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Every other Ian McEwan novel…

August 31, 2013

The laws regarding consumer rights appear to be suspended when it comes to prose fiction.  If I have a toaster that refuses to char bread in conventionally satisfying ways, I can take it back to the store and demand my money back.  The toaster doesn’t work.  I require recompense.  I sometimes wish the same natural justice could be applied in Waterstones.  I’d like to stand in front of some bookshop assistant and announce that “this novel really didn’t work – the characters were too flimsy, the plot too implausible and the writing itself lacked colour or elegance – in fact the whole thing fell apart on me – it didn’t work – so give me my money back.”

Without going so far as to suggest that the very great Ian McEwan writes novels that don’t work, I’m wondering if anyone agrees with me that in recent years I’ve been in the situation of enjoying every other Ian McEwan novel.  Rather like what used to be said about Star Trek movies, McEwan’s novels for the past fifteen years or so appear to follow an alternating pattern of relative success or failure.

Amsterdam.  Didn’t really ‘work’ for me.  This rather slight novel seemed architecturally wrong – too brief and undeveloped to support the rather ponderous issues it wished to engage.  An inverted pyramid.

Atonement.  Wonderful.  No arguments.  I rejoice to concur with the approbation of the “common reader” (whoever she is).  The narrative is adequate to the situations described.  It surprises and it moves.

Saturday.  Nah.  Not really.  This one seems confined by its premise.  As a kind of Joycean or Woolfian attempt to see what can be done in just one day – it lacks its august predecessors’ commitment to formal experimentation.  (For really witty re-telling of Mrs Dalloway – read The British Museum is Falling Down by David Lodge.)  Saturday is also an over-deliberate attempt to “master” an alien field (neurosurgery) and to prove to the reader that this field has been mastered.

On Chesil Beach.   Oh this works.  It’s slight – but it’s detailed and specific and it fulfils the logic of its situation.  This is no longer or shorter than it needs to be and two lives exfoliate from a very focused and dramatic human situation.

Solar.  Not for me.  The issue is not so much whether or not you can write a comic novel about environmental science as the fact that the destructive selfishness of the central character becomes unhelpfully frustrating for the reader.  The monumental planetary issues which are invoked are never fully registered in the prose and the petty and personally shortcomings of a nasty fat man are ultimately less interesting than the scientific debates which are continually evaded or deferred.

Sweet Tooth.   Yes.  I was happy with this.  If this George Smiley era spy setting (deliberately) remains (on an obvious level) very small scale, it respects a defining context of secrecy and betrayal.  The central novelistic satisfactions of a world in which everyone is wondering about how much someone else knows and is prepared to reveal about how much they know and are prepared to reveal about someone else translates quite elegantly into a meditation upon the nature of fiction itself.

This alternating pattern of success and (relative) failure means that half the time finishing a McEwan novel is charged with a sense of disappointing anticipation of the fact that the next one won’t be as good and half the time with a restorative confidence that the next one will be better.

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