remain hidden for 70 years - until everyone in them is dead - allowing them to be entirely candid. Yet when Fleur starts typing them up she can't help also jazzing them up a bit, partly with scenes from her own book, but also to keep her interested. When one or other member complains that it didn't happen like that, the other members counter by saying how the made up version feels more true.

Fleur has been having an affair with the slightly invisible Leslie, whose wife Dotty becomes both her friend and nemesis as a result. Dotty doesn't mind sharing Leslie with his new mistress, but when he leaves them both for a young male poet, she finds it harder to take. A Roman Catholic, there's a slight satire on that faith's prescriptions on truth and confessional. Yet its all handed lightly, as a cast of less than developed characters from the literary millieu spin around the ever self-justifying Fleur. In a complex subplot (or is it the main plot?) her own novel gets caught up in the intrigues of the association and first gets accepted for publication, then rejected, then stolen, then is to be published to great acclaim. The censorious Britain of the late 1940s comes through clearly here.Yet in many ways its written like a forties or fifties novel, an odd explicit "fuck" apart. Though the setting feels very real - Fleur's cramped flat, drab places to eat - we never actually get a sense - three decades on - of what it was really like to be young in that time of what David Kynaston called "Austerity Britain," so rarified is Fleur's world. Even her casual affairs are only mentioned matter-of-factly.

In many ways this comic tale sits happily in a long history of British class satire - the Wodehouses, the Waughs - and yes, that slightly déclassé world of Agatha Christie, where every street corner you are not far from a baroness down on her luck or a defrocked priest, or a retired civil servant. Its strange to find this persistence in a novel written at the turn of the eighties. In his introduction to this edition, Mark Lawson puts it in line with other metafictional works of the time such as Martin Amis's "Money" or David Lodge's "How far can we go?" I remember reading the Lodge at University on a course looking at "contemporary British fiction" and it felt dated then (the Amis had only just come out so was clearly too new for our vulnerable minds!) with its harking back to bygone era and its slightly obtuse philosophical thoughts on Catholicism in the modern world. The Spark novel is a period piece in a different way I think, in that it plays up the satire - with the benefit of hindsight - of being a young female writer in a calcified turn of the half century London. Like Lodge (and Murdoch) she has slightly more than satire in mind, and the book constantly references too different autobiographies, Cardinal Newman's and Benvenuto Cellini's. Who, she is asking, should write their own life story? The great writer? Or the great man? In the mist of memory of interpretation truth gets turned into whatever reads best - i.e. fiction can sometimes be the greater truth.

At heart the novel is a satire on literary London, and what would have seemed highly recognisable in terms of its archetypes in 1980, now feels a little creaky, but not that unreal. Our current world sometimes seems to have lost any sense of a bohemian fringe where aristocrats can rub shoulders with show girls. Fleur is a suitably strong willed heroine - writing from the perspective of being (like Spark) a successful novelist. I'm reminded that Spark was once editor of Poetry Review and without knowing much of her autobiography, its clearly a novel that looks back on her own experiences - and also echoes her debut novel "The Comforters", where a character becomes aware that they are a character in a novel.

Having picked this up as part of a set of five Muriel Spark's I'm looking forward to reading more of her wry, intelligent satire, short and pithy as this one was.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thoughts on Written Language

There's probably a time - an age - where your use of language becomes fixed; where's there's little else that you'll learn, no new words, or none you'll find comfortable with, and no new idioms. Similarly the things you say, and the way you say them (or write them) will become detached somehow from the world around you. It may well be, if you're a professional writer, that your audience will grow old with you, that you will speak to them in a familiar language; but however educated you are (and the more educated, in this case, perhaps its for the worse) there will be an inevitable disconnect from the written world around you.

As a kid I couldn't understand why things like The People's Friend still existed in the magazine store. I used to occasionally read the stories in old hardback volumes that collected Boys Own Stories or similar, and the tight print was almost unreadable. This was a language as musty as the smell of the books it came in. The classics on the other hand held up, and influenced our own idiom. As a fifteen year old reading "Pride and Prejudice" I didn't go all "this is dull" but having read a fair share of old books by then, could take joy from its language as well as its story, only stopping dead to ask the teacher to explain what an "entail" might be. I distinctly remember it wasn't the language which was the problem but the social more of a house being passed down on the male line and - more strange - that it was not on death that this was the consideration but during the life.

Language changes, and we might use Chaucerian or Shakespearean phrase or idiom but to speak like their characters speak is now only allowable in comedy sketches. It would be naive to think that the twentieth century - that time of change in so many ways - was also not a time of change in language. From the first "talkies" through to the internet, technology has influenced and changed things. We laugh at class difference language of Monty Python sketches, yet that knowing separation between working class and upper class registers is in itself now an anachronism. In novels its often a sign of something when we begin to find a writer dated; often that he or she always was and that the warning bells can't now be ignored - now that the passage of time has moved on.

I was thinking about how this pace might be quickening even. There was a debate online about criticism which I mostly kept out of, but was wondering how many of today's contemporary writers engage (or indulge) in criticism. Do we not read critical essays by David Peace or Nicola Barker or David Mitchell because they have nothing to say, or because they never get asked, or because their time is spent only on their fiction? When Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith drops a long essay in the New Yorker or somewhere we sit up and listen because, I think, its a little rare. But one aspect of this absence is that the culture around books changes and the interrogation of language also changes.

This week you can pick up the 25 year old "Doolittle" by Pixies, a reissue of an album I remember coming out and buying on vinyl (though oddly I had their debut on CD), a quarter century ago. We know music dates and dates us. But in some ways its a different way: music's a time capsule of the immediacy of when it was recorded. We listen to "Doolittle" and wish music was as loud, spontaneous and sinewy as this these days. Hearing them play tracks from it this summer, it was a no nonsense set, that to these ears didn't sound dated (but of course I was there with lots of men of a certain age, though the audience was much wider than that as well.) We don't quite get the same thing with prose of course - though perhaps the Book festival or Radio 4 is the same thing - "ah yes, its that nice Clive James or Jeanette Winterson" or whoever. It may be years since we read the book and we probably don't want to read the latest, or even the last ten since the "hit", but identify with the writer, with the sayer of these things.

This creates a conundrum for the contemporary writer who is now in his forties (me, say) for what am I but an anachronism? It sometimes seems that there was a moment, a wet Wednesday in 2004 perhaps, where I went from being always a little futuristic in my prose, to being always a little fusty? I exagerrate of course - but you look up from the pages of the book you are reading and wonder if the type of book you've been striving to write all these years is now on its way out before you've even had your say. Like the Magi in the T.S. Eliot poem you've been waiting all your life for the messiah, only to find you are too tired and set in your ways to truly appreciate his arrival. Yet if we are talking about a life lived without - being born out of age - in our peaceful, abundant, post-war west we've had it easy. I've never had books I can't read - no samizdat. Instead the whole of the world's best literature has been constantly available to me, and yet I've made (we all make) so little use of it.

One thing reading McEwan's "Black Dogs" was thinking about how likely or not a book like this would get published, especially if from a first time novelist, these days. Its written in such a high style, and its so circulambutory in its holding back of plot that I think not. Moreover, though it pretends to be a book from a solipsistic narrator it quickly uses this only as a wrapper, as another story unfolds. I reread the first fifty or so pages of "London Fields" by Amis recently and it was a wonder - just purely joyful reading him at his phrase-making best. Yet how indulgent is this kind of serious prose (even in a funny book.) The paragraphs are long, the descriptions are blocky. It actually seems closer to Dickens than it does to, say, David Nicholls. Serious books, serious writers, even younger ones still want to tackle not just the story or the first person narrative, but the many layers of writing. Here's where Will Self's "oh woe is me" about the death of serious literature - and serious readers - comes to pass I think; that as the audience for this kind of depth resides, it becomes anachronistic and dated. And the pace of this thing - with so much passing by us in the info-heavy age - means that I can speak for myself, a pre-internet, pre-computer reader, and realise that a fifteen year old would have to be pretty focused to follow my reading regime when there's so many other exciting things around him.

It seems that there's a weird corollary to this in the publishing world where we can see a young writer like Eleanor Catton write a Dickensian novel and win the Booker, or a snappy, snazzy short story writer like Colin Barrett gain many plaudits for a "Winesburg, Ohio" set in contemporary Ireland, and nothing is really wrong - serious books are still being written. But there's an immediacy about both those examples - like Zadie Smith in "On Beauty" - which can occasionally seem too easy to like. "Black Dogs" would seem - had it been published this year - eligible for both the Goldsmiths and Folio Prizes, yet this is McEwan we're talking about, a writer we generally think of being moderate and to some degree minimalistic. Turns out he was actually a late modernist all along.

I sometimes think this blog sticks to the same number of readers, the same few comments, not because of anything inherently niche about it, but because its unable to step beyond that wet Wednesday in 2004 - I was once future-talking, but in an age of ghost written Youtube vloggers, I'm inevitably old hat. I should find a hook, start talknig about "my life" etc etc. Yet more positively we see longform journalism coming back - think sites like Medium or the Guardian's long reads - and niche magazines of cultural criticism like n+1 and the White Review seem to be saying there's more to life than the TLS or the New Yorker.... then again, the year's media sensation has been "Serial", "In Cold Blood" for the podcast generation. Our language betrays us like nothing else in our life, a signature as time-heavy as the rings on a trunk.

I suspect I won't get to say anything more before Christmas, so, in time honoured fashion (old/new collisions), a happy Christmas to all our readers....you know who you, Johnny.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Literary reputations usually rest upon a book or a series of books, with the writer's other works acting as a supporting cast, or, as powers decline, an echoing coda. When that writer is still very active, and popular, as Ian McEwan is, there's a difficulty in wrestling that reputation from its current status. I have long wanted to write a long piece on McEwan, at least partly because he has written books that I love, books that I think are incredibly weak, and books which have both his strengths and weaknesses on equal show.

Yet whereas Martin Amis will forever be judged against the high water mark of "Money" and "London Fields", McEwan's career is an interesting weave, with some disagreement as to what might be his "big book." The very short novels and short stories he published in the seventies brought him much acclaim, but it was the five more political novels of the eighties and early nineties from "Child in Time" culminating in his Booker Prize for "Amsterdam" that cemented his reputation. The third of these, 1992's "Black Dogs" was his second Booker short listing, and I remember at the time how highly regarded he already was.

Reading "Black Dogs" for the first time, two decades later, in some ways it seems a period piece, obsessive about the past, and written in a complex, convoluted "high" style that seems somewhat dated. Yet, it is also instructive: in that some of its tropes are reflected in later novels like his massive selling "Atonement" and "Saturday." The novel centres around a scene that is constantly telegraphed, but delayed until near the end, of a confrontation between two black dogs and a young pregnant woman in the aftermath of the second world war in rural France. The teller of the tale is the son-in-law of June, that woman, and his own prevarications and uncertainties tease the reader in the first exploratory pages of the book.

For Jeremy is a writer who, in making up for the death of his own parents in a car crash when young, has latched onto those of his wife as a project. With June in a nursing home, hovering slowly towards her end, he acts as an unecessary go between between June and Bernard, who have spent most of their life unable to live together, but never quite separating. Regular McEwan readers will know that broken families, estrangements and lost children are central to his work. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if his archetypes simply resurface from novel to novel - so that Bernard, a larger-than-life media-friendly Labour politician could be reincarnated as the elderly poet in "Saturday", or that Jeremy himself is the slightly naive onlooker who reappears in "Enduring Love".

The novel is a series of concentric rings that places the personal story around two momentous events - second world war at one end and the fall of the Berlin wall at the other. Like "Saturday", its alacrity - it came out in 1992, not long after the wall had fallen, becomes a way of using immediate history to the purpose of a grander narrative. If Amis always seems a writer who needs the overhang of larger historical events onto which to write his satires, McEwan goes the other way somewhat, amplifying personal tragedies by virtue of the wider canvas. Had I read "Black Dogs" in 1992 I would have baulked a little at the poshness of it all. However small and personal the narratives, McEwan's characters are usually supping near the top table. This sense of privilege is used here as a way of examining conflicting ideas of the world - can we change the world by social good deeds, such as the welfare state as Bernard believes? Or is it more about personal epiphanies, avoiding compromise as June does? They both begin as Communists, but June leaves the party almost as soon as she's joined, whilst Bernard rescinds his membership after the invasion of Hungary.

Yet there's not too much of this historical backdrop - or certainly McEwan doesn't overplay it. The sense from his work - at least up until "Atonement" - that he doesn't so much write novels as string together disparate scenes to make up a more credible tableau is very much the case with "Black Dogs." Why does Bernard insist that Jeremy takes him to Berlin just after the wall has fallen if not for the fact that McEwan couldn't resist writing a piece of drama-reportage there. The small contretemps that happens there is an absurdity: a piece of show theatre as a Turkish man waving a red flag is almost attacked by a group of young Germans with swastika tattoos, until Bernard's semi-intervention, and the appearance of a young woman who comes out of nowhere to embarass the attackers away. Such vignettes are McEwan's staple, and see his writing at its best, as a heightened sense of immediacy and drama comes into these moments.

If there is an overwhelming meme throughout his work its that sense of dread - and particularly the dread of the upper middle classes for something outside of their control. Like the house invasion in "Saturday" or the tragic accident that opens "Enduring Love", "Black Dogs" has at its heart a moment of potentially fatal violence. On their honeymoon, just after the war, June - newly pregnant - and Bernard get separated by a few hundred feet and in that  moment June becomes confronted by two large black dogs, who bear down on her whilst he's back down the path sketching caterpillars. He is the rationalist, and his hobby is entomology, she is the idealist, who is suddenly confronted with something real and deadly. This scene has been forewarned throughout the book, to some extent the delay has become infuriating, but the scene when it happens is done with his customary power. The sense of everything changing in a moment. Yet the tightrope walk of a McEwan novel is not one of actual despair - at least not for his middle class protagonists - but of existential crisis. By the time Bernard arrives on the scene the black dogs are gone, and its as if they are myth. Later that evening they hear that the black dogs were left by the Nazis, and there have been other sightings, other terrible stories. McEwan plays with this beautifully, so that even though we face the horrors, they are as potent if we believe in them as myth.

Yet to get to this point, we've some considerable scaffolding. My favourite of his novels, "The Innocent" is almost a companion piece - and indeed it came before "Black Dogs." But its style could not be more different. Its a noirish thriller, played very straight, half Graham Greene, half "Casablanca", about an engineer working on secret tunnels in Berlin just before the Berlin wall goes up. For a brief moment as Jeremy and Bernard peer over the Berlin wall we are looking into the space that his previous novel has examined. Yet quickly we go back in time - for June and Bernard are that early generation, survivors of history - that they, as young optimists are given the task of changing. In a typical McEwan moment, Jeremy gives us a flashback to when he meets his wife Jenny, and its after a tour of concentration camps that they make love for the first time. The sense that the political and the personal are intertwined, and that our our insecurities - our very English insecurities - can only be unlocked through grand trauma, remains a continued fascination within his work. In this sense, reading "Black Dogs" two decades on, it seems the quintessential McEwan book in some ways, yet overly conscious of itself. The conversations between different belief systems - the spiritual vs the political - seem fusty, as if ransacked from the minutes of some college debating society; and the contemporary world in which its set, the late 1980s, is almost glossed over as the novel concerns itself with the echoes of incomplete pasts.

In many ways its the kind of book nobody writes anymore - erudite, full of ideas, and earnest - and one kind of regrets that; yet I can also see why - and see how his own work has become more immediate, less indirect in telling a story. The Englishness that Bernard and June represent - even with a backdrop of continental Europe - seem lost somehow. In an age of savage cutbacks, technocrats and market-led capitalism, their kind of Bloomsbury-socialism, is long gone. Its an appealingly literary novel that feels fusty for something written by a living writer just two decades ago, and it makes me wonder where we'll place McEwan when all's said and done, whether one or more of his books will last beyond the contemporary.