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.
Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better?
It was a feeling I’d had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth’s great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title!
You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis’s The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don’t Mean Anything). In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn’t quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher).
King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne’s imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark.
Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight’s fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk.
There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike’s wonderful Bech stories. Bech’s first novel, a ’50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig (“which is,” Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “St. Bernard’s expression for the body”). And Bech’s blockbuster bestseller (Updike’s alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it’s practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech’s published work, including such echt-realistic entries as “”Lay off, Norman,” New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3.”
In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can’t its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books?
Perhaps it’s simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don’t Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you’ve got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they’ve dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf.
Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed–but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator’s anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn’t begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine’s Way (now that’s a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): “Jean Malaquais [Mailer’s mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. ‘Who is that?’ ‘A novelist more talented than yourself.'”
But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman’s early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth’s own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it’s generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear.
Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna’s novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing’s central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull’s novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger’s nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don’t mean anything. And the phrase “a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary” exactly describes the plot of Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego’s imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading.
Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren’t called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren’t intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be “realistic” (in the sense that Henry Bech’s book titles, in Updike’s stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it’s another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don’t live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
A few months ago, like the dull thuds of a heart beginning to beat, I heard the first stirrings of Ian McEwan’s new novel as publicists and publishers began preparing its delivery into the world. Interviews appeared, an atmospheric trailer that revealed absolutely nothing was released on McEwan’s Facebook page, a blurb was posted on his publisher’s website. By then we had a short description, and we knew that there was something a little special about this one: the novel would be narrated by a fetus.
The novel’s first line sets the tone: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” Now that’s what I call first-person limited. As for plot, it’s straightforward enough, “the classic tale of murder and deceit” we were promised in the blurb: pregnant Trudy has taken on a lover, Claude. Together, they plan to murder Trudy’s husband, John, who is also Claude’s brother. The motive? Money, of course, in the form of the marital home, a “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Terrace” whose “six thousand aching square feet will buy you seven million pounds,” even in its dilapidated state.
Our unborn narrator, privy to these murderous musings, begins by discussing the abstractions he has to dwell on since he has yet to see anything, although it’s soon clear that he’s awfully well informed about things like the U.S. constitution, climate change, and contemporary world politics for someone who hasn’t taken his first breath yet. He (and we know from the “shrimp-like protuberance” between his legs that he is a he) soon explains that he’s learned most of these things by listening to the podcasts his mother plays at night when she can’t sleep. Our narrator has pretentious tastes: an audiobook of James Joyce’s Ulysses “thrills” him, but sends his mother to sleep.
He also knows a lot about wine, which he is apparently able to taste even though it is “decanted through a healthy placenta.” McEwan enjoys peppering his novels with mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink (I often dream of the seafood stew in Saturday), and he hasn’t found a reason not to do so, quite elaborately, even from this undeveloped perspective. A Pouilly-Fumé taken in a moment of high emotional intensity is “too thin, too piercing,” while an earlier Pinot Noir is “a mother’s soothing hand” whose “hint of violets and fine tannins suggests that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009.”
This unborn baby knows his grapes, and a lot more besides.
Much of McEwan’s work can be understood as a knotted tension between realism and — what, exactly? Let’s call it falsehood. Atonement and Sweet Tooth both pulled the narrative rug from beneath the reader’s feet, tipping the story into meta-fiction. Personally, I was delighted by McEwan’s bravura — by the clean, clever way the narrative coiled back upon itself — but I know readers who are unimpressed by such tricks. Solar and Amsterdam, while not entirely unpleasant, offered little depth in their leap towards satire. The Children Act bored me with its clunky symbolism and Dickensian social commentary. As Tessa Hadley put it in her review of that novel, “[r]ealism seems beside the point after a while: it’s more like being inside the workings of an allegory or a parable.”
But at a sentence-level, McEwan’s work remains that of an old-fashioned realist. In a lecture he gave at Harvard University in 2012, he stated that one of the novel’s supreme virtues was “the air of reality, the solidicity [sic].” In the same lecture, McEwan stated: “I have refused to give my character wings.”
Now, with Nutshell, McEwan has nudged his hallowed realism onto unsteady ground. Although the story itself is realistic enough, and steeped in McEwan’s usual attention to detail, the voice that tells it to us is, in a way, complete fantasy. The novel might as well be told from within the consciousness of a dog, a ghost, or a piece of furniture.
The wine tasting, which I described above, is part of the problem, but so are the metaphors. Our narrator feels the sound of a cork drawn from a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre “like the caress of a summer breeze,” “innocent toes” are imagined lined up “like children in a family photo,” his first headache is “a gaudy bandana,” a moment of silence is “creamily thick” while at another moment something “hangs in the air, like a Beijing smog.” Some of these comparisons are quite good, although most are barren of the thematic resonance that would make them great. Sometimes the writing strains and groans with the pressure of its own self-conscious preciosity, as when the narrator pictures his mother “youngly slumped” on a table and then tells us he “insist[s] on the adverb,” which means that McEwan does. You can almost see him penciling that in for his editor.
More importantly, the metaphors don’t make sense because our narrator has never experienced or seen any of the vehicles he uses, just as he’s never seen a table or knows what it is to slump. And I refuse to believe he picked all that up from podcasts. Any realism in this novel is undermined by the simple fact that a fetus can’t know what this fetus knows. An unborn baby can’t differentiate between an Échézeaux Grand Cru and a Romanée-Conti from the snugness of the womb, an unborn baby can’t “picture a hayloft, off which a hundred-kilo sacks of grain is tossed to the granary floor” and compare that image to the sound of his mother’s beating heart. It is not improbable, like some plot points of other McEwan novels; it is impossible.
I’m doing what I shouldn’t do, which is to dissect the basic realism of the novel’s conceit. In Sweet Tooth McEwan gave us a constructed narrator, a fiction, who is a voracious reader of realist fiction — Serena Frome likes novels that mention real events, real people, and real places. Like McEwan himself, who was thrilled in his youth to find a reference in a novel he was reading to a real illustration from Punch that he was able to look up, Frome reads to see fact collapse within fiction.
The in-utero narrator of Nutshell is, by comparison, a dreamer. At one point in the story, drunk on the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc his mother has imbibed on her own (or, as it were, in his company), he spreads his imaginative wings and visualizes for us the conversation occurring at that moment between his father and his uncle. Upon returning to the womb, he writes, “One could make a living devising such excursions,” which is of course exactly what McEwan has done as a novelist.
So perhaps we have here an indication that the author has given up on his obsession with the real, that he has come to terms with the fact that he writes about characters and events that are not factual. He has dealt with the question: if none of this is real, then why go to such lengths to make sure that it appears to be?
The moment of fiction doesn’t last, though. In the next line, the narrator thinks, “But the actual, the circumscribed real, is absorbing too and I’m impatient for Claude to return and us what really happened.” Old habits are hard to kill.
Still, it looks like McEwan, this once at least, has decided to shuffle off the mortal coil of realism in favor of an impossible point of view. I applaud his new purpose because the payoffs are worth it. For all its un-believability, Nutshell’s narrator offers us interesting moments, and gives McEwan the chance to show off some fresh writing. Particularly good are scenes of high emotion described from within Trudy’s anatomy. McEwan replaces the smiles, blushes, glances, and head movements that are the fiction writer’s traditional arsenal of “telling” descriptors with even more telling organ movements. A moment of hesitation in a conversation is rich with unspoken feeling: “my mother’s heart begins a steady acceleration. Not just faster, but louder, like the hollow knocking sound of faulty plumbing. Something is also happening in her gut. Her bowels are loosening, with a squeaky stretching sound, and higher up, somewhere above my feet, juices race down winding tubes to unknown destinations.” The body doesn’t lie.
Likewise, sex between the murderous lovers becomes a particularly disturbing turbulence when described from within. The pressure of a penis penetrating near our narrator’s skull, swallowed sperm being converted into nutrients, these are small horrors that seem at times more criminal than the murder at hand.
Another interesting aspect of the book is the narrator’s unequivocal love for his mother, a love that remains troubled but true over the course of the novel, despite her desire to kill the father who has all the fetus’s sympathy. Here McEwan is using William Shakespeare as his touchstone. The book’s epigraph is from Hamlet, and the novel recycles some of the Danish play’s basic story elements, with our narrator as an unborn Hamlet.
As in Hamlet, there is poison, although not administered in the ear, and while the cuckolded father is plain John, his brother and rival lover has the unusual name of Claude, too close to Claudius not to be a wink. Another allusion: once their dark deed is done, McEwan has Claude and Trudy order Danish take-away (“open sandwiches, pickled herring, baked meats,” maybe from Snaps & Rye in nearby Notting Hill?).
And in the role of Gertrude, we have Trudy. The Queen of Denmark fascinates because it’s hard to know how duplicitous she is. Hamlet’s attitude towards her shifts between pity, hatred, resentment, and affection. While Nutshell’s narrator disapproves of his mother’s actions, his blame and anger are always directed at his uncle, and in his fantasies he saves her from him. Like Gertrude, Trudy never comes off as the villain, and our young hero seeks revenge on his uncle alone.
For all her motherly defects Trudy remains something of an enigma in the book, a half-realized character. John is the poet — hopeful, naïve, generous — and Claude the over-eager younger brother, slimy almost to the point of caricature. But what about Trudy? An early story about a dead cat and a late reference to her mother do little to give us a better of understanding of who she is. She’s beautiful, we know that. And smarter than Claude. And unlike him she feels uncertainty, remorse, and regret. But what does she like? What does she want? She has no friends, no family. No job and no interests, other than drinking — and even there she seems less knowing than Claude and her unborn child. She doesn’t leave the house for the duration of the novel.
Maybe that’s the point. To our narrator she is the mother, and he doesn’t want her to be anything more or less. The house she doesn’t leave is akin to the womb her unborn son can’t leave, until he can. Near the end of Nutshell, when the narrator has grown almost too big for the womb, he says, “I wear my mother like a tight-fitting cap.” It’s no longer she who bears him, but he who wears her.
My questions about McEwan’s devotion to realism seek to prod the aesthetic motivations behind his new novel. Realist or not, though, McEwan’s abilities as a fiction writer are undeniable. In Nutshell especially he demonstrates his skill with pacing. He ends each chapter with a satisfying morsel that moves things along. The murder plot remains taut throughout and, thanks to a certain owl poet who probably isn’t what she seems, not altogether as straightforward as the reader might first assume. The climax delivers the right amount of action and the dénouement settles things in a satisfying way thanks to the agency of our narrator.
There remains only to see if McEwan will follow this new path and continue to explore the chaos of invention, or if he will return to the comforting order of fact.
On September 13, Manhattan’s august Morgan Library launched Bookermania, a show dedicated to 45 years of the Man Booker Prize. For those curious about the story behind the headline-hogging award, and the company that this year’s winner Eleanor Catton has just joined, this jewel-box exhibit showcases the prize that ignited the careers of writers from V.S. Naipaul to D.B.C. Pierre, and helped shape the canon of postcolonial literature. A shallow shelf running around the wall displays first editions of prizewinning and shortlisted novels, from P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For in 1969 to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. It’s an impressive collection, with more classics and fewer obscurities than the odds might suggest. According to curator Sheelagh Bevan, the display is designed to celebrate the physical book and the importance of cover design, while at the same time showing off what everyone comes to the Booker to find: intellectual battles, backstabbing, and bitchery.
The Morgan’s archive, drawn from its acquisition of literary agent Peter Straus’s vast collection, contains some 4,000 items. The selection on display — of correspondence, notebooks, annotated proofs, and newspaper clippings — testifies to the argumentative journey toward choosing each year’s winner, and demonstrates the outsize cultural impact the prize has had since its creation. Controversy has been built into the Booker since it began. The prize’s initial sponsor was Booker McConnell, described by The Guardian in 1968 as “an international company dealing in sugar, rum, mining machinery and James Bond.” The company had been booted out of the former British Guiana when the country declared independence, and established the prize in part to raise its profile and reputation in the U.K. This strategy backfired early, when the 1972 prize-winner John Berger used his acceptance speech to attack the company’s long and dirty trading history, stating that “the modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation,” and promising to donate half his winnings to the London arm of the Black Panthers.
However, the Booker organizers were savvy enough to realize that such public shaming could only draw attention to the prize. Its innovation of releasing a shortlist several weeks before the winner was announced was designed to stimulate both comment and commerce — in 1980, with two of its authors on the shortlist, Penguin was the first publisher to rush out paperback editions flagged in bright orange as nominees. The transparency of revealing the shortlist (and since 2001, the longlist) has made Booker-watching and Booker-bashing into British national sports, and some of its decisions seem designed to bait the press, such as including celebrities, like Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, on the judging panels. The latest outcry is over the new rules allowing U.S. entrants, which writers including Julian Barnes have warned will skew the results, thanks to British “cultural cringe” in the face of American blockbusters.
What makes Booker controversies more compelling than other instances of literary sour grapes is that the fiercest and most colorful criticism often comes from judges and board members, not just shunned novelists. In 2001, judge A.L. Kennedy complained that the award was based on “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.” Unfortunately the notes from judges’ meetings are embargoed for 20 years, so the Morgan can’t reveal London’s current literary drug-dealers and bed-hoppers. On the flip side, there is also evidence here of judicial high-mindedness. In a letter from 2005, when his novel The Sea won the award, John Banville thanks judge John Sutherland for his “quintessentially English sense of fair play” — Sutherland had gone to bat for The Sea even though earlier that year, the two had publicly tangled over Banville’s demolition of Ian McEwan’s Saturday in The New York Review of Books.
Booker criticism fluctuates between charges of elitism and denunciations of populism. In 2011, the judges were attacked for looking for “readability,” and the next year, the shortlist looked far more experimental—although the prize went to the (relatively) readable Mantel. The prize guidelines call for a “full-length novel,” but what that means is up to the judges: this year, Colm Tóibín’s 104-page The Testament of Mary is the shortest work ever nominated. By operating no other categories, the Booker places particular pressure on the novel genre, and has long had an uneasy relationship with history and memoir. J.G. Ballard’s chance of winning in 1984 for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun was torpedoed, ironically, for alleged factual inaccuracies, while Thomas Keneally, who had won for Schindler’s Ark two years, originally signed a non-fiction contract for the book.
Since the early ’70s, U.K. bookmakers have published odds on the winners, and as The Atlantic recently reported, Graham Sharpe, the head of Britain’s biggest bookie William Hill, is regularly consulted for his opinion on the winners’ chances. He had no clear favorite this year, and told the BBC that this was “one of the most competitive shortlists for years.” But now the fun is over for another year, fans of literary feuds and rivalries can get their fix at the Morgan — at least until the National Book Award shortlist comes out.
“Bookermania” is at the Morgan Library and Museum from September 13 to January 5, 2014.
In Ian McEwan’s thirteenth novel, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) is an assistant officer in MI5 who is part of a special project to fund writers who are critical of the communist utopia in 1970s — this is the soft cold war. The author she is running, T. H. Haley, who also becomes her lover, thinks that he is receiving the generous stipend from a private foundation, because he’s an up-and-coming writer with a lot of potential. In reality, it’s because he’s written some newspaper articles against communism. At one point, Serena reads one of Haley’s stories, which is “narrated by a talking ape prone to anxious reflections about his lover, a writer struggling with her second novel.” On the last page of the story, Serena learns that the narrator of the story is, in fact, the female writer in question. “The ape doesn’t exist, it’s a spectre, the creature of her fretful imagination.” Serena is revolted; she distrusts “this kind of fictional trick.”
Without this kind of trick, Sweet Tooth, the large novel in which T. H. Haley’s own fictions are nestled like mirrors reflecting back upon reality, would fall apart completely. The tension between truth and duplicity lies at the heart of Sweet Tooth, which turns out to be a carefully constructed trick, as spectral, perhaps, as the ape in Haley’s story.
Fabrication is a well-explored topic in McEwan’s fiction. Briony Tallis’s manipulation of real events into fiction lies at the heart of Atonement, while a very big lie forms the principal device in Solar’s elaborate climate change plot. Similarly, double duplicity is what drives Amsterdam to its tragicomic finale. In these novels, however, the fabrications become so elaborate that they begin to sound hollow. In order to raise the stakes and make the fiction more compelling, McEwan has been known to stretch his plots to the point of tearing. In Sweet Tooth, the stakes — a budding relationship, government money, one or two people’s jobs — are high enough to be interesting, but low enough for the novel to remain manipulative in a merely pleasant way.
For the trick to pay off at the end, McEwan does require a certain amount of patience from the reader. If, like me, you expect the lush, thickly internalized prose of Saturday, the sparkling dialogues and quirky characters of On Chesil Beach, or even the atmospheric sense of dread of McEwan’s other spy novel, The Innocent, you will be disappointed. The principal reason for this lack is that, for Sweet Tooth to work, it needs to be told in the first person. While Serena Frome — a beautiful, blonde, romantic young woman who obtains a third in math at Cambridge and uses her photographic memory to devour novels — makes for an interesting character, she does not have a particularly compelling narrative voice. Her landscape is a little flat, her story is strictly chronological, her tone is chatty but cold. More importantly, she — or, I began to wonder as the novel progressed, perhaps McEwan himself — is obsessed with realism. The novel’s backdrop is the social and political crises in England in the 1970s: the IRA, the coal miners’ strike, the return of the Labor government in 1974. For a better part of the book, the narrator reminds us what decade we’re in regularly, defending herself if she’s acting against the norm, and explaining how the 70s were different from today when she isn’t.
Being constantly hit on the head with historical facts can get a little frustrating; if you’ve read Atonement, you’ll know that McEwan can make history come to life without overstating it. Serena herself may offer an explanation for this narrative tic when she describes her own reading habits:
I craved a form of naive realism. I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car. Then, I thought, I had a measure, I could gauge the quality of the writing by its accuracy, by the extent to which it aligned with my own impressions, or improved upon them.
This passage suggests that Serena’s obsession with historical accuracy as a narrator is a result of her own literary taste for hyperrealism, fiction that borders on fact. At least she practices what she preaches. Still, my resistance to this forced historicity raises an interesting caveat: how far should a writer stray away from what he does well, and what pleases the reader, in order to create a narrative voice that is consistent with the character? The answer, of course, depends entirely on the book.
When dealing with a writer as experienced as McEwan, however, one must be ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad I did. A few months into Serena’s work at MI5, she receives a warning from a superior and one-time love interest (the word in the agency is that she’s more trouble than she’s worth):
In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big grey space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things — and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real.
Intelligence work sounds a little bit like writing novels, and McEwan proves that he’s sufficiently deft at the latter to navigate the grey space between fact and fiction without getting lost in it. In the end, Sweet Tooth is successful enough as a work of well constructed, brilliantly rendered fiction for Serena’s voice to work within the larger whole. The author remains so removed from his fiction that, once you understand what he’s up to, you have to strain to see him pulling the strings of the narrative.
Sweet Tooth purports by its content and its opening lines to be a spy novel, but it isn’t really. In a traditional spy/thriller/whodunit, the end reveal is never as interesting as the tension-filled pages of clues and red herrings that got you there. On the contrary, Sweet Tooth is a much finer novel in retrospect, once the final chapter and its revelations have been absorbed. Only then can the reader understand why the early elements in the book, characters shown for only a few pages and then quickly carried offstage, were there at all. These characters are carefully mentioned again throughout the book like touchstones for the plot’s unraveling, and are finally given their full purpose in the story. The novel’s ending, and its final question, turns the fiction back upon itself. Therein lies McEwan’s genius when he’s at the top of his form; he writes a novel like a jeweler cuts a diamond, by following the natural tensions in the raw material to create an object of admirable sharpness, perfection, and complexity. Like a diamond, the novel may not be to everyone’s taste, but its objective qualities are undeniable, nonetheless.
As much as I enjoyed Michael Cunningham’s sylphlike new novel By Nightfall, my enjoyment was diminished by one writerly tic: the over-insertion of literary talismans into the text. Cunningham bestows on his narrator a present-tense awareness of mid-life obsession that would approach a tour-de-force of contemporary voice if it weren’t so frequently bedazzled by literary fragments and character name-checks from the Greats. Cunningham’s hyper-referencing didn’t stop me from finishing By Nightfall — in fact the story’s inventive premise and fearless examination of a flawed, desirous consciousness made me read it more greedily than most novels I’ve picked up lately — but too often my immersion in Peter Harris’ life was interrupted by a distracting nod to Proust or James or Eliot or Hawthorne or Cheever, or by a silly mention of “the eyes of Dr. T. J. Ecklesbury” from The Great Gatsby, or by the willy-nilly name-checking of Isabel Archer and Dorothea Brooke and Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina and Raskolnikov, or by an unnecessarily meet-cute approach to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice via The Magic Mountain, when it’s clear that the former contains the resonant parallels to By Nightfall.
Homage and reinvention are not my quarrel here. While there are scenes and themes in By Nightfall that echo Death in Venice, the action of Cunningham’s novel is new, and portrays more time, commerce, and interpersonal connection than the Mann novella, and also raises its own questions about love, youth, death, family, and the professional pursuit of art. If Cunningham had trusted his solo ability to create those portrayals and questions without rubbing so many literary good-luck charms, or repeating a singular line from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or cadging some poignant dénouement weather from James Joyce’s “The Dead,” By Nightfall would be a more elegant book.
There’s the obvious issue of how much literary knowledge a traditionally-educated dealer in contemporary art would have running through his brain. Even if we suspend disbelief on this, a novel of 238 pages cannot carry that many literary precursors without sacrificing some momentum. It’s like pinning a plethora of antique brooches onto a starlet’s chiffon slip dress — the delicate fabric will droop, distort, and even rip under the weight of the anachronistic jewels. Better to leave the elegant, modern dress unadorned and unweighted, free to suggest the beautiful form that moves inside its charming habiliment, a creature and a consciousness unique to this place and this moment.
It’s a small shame, because the first chapter of By Nightfall executes a sinuous mise-en-scène of the novel’s themes and characters, beginning with the genius first line: “The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.” An original, intriguing, and pre-coiled opening that is quickly cinched tighter by the wife’s spoken question: “’Are you mad about Mizzy?’” Unfortunately, the insertion of fusty literary forbears begins almost immediately, when Cunningham stitches a heavy, uncredited phrase from the first line of James Joyce’s Ulysses into a perfectly serviceable line of Manhattan description:
An elderly bearded man in a soiled, full-length down coat, grand in his way (stately, plump Buck Mulligan?), pushes a grocery cart full of various somethings in various trash bags, going faster than any of the cars.
I prefer the sentence with the Mulligan deleted. Once the interrogative interruption is removed, the sentence maintains a trundling rhythm that more closely mimics the man’s determined pace:
An elderly bearded man in a soiled, full-length down coat, grand in his way, pushes a grocery cart full of various somethings in various trash bags, going faster than any of the cars.
The de-Joyced sentence keeps the reader right there with Peter Harris in his taxi on his way to a cocktail party in Manhattan, ready for the next present action. The sentence with the literary fragment risks forcing the reader into a detour from the always fragile novel-acclimation phase in order to half-remember the college class that made Ulysses so accessible (thank you, Professor Chace), or to muse pointlessly on the family tradition of allowing mulligans at minigolf. A persnickety Joyce-lover (qui, moi?) might stall out of By Nightfall while puzzling over the reference’s nonsensicalities: in Ulysses Buck Mulligan is a medical student (not elderly) who emerges from his panoramic tower (not homeless) in the morning (not the evening) with shaving implements (no beard). Yes, he wears an open robe, which is reminiscent of the long down coat, but that seems a paltry reverberation for such a freighted and famous allusion, especially when it lands on a character whose situation is pitiable and whose role in the novel is momentary. Yes, it’s a lovely hunk of language, but why include it at this delicate stage in a novel, and why include it at all if you don’t need it? In the next paragraph Cunningham writes, “Inside the cab, the air is full of drowsily potent air freshener. . .” The writer who can evoke the atmosphere in present-day New York cabs with the words “drowsily potent air freshener” doesn’t need to reach backward for “stately, plump.”
And would a guy like Peter Harris plausibly recall that phrase from Ulysses? It seems unlikely, as he reads mostly emails and the newspaper throughout the novel, and spends more time discussing films than books. The inclusion of a snippet of Joyce in his consciousness so early in the novel misdirects the reader’s attempt to get acquainted with the narrator: it does nothing to characterize the perspective of a man whose essential struggle in By Nightfall will be with beauty of the 3-D variety, and not with the overburnished bibelots of the Western canon. If Peter Harris were a teacher of literature or writing, we might buy it, but he’s not, and I’m glad of it — the world doesn’t need more novelist-narrators. Two pages later Cunningham allows Peter Harris to describe his cab driver with this far more art-dealerish view: “His bald head sits solemnly on the brown plinth of his neck.” Cunningham maintains Peter Harris’ innate aesthetic point-of-view for the majority of the novel, and devotes a good amount of text to inventing and describing the art he loves and the art he wants to sell, which is all much more satisfying and diverting than the dropped-in literary references.
The reason I’m so worked up about these insertions is because Cunningham both doesn’t need them and doesn’t seem to see how they encumber his novel and pull it away from its central perspective. At their most benign, they function as distractions to the text; at their most malign they are intimidations. Brush-up visits to Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (though I adore it) and hasty skims of Wikipedia are unlikely to enhance a reader’s experience of a novel. I can imagine how literary talismans might clamor for attention in a writer’s mind, and that including them might have been irresistible in the act of composition, but they should have been deleted before publication, by the editor if the author couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Here, from the end of the first chapter of By Nightfall, is an example of the art dealer’s insomniac stream-of-consciousness, as written by Cunningham and free of literary talismans:
. . . with time ticking through you and your own ghost already wandering among your rooms.
The trouble is. . .
He can feel something, roiling at the edges of the world. Some skittery attentiveness, a dark gold nimbus studded with living lights like fish in the deep black ocean; a hybrid galaxy and sultan’s treasure and chaotic, inscrutable deity. Although he isn’t religious, he adores those pre-Renaissance icons, those gilded saints and jeweled reliquaries, not to mention Bellini’s milky Madonnas and Michelangelo’s hottie angels.
This is all the writing the novel needs. It evokes the narrator’s existential angst and characterizes his high/low lust for aesthetic gratification in language that is consistent with a 44-year-old art dealer living in Manhattan in the early 21st century.
Of course Cunningham in not the only contemporary author with this lit-a-brac tendency. I’m still annoyed with Ian McEwan for hanging a climactic plot point in Saturday on borrowed lines from Mathew Arnold’s 1885 poem “On Dover Beach.” The scene would have been much braver, and the outcome much more plausible, if the daughter-poet had given the thug what he was asking for: a recitation of her own original smutty verse, composed on the spot if necessary. I recently heard Ann Beattie say in an interview with Robin Young for WBUR’s “Here and Now” that she had one of her characters say a couple of lines about The Great Gatsby in her recent novella Walks With Men, as a “wink” to the reader who recognizes that her writing in that section sounds a little bit like Fitzgerald’s, to signal that it’s a deliberate echo on Beattie’s part and to encourage that reader to conflate the two texts, while also hoping that scene would still work “in its own way” for the reader who isn’t interested. Just as Oprah gets celebrities to sign contracts saying they won’t use cell phones behind the wheel, I’d like to get my favorite authors to sign contracts renouncing all sly echoes of Fitzgerald, Proust, James, Woolf, Joyce, Flaubert, ad nauseum while at the keyboard.
There should be an absolute prohibition against repeating a repeat. In the final, transformative, and satisfyingly plot-twisted chapter of By Nightfall, Cunningham inserts a famous line from Madame Bovary – “Banging on a tub to make a bear dance when we would move the stars to pity,” – twice (!) within five pages, both times unattributed and set off in its own little echo-chamber paragraph. How I wish he hadn’t. A few pages later Cunningham evokes Peter Harris’ self-reckoning with this new language:
Oh, little man. You have brought down your house not through passion but through neglect. You who dared to think of yourself as dangerous. You are guilty not of the epic transgressions but the tiny crimes.
Cunningham’s text is truer to the thrust of the novel, and it moved me much more than the by-now mangy line from Flaubert.
I picked on By Nightfall in this review because I feel its excess of literary cameos and references proves the rule: evoke, don’t invoke. What truly thrills me as a reader is prose and character made new, out of nothing I’ve seen before. I wish that I could read By Nightfall for the first time without the anachronistic freight — I suspect that I would love it, and not just like it a lot.
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
The best prologue I ever read was an epigraph. The book in question was from my early reading days, before I had come to understand that epigraphs were a common thing. The quote was a prelude to a ripping fantasy yarn by Raymond Feist and was from the pen of Shakespeare:
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.
The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare
I would never hold that book up to any critical scrutiny today, but Feist’s talent for setting off an epic coming-of-age story with quotes about how great it was to be young—and to imagine anything was possible—had a kind of perfect intonation.
Having taken up the mantle “writer,” epigraphs have taken on a significance of another sort. Just what purpose epigraphs serve, where they come from, and how the source from which they were drawn affects the story in which they are embedded have all bubbled to the surface. Among the most pressing questions for me: should epigraphs be thought of as part of the text, a sort of pre-modern, post-modern device, like tossing a newspaper clipping into the body narrative? Or are they actually a direct invitation by the author, perhaps saying, “Look here, for from this inspiration came this tale?”
Put another way, are they part of the book or part of the author, or both, or neither?
People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an “apposite quote that sets the mood for a story and to give an idea of what’s coming” or “a quote to set the tone like a prelude in music” or as a “foreshadowing mechanism” or “like little appetizers of the great entrée of a story” meant to illuminate “important aspects of the story [and] get us headed in the right direction.”
Humbug, say I. Humbug.
Epigraphs have a long history. As early as 1726, one can find in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the cousin of the epigraph, a fictitious “note from the publisher” explaining that Gulliver is in fact a real person and these his true papers. Yes, Lolita got that from somewhere. But even Gulliver’s fictionalized note, that cousin to the epigraph, can be traced to Cervantes and Don Quixote (published in 1605) wherein the author assures us that:
My wish would be simply to present it to thee plain and unadorned, without any embellishment of preface or uncountable muster of customary sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies, such as are commonly put at the beginning of books.
Author’s Preface to Don Quixote (following, one should note, several sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies)
And so it is certain that even in the time predating the texts which we now call the canon, and some would assert Don Quixote the first “novel,” the epigraph and its ilk were widely entrenched into the formula for literature.
The point is, of course, that epigraphs have been around for a long time.
So to the question of how we are to read epigraphs, one must first decide whether there are ‘bad’ epigraphs and ‘good’ epigraphs, and if so, how these categories might arise.
I have already described something which many would characterize as an example of a good kind of epigraph, that quote which seems to connect in a fundamental way with the text. Like, perhaps, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Yet, of course, epigraphs cannot be too explicit, too clear or too thematic or it ruins the whole endeavor. If the author gets up on a soapbox and declares “this is an important novel” well then the ship’s sailed. That’s why William Styron starts Sophie’s Choice with this quote from André Malraux: “…I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.”
Clearly these are not the only types of epigraphs that succeed. Nabokov hit a home run with his epigraph for The Gift with this quote from a Russian school-book: “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.” Which reveals that sometimes it is enough to be clever. Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and other Predicaments has an epigraph from the Chicago Manual of Style: “A dedication intended to be humorous will very likely lose its humor with time and so is inappropriate for a serious book destined to take a permanent place in the literature.” Again, very clever. So clever epigraphs work.
However, two kinds of epigraphs do not work. The first is any serious literary epigraph to a Harry Potter book, like for instance, this one from The Deathly Hallows
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude
Perhaps one will call me hypocritical for allowing a quote from Shakespeare to grace a munchy fantasy novel and then to turn around and say that the epigraph to a Harry Potter book falls flat. I would simply note that the fantasy novel in question actually took itself seriously whereas Harry Potter tried to have it both ways—and the William Penn quote is about life and death, which would have been inappropriate to any book that wasn’t. Rowling should have selected something on the theme of love and friendship to be true to the work she published.
Another sort of epigraphical failure is in Blood Meridian. McCarthy uses one of those triple-epigraphs which I’ll address in a moment, and the third epigraph, after two highfalutin contemplations on darkness and death he adds this:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.
THE YUMA DAILY SUN
McCarthy has an important point here, which is that people have been scalping each other since forever. Unfortunately, it would have come out more candidly through the mouth of one of his characters. The big problem is that in a semi-biblical masterwork, the only part of the entire overarching text that ever makes any reference to normal-sounding speech is this tiny bit of a 3-part epigraph.
So this sets out an objective standard. Epigraphs must count as part of the text because they affect the way the text is read, and therefore are tied more to the text than to the author. They belong to the text, regardless of the way the author feels. Also, as these epigraphs make clear, they are clearly not sources of inspiration for the story. Quite often they are tacked on.
So epigraphs abide by certain principles, and they do not always work. Quite often they come across like throat clearing, sort of a “here it goes” before the author gets into the work. Especially when an author has more than one epigraph, which seems to have become only more common. So when searching for an epigraph, the most important part of the endeavor should be how the quote integrates with the novel as a whole. Does it fit the tone, and does it take on a deeper meaning, or lend a deeper meaning, because it’s there?
(As a quick aside, I would like to say that overt references to Dover Beach should be restricted to epigraphs. In a striking number of novels, the poem is actually a plot point giving rise to a significant epiphany. I’m looking at you Fahrenheit 451 and most especially Saturday.)
But the question remains: How does one determine precisely the tone an epigraph should take? Herman Melville in Moby-Dick has probably one of the longest and most interesting (and most tonally consistent) epigraphs ever. He spends several pages just talking about Whales. But again, isn’t it just—too much? Would it not have been a better epigraph if he had simply included only this one from among all his myriad quotations:
October 13. “There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head.
“Where away?” demanded the captain.
“Three points off the lee bow, sir.”
“Raise up your wheel. Steady!” “Steady, sir.”
“Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?”
“Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!”
“Sing out! sing out every time!”
“Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there–there–THAR she blows–bowes–bo-o-os!”
“How far off?”
“Two miles and a half.”
“Thunder and lightning! so near! Call all hands.”
–J. ROSS BROWNE’S ETCHINGS OF A WHALING CRUIZE. 1846.
A similar question of “too much” arises in Sophie’s Choice and other texts in which the author seeks to use an epigraph in another language. Given the fact that most readers will not be speakers and therefore cannot see the intricacies in tone and the shades of meaning in that other language’s words, one wonders whether the author is writing the epigraph to himself or to the reader. If we are to think of epigraphs as part of the main text, then this foreign-language snippet needs to stand on its own, it can’t just be authorial vanity, right? Although, since his editor let him plant it there in the original German or French, one wonders if this means that epigraphs are thought to be more like dedications in the publishing world than the main text.
Finally, one wonders why epigraphs are always at the beginning of the book. Some stories end and make you want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. How moving it would be to me to finish a book and turn the page, sad that it’s all over and read an epigraph that reflects on all that’s come before.
Last week, The New Yorker ran a profile (subscription required) of Ian McEwan that was scarcely shorter than McEwan’s most recent novel, On Chesil Beach. For all its expansiveness, however, the article failed to offer readers the supreme pleasure of McEwan’s best fiction: a kind of psychological X-ray. And where writer Daniel Zalewski did manage to see inside McEwan the man, he seemed to discover there – perhaps unwittingly – a certain metaphysico-aesthetic complacency. For example, of John Banville’s quite valid complaint about Saturday’s “rosy” view of marriage (the wealthy and brilliant protagonist starts his day with wake-up sex), McEwan remarked, “The critic was revealing far more about himself and his wife’s teeth-flossing habits than anything about the book.”A measure of pride may be in order – Atonement sold 2 million copies! Still, self-satisfaction represents one of writing’s occupational hazards, in both senses of the phrase. Doubt is for the novelist what faith is for the priest.Anyway, I’m pleased to report that my worries about McEwan were short-lived. His meditation on John Updike in the New York Review of Books shows us an empiricist still capable of wonderment. Better yet, unlike the New Yorker piece, the NYRB essay is free to all online. If time constraints force you to choose between reading Ian McEwan and reading about Ian McEwan… well, you know what to do.
Of all the many literary awards out there, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the most egalitarian, international, and exhaustive in scope. This year, 169 libraries in 45 countries nominated 138 novels. All of the books must have been published in English or in translation in 2005. Libraries can nominate up to three books each. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers. Here are this year’s highlightsOverall favorites: books that were nominated by at least five libraries.Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (one in Canada and five in the US)Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (all six in Canada)Saturday by Ian McEwan (one each in England, Germany, Greece, New Zealand and Russia)The Accidental by Ali Smith (one each in Belgium, Brazil, England, Ireland and Scotland)The Kreutzer Sonata by Margriet De Moor (all five in The Netherlands)The Sea by John Banville (two in Ireland and one each in the US, Hungary and Czech Republic)You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Aside from Three Day Road in Canada and The Kreutzer Sonata in The Netherlands, several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:In South Africa, Gem Squash Tokoloshe by Rachel ZadokIn New Zealand, Blindsight by Maurice GeeIn the US, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and March by Geraldine BrooksIn Australia, The Secret River by Kate GrenvilleThere were also several countries with only one library nominating just one book. Here are a few of those:From Pakistan, Broken Verses by Kamila ShamsieFrom Malaysia, The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash AwFrom Spain, Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez PinolFrom Suriname, Circle of Love by Soecy GummelsThe shortlist will be announced on April 4, 2007 and the winner on June 14, 2007.
At the end of the year lots of newspapers and media outlets release “best of the year” lists. It’s nice to have a record of the year’s literary highlights, but the lists do not represent the experience of any real readers. Sure, we may read handful of brand new books each year, but these are likely to be outweighed by older books – books that we are finally getting around to or books that we have just discovered, books two years old and books 200 years old. All these books taken together represent a year in reading, and as a counterpoint to all of those “best of” lists, I’ve asked authors, bloggers and readers to send along the best of from their year in reading.For today, I asked Pete from Pete Lit to share with us the best books he read this year and he sent back a nice list. Chicagoans may notice that Chicagoans are well-represented here. Says Pete:My top choice is An Unfinished Season by Ward Just. The writing is just beautiful, and Just wonderfully evokes a bygone Chicago era.Runners-Up:William Trevor, A Bit on the SideJoe Sacco, PalestineAlex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children HereHonorable Mention:Stuart Dybek, I Sailed With MagellanKirby Gann, Our Napoleon in RagsIan McEwan, SaturdayDavy Rothbart, The Lone Surfer of Montana, KansasNick Hornby, The Polysyllabic SpreeJohn McNally, The Book of Ralph