I’m not a completist by nature or inclination. Even if I enjoy a novel or album a great deal, I tend to let chance determine what the next thing is I’ll read or listen to. There are very few artists whose entire catalog I’ve ever felt compelled to digest: Kubrick, The Beatles, most Alice Munro, possibly no one else. And, for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand, Ian McEwan, whom I began to read in my early 20s, and whom I’ve doggedly continue to follow, recently finishing his latest, Machines Like Me. His fifteenth: fifteen of this man’s books I’ve read, and having recently taken note of my unusual McEwan completism, it seemed worth thinking about the new novel in the context of his body of work, the only prolific author for whom I could attempt to do so.
It’s difficult to think of a writer with a more interesting, and in many ways desirable, career trajectory than Ian McEwan. His debut novel, The Cement Garden, published in 1978, was a Grand Guignol tale of death and incest, an unnatural (or perhaps all too natural) relationship that develops between a sister and brother when their parents die and they are left with their younger siblings in the house. It is a very good book: by turns funny, frightening, and powerfully creepy.
Creepiness is a theme that runs through the early part of McEwan’s corpus, a body of work that earned him the nickname Ian Macabre. [SPOILERS AHEAD] There is the creepiness of incest in The Cement Garden, the creepiness of child molestation in the story collection First Love, Last Rites, the creepiness of child abduction in The Child in Time, the creepiness of serial murder in The Comfort of Strangers, and the creepiness of bestiality in Black Dogs. I don’t mean this pejoratively—while this urge to shock and disgust can sometimes mark out an immature writer, in the case of McEwan’s early work, the unnatural seems natural, less motivated by the urge to provoke than the urge to explore the limits of human behavior.
My sense is that a reader in the 1980s would have thought of him as an oddity, maybe Iain Banks with better style chops. My sense certainly is that a reader of this era would have been shocked to learn that, by the early 2000s, Mr. McEwan would be a standard bearer of popular literary fiction. A run of three novels—Amsterdam, Atonement, and Saturday—cemented his mainstream reputation as surely as The Cement Garden had cemented his fringe reputation. The one-word titling suggests a narrowing shift in intent, and indeed, I believe this mid-career makeover to be intentional, as much as such a thing is possible, anyway. These books trim away much of the gothic fat of the early work, and present a kind of streamlined, updated Victorian realism, especially in the runaway bestseller Atonement.
This is his high-water mark, the ideal synthesis of McEwan’s genre and literary talents. Atonement simultaneously manages to be a legitimate romance, a mystery, and a World War II narrative without sacrificing much in the way of stylishness or sentence-level pleasure. It is either the most highbrow middlebrow book ever written, or the most middlebrow highbrow (I mean this as a compliment), and the same could be said of Mr. McEwan’s general authorial talents. In an era of intense specialization and branding, it is the extremely rare writer who manages to wear as many hats as McEwan does, especially during this middle period.
Solar, published in 2010, inaugurated McEwan’s late phase, the one that is perhaps my least favorite of the three, despite the various pleasures it still reliably serves up. Like James Michener with states, these are McEwan’s Idea Books, each one easily articulable in terms of social problem or dramatic conceit: Solar (Climate Change); Sweet Tooth (MI5); The Children Act (Euthanasia); Nutshell (Hamlet as Performed by a Talking Embryo). And now, Machines Like Me (Robots), the title of which I find impossible not to subvocalize with the emphasis on like, briefly imagining a book about robots being fond of the narrator. The book is an alternate history in which technology and AI advanced faster than it has in our timeline, producing human simulacra by the early 1980s. The narrator, Charlie—for reasons that are not entirely clear, to us or to him—purchases a robot named Adam (the male robots are Adams, the females Eves; the book notes that seven Eves have been dispatched to Riyadh, a not very good joke). Adam, over the course of the proceedings, develops feelings of what he describes as love for Charlie’s romantic interest, Miranda. The novel proceeds as a bizarre love triangle, between the three, with extra bits of intrigue thrown in to move things along.
This plot machinery includes a secret backstory for Miranda involving a false rape allegation against a man named Gorringe as revenge for his actual rape of her friend Mariam. There’s also: her dying father, an orphan boy named Mark, Charlie’s use of Adam as a kind of automated day trader, and the recurring guest appearance of an Alan Turing who is still very much alive in this timeline. This accumulation of the exciting and implausible begins to feel a little—and it brings me no joy to say this—silly. The late-phase books all, to varying extents, have an aspect of the ridiculous to them; or an aspect of the fun, depending on one’s point of view. Machines Like Me joins its brethren in a genre unique to McEwan, one that as I read, I began to think of as “high-concept intellectual potboiler.”
The intellectual part should not be understated. Take, for
instance, this gorgeous passage, describing a moment, one of the novel’s best
scenes, when Miranda’s father mistakes Charlie for a robot:
There are occasions when one notices the motion of an object before one sees the thing itself. Instantly, the mind does a little colouring in, drawing on expectations, or probabilities. Whatever fits best. Something in the grass by a pond looks just like a frog, then resolves itself into a leaf stirred by the wind. In abstract, this was one of those moments. A thought darted past me, or through me, then it was gone, and I couldn’t trust what I thought I’d seen.
Even McEwan’s worst books, and this is not one of his worst, are full of this kind of writing, almost somnolently smooth and controlled. The command of language goes a long way toward pulling together the strings of material that, in a lesser writer’s hands, might feel completely absurd (that Nutshell, with its pithy, oratorical embryo of a narrator, was even partially successful, is a testament to McEwan’s ability). The book is also full of interesting, if not always bleeding-edge, ideas about AI and consciousness. Adam has a precocious teenager’s love for earnest philosophy, a tendency played for laughs, but one that also produces many genuinely interesting digressions:
He said, “I’ve also been thinking about vision and death…We don’t see everywhere. We can’t see behind our heads. We can’t even see our chins. Let’s say our field of vision is almost 180 degrees, counting in peripheral awareness. The odd thing is, there’s no boundary, no edge. There isn’t vision and then blackness, like you get when you look through binoculars. There isn’t something, then nothing. What we have is the field of vision, and then beyond it, less than nothing.”
“So this is what death is like.”
Nonetheless, despite the book’s many pleasures, one senses in Machines Like Me, as to some extent is true in all these late-phase books, a master prioritizing his own amusement. McEwan is clearly intellectually curious, and these Idea Books are clearly fun: fun to research, fun to think about, fun to write. And, to be fair, pretty fun to read. Having already dominated the British literary landscape for more than a quarter century, having produced several bestsellers, having won the Booker and just about every award that can be won, it is difficult to begrudge the man his pleasure. Nonetheless, there is an aspect of the hobbyist to it, the retiree retreating to his basement to fool with model trains.
As a lifelong fan of McEwan’s, this reader—and I suspect others—pines for a late-late phase. One that sees him leave the playroom and evolve once more while recapturing his earlier form, returning to novels of the small and intent variety. It’s not impossible to imagine—as much as McEwan’s subject matter has changed from The Cement Garden to Machines Like Me, if you read closely, certain elements and preoccupations are consistent: human desire, the ramifications of sex, the violence that people can so easily do to each other. The creepiness of the earlier work is less intense, more diffuse, but it is still very much there. McEwan received a great deal of justified flack recently, for an interview in which he spoke about the possibilities of science-fiction exploring the ethical ramifications of AI, seeming unaware of Isaac Asimov and the last 50 years of the genre; that said, to my knowledge, until the publication of Machines Like Me, sci-fi had yet to explore the possibilities of robot-human cunnilingus. In a gobsmacking moment early on, Charlie listens to Miranda and Adam going at it in her apartment overhead and vividly imagines the scene:
Minutes later, I almost looked away as he knelt with reverence to pleasure her with his tongue. This was the celebrated tongue, wet and breathily warm, adept at uvulars and labials, that gave speech its authenticity.
This is, on the one hand, a somewhat insane thing to write, but on the other it is characteristic McEwan—the unblinking, simultaneously scientific and voyeuristic eye. Even stately Atonement, a sweeping historical tragedy set in a 1930s country manor, hinges on a vulgar love letter and features a sexual tryst that includes the word “membrane.” Yes, the creepiness of the early novels remains. It is a productive, idiosyncratic creepiness that I personally find more compelling than the big ideas of his last few novels.
This, perhaps, explains why 2006’s On Chesil Beach is my personal favorite of McEwan’s novels. It tells the story of a young married couple trying and failing to have sex on their honeymoon. That’s it. It is simple and heartbreaking, paring away almost all plot machinery, distilling McEwan’s thematic interests down to the essential: two people, and the question of how to exist together. Its creepiness is the greatest creepiness of all, one that Machines Like Me also explores, but in a much more labored and labyrinthine style: the inescapable reality of human consciousness—the way we are trapped in our own minds, never able to really know anyone else in the end.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Oliver Sacks, Kate Zambreno, Andrea Lawlor, Ian McEwan, and more—that are publishing this week.
Everything in Its Place by Oliver Sacks
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Everything in Its Place: “In this lovely collection of previously unpublished essays, the late, celebrated author and neurologist Sacks (The River of Consciousness) muses on his career, his youth, the mental health field, and much more. Readers will learn of influences that molded Sacks’s brilliant mind, from the cephalopod specimens at the Natural History Museum in London to the ‘visionary, mystical’ 19th-century scientist Humphry Davy, whom Sacks dubs the ‘Poet of Chemistry.’ Of the many remarkable essays on medical conditions, ‘Travels with Lowell’ stands out for its sensitivity and nuance, as Sacks travels the world alongside a photographer with Tourette’s, interviewing others with the condition, including one man who could trace incidents of the syndrome back six generations in his family, yet was not officially diagnosed until age 38. Sacks also recalls being consulted in the case of actor/writer Spalding Gray, who became desperately, compulsively depressed after a brain injury in 2001 and died by suicide three years later. Sacks’s gentle, ruminative voice is a salve when investigating difficult subject matter, but there are plenty of lighter moments as well, as in a brief discussion of a topic dear to his heart—New York City’s many and varied streetlamps. Piercingly insightful and delightfully strange, Sacks’s final collection is a treat for the chronically curious.”
Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Appendix Project: “Presented as a series of appendices to novelist and memoirist Zambreno’s previous work, Book of Mutter, this collection of 11 talks and essays reveals her anew as a master of the experimental lyric essay. In an allusive, fluid style worthy of Susan Sontag or Virginia Woolf, Zambreno roves wildly over what seem disparate reference points, but never fails to center the essays around approachable themes—most prominently, her mother’s death, also the subject of Book of Mutter. In one entry, Zambreno blends critical theory, philosophy, and memoir, moving from analyses of paintings by On Kawara, to musings on how Roland Barthes captures the ‘looping character of mourning, as it attempts and fails to be rendered into language,’ and on to experiences of new motherhood. In another piece initially devoted to her thoughts on turning 40, Zambreno ends by considering how to preserve one’s privacy even in personal writing, reflecting on why she omitted a revealing anecdote about her mother from Book of Mutter, but considered including a section about Marilyn Monroe’s death. For some, her book may seem esoteric and overly diffuse. But for most, the calm inquiry, wise voice, and poignant urgency behind every sentence will coalesce into a deeply reflective meditation on art, loss, and how ‘time makes the intensity of mourning pass—and yet, nothing is soothed.'”
Wunderland by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wunderland: “Epstein’s heartbreaking historical tour de force (after The Painter from Shanghai) juxtaposes Nazi-era Germany and 1980s New York City to devastating effect. The story opens in 1933: German schoolgirls Renate Bauer and Ilse von Fischer are best friends as Hitler comes to power and Jews become increasingly demonized. Renate is dating a young white supremacist and, along with Ilse, tries to join the Nazi-sponsored Bund Deutscher Madel. But after Renate discovers that her now-Christian father was born Jewish, Renate and her family are subjected to Gestapo questioning and blackmail. Ilse coldly drops her best friend, and, caught up in the growing nationalism, she betrays Renate’s family. In the East Village in 1989, Ava Fischer receives her estranged mother’s ashes and a sheaf of letters that outline her mother’s biggest regrets. She’s always felt unwanted by her mother, after being left for years in a German orphanage. But after she obtains the package, which contains a shocking secret about her parentage, everything suddenly makes a strange sort of sense. Epstein doesn’t stint on the horrifying details of the indignities dealt to Jews during Hitler’s reign. Man’s inhumanity to man—and the redemptive power of forgiveness—is on stark and effective display in Epstein’s gripping novel, a devastating tale bound for bestseller lists.”
The Heartland by Kristin L. Hoganson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Heartland: “In this sophisticated, complex work, history professor Hoganson (Consumers’ Imperium) uses the history of Champaign County, Ill., to explore and question the American myth of its ‘heartland’ as a safe, insulated, provincial place—‘the quintessential home referenced by ‘homeland security.’’ The first chapter shows how white settlers in 1700s and 1800s emphasized local settlement to justify taking land from the mobile Kickapoo population of Central Illinois. Hoganson uses the raising of cattle and hogs in Champaign to trace shifting borders on the North American continent in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then she dismantles the myth of the isolationist heartland with an analysis of Champaign’s involvement with organizations such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the International Institute of Agriculture. And she flips the ‘flyover country’ cliché, looking at how Champaign citizens are connected to the rest of the world by telegraph wires, the weather, migratory birds, and military planes. The final chapter follows the Kickapoo people’s experiences into the 20th century, demonstrating that, contrary to myth, nothing about the heartland’s geography makes it a safe place. Deeply researched with a well-proven argument, Hoganson’s book will attract many scholars as well as general readers who like innovative, challenging history.”
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Machines Like Me: “McEwan’s thought-provoking novel (after Nutshell) is about the increasingly fraught relationship between a man, a woman, and a synthetic human. Opening in an alternate 1982 London in which technology is not dissimilar from today’s (characters text and send emails), 32-year-old Charlie spends £86,000 of his inheritance on the ‘first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks,’ who can pass for human unless closely inspected. His name is Adam (there are 12 Adams and 13 Eves total; the Eves sell out first), and Charlie designs Adam’s personality along with his neighbor and girlfriend Miranda. Soon, Adam informs Charlie that he ‘should be careful of trusting her completely,’ and quickly falls in love with her, thus inextricably binding their fates together. The novel’s highlight is Adam, a consistently surprising character who quickly disables his own kill switch and composes an endless stream of haiku dedicated to Miranda because, as he states, ‘the lapidary haiku, the still, clear perception and celebration of things as they are, will be the only necessary form’ as misunderstanding is eradicated in the future. The novel loses steam when Adam’s not the focus: much page space is devoted to a thread about an orphan boy, as well as Charlie’s thoughts and feelings about Miranda. Though the reader may wish for a tighter story, this is nonetheless an intriguing novel about humans, machines, and what constitutes a self.”
Also on shelves: Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor.
During my last two years of college in Chicago, I rode downtown by commuter train a few times each week. The trip took about 40 minutes, and I always brought a book to pass the time.
I read most of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain on the tracks between the Loop and the Davis Street stop. I paged through The Satanic Verses that way too. These were strange book choices, but I was a strange reader. I never felt like I had read the right books. Everyone else seemed to have read everything. I was so far behind I had no idea where to start. I had hunger, but no sense of taste.
I certainly got no guidance from what other people on the train were reading. My fellow riders seemed to subsist on the Trib or Wall Street Journal alone. No novels other than the occasional Scott Turow or John Grisham. This was the golden age of the courtroom potboiler. I didn’t understand the priorities of these people whose lives were swarmed with mortgages, kids, and 401(k)s.
In 1998, I came to New York for graduate school, and at once I felt as if I’d found my people at last. I loved how so many people read books on the subway. Not just bestsellers, either. Novels, biographies, poetry collections. Books for people who loved reading.
To pay my bills, I got a job downtown at the Seaport. Once again, I was riding a train for most of an hour a few times a week. Nearly every day I would see a person reading a book that I had on a class syllabus, or a title from my own personal reading to-do list. New York felt like a place I knew, even though I didn’t really know it yet. The covers of books I recognized would stand out like friendly faces—well, hello, Gabo! What’s up, Woolfie? I see you’re a thing they carried, too, Mr. O’Brien!
Because I wanted so much to be a writer in those days, I spent many hours every week at the many bookstores of Manhattan. I bought used books because I couldn’t afford brand new ones. I was always waiting for a new release that I really wanted to show up as a remainder or as someone else’s cast off. If you want something that you cannot afford badly enough, then the packaging itself becomes an object of desire, and I began to be able to identify a book that I wanted after just the barest glimpse of its cover.
My favorite book covers were Vintage International paperbacks; their stately design, metallic hues, and dark tones were so lovely and pure. I would pick up a new author just because of the Vintage colophon. This was how I met Julian Barnes and William Maxwell. They had the right kind of references.
As it so happens, on a crosstown bus many years later, I fell into conversation with a woman who was the purchasing editor for Vintage International. I couldn’t find the words to express my gratitude to her; later, when she got off at her stop, I resisted the urge to ask for her email address. I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea.
Even after I finished graduate school, I still carried a book to the office each day. (In this way, I told myself I was different from those commuter train riders in Chicago years earlier.) Sometimes, at work I’d put the book face down on my desk, but usually I’d leave it out in the open: not to parade what I was reading but as a kind of invitation to anyone who wanted to talk books.
One winter, a colleague stopped by every few days to see how far along I’d gotten in War and Peace. Eventually, he began to offer up his own daily updates on his journey through books like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Killer Angels. I learned that he was a one-time history major who got swallowed up by the corporate world and was trying to find his way out.
Shortly before I got married, I was transferred from the office at the Seaport to the corporate headquarters out in Newark. Once again, I found myself on a commuter train each day. My friends would grimace when I told them about my daily commute. To reassure them that it wasn’t terrible, I pointed out that I had time to read.
Smartphones and e-readers made their debut while I was commuting to Newark. I tried this out one evening when I downloaded The Time Machine onto a first-generation iPad. At the time, I was sitting in bed while my wife slept, and I needed no lamplight because the screen was illuminated. This pleased me at first. But as I read, I realized that the tablet weighed just a fraction too much; it pulled gently at my fingertips, tugging me back to the real world more than a physical book.
The technology for e-readers has improved greatly since then. I read more digital books than physical ones now. I don’t feel quite right about it. But I love the convenience and simplicity of reading via Kindle. I opted for a digital copy of Ian McEwan’s