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.
Little cloud-white lambs wobble over the leas and paddocks, nibbling clover under a wooly sky. Ladies and lords and mustachioed manservants converse through the halls of castles. The subjects and soldiers in the hay fields out past the battlements are content, and peaceful in their boisterous way. There is a tallow candle in every midnight window, a sachet of herbs for every howling teapot, and a ruddy-cheeked family relaxing around every hearth. Welcome to the outskirts of London at the twilight of the 21st century.
When Mary Shelley imagined the year 2100 in The Last Man, a lesser-known apocalyptic novel from 1826, she didn’t anticipate the rapid pace of technological and social change that would transform the world. Not only would penicillin prove to be a better cure-all than leeches, but mankind would also devise cell phones and cluster bombs, bitcoin and better long distance travel options than leaky sailboats. And so the frilled nobility and feudal economy of near future Great Britain that Shelley portrays seem anachronistic to contemporary readers, but so too should the notion of a drawn-out apocalypse. In The Last Man, the obliterating pandemic takes a dreadful seven years to finish us off.
Can we imagine a slow apocalypse now? Most contemporary depictions of the end of the world in literature and popular culture involve a bang, not a whimper. Think of the luminous comet barreling toward Earth. Think of the radioactive shockwaves of nuclear holocaust rippling around the planet as if across a pond. Think of all the happy Evangelicals slurped out of their pajamas during a rapturous breakfast. Even abstract notions of collapse—say, reaching peak oil or detonating a “population bomb”—portend a quick topple. Our neighborhoods and nations have grown interdependent on complex international networks, and it’s no trouble to imagine everything swiftly tumbling in the direction of rock bottom.
But when the world ends, I want it to take a long, long, achingly long time. Time to feel our collective loss, to grapple with the grief of it, and time enough to call up the best in us.
That’s why I found Shelley’s take on human extinction oddly refreshing. In The Last Man, the plague that throttles us—characterized as an “invincible monster”—exercises a wicked patience in its malice, and by extension we readers are given what feels like a rare opportunity to mourn our genuine achievements as a species before they are snatched away one by one.
Season after season, Shelley’s invincible monster barrels across the globe. It originates in Africa, moves against Asia, and then conquers France and Italy, where the institutions of genteel diplomacy and uplifting commerce start to falter. News becomes scant and gossipy; information unbelievable. Once the disease hops the English Channel, abstractions fall too. While London is racked and ravaged, the government and its practitioners wither. (Somehow the stoic rule of law, for a time, survives the death-spiral of British society.) Out in the idyllic countryside, we watch as wealth and hereditary privilege suffer their own grim fates, as the noble families relinquish their lands to house the poor, transient, and sick.
Lastly, we are given the time and space to mourn the emotions that make us human. After fleeing the English countryside, the weary remnant of humankind seeks the salubrious airs of the Swiss Alps and Mediterranean shores. Along the way we witness, with utmost relief, the final gasp of religious extremism. A chance encounter with a church organ and its only remaining players gives us our last experience of the sublime. Jealousy and exuberance, doubt and heartfelt fondness—one by one they disappear. And the sudden death of our narrator’s two final companions, which follows the extended death scene of his son, grants the space to even mourn the act of mourning itself.
By the book’s final pages, not much of civilization remains to be mourned except for the odd marble ruin erected by the ancients. “Thus are we left,” says one friend to our narrator,
two melancholy blasted trees, where once a forest waved. We are left to mourn, and pine, and die. Yet even now we have our duties, which we must string ourselves to fulfill: the duty of bestowing pleasure where we can, and by force of love, irradiating with rainbow hues the tempest of grief. Nor will I repine if in this extremity we preserve what we now possess.
Decline’s easy pace in The Last Man, despite being written nearly two centuries prior, prefigures a semi-apocalyptic genre with contemporary salience: climate fiction. These are speculative stories of individuals and communities whose lives are threatened by the effects of global warming and climate change. Many of the novels in this genre end not in the shadow of a killer wave, but in the murk below a rising tide. Alternately, the characters of these stories may toil under a sweltering sun, whispering sand dune, or encroaching glacier.
Drought chokes the plotlines of both Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. In both, the American West and Southwest have run dry and the desert heat evaporates what little remains of the human soul. In the novels of Jeff Vander Meer, including Borne and his Southern Reach trilogy, we witness the phantasmagoric reversion of the planet to a natural world unbound from human agency. Lush swarms of monarch butterflies descend upon rural Tennessee in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, portending great, horrible changes in both the near term and far future. In Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Australia’s social and political structure is rocked by climate-induced migration. After the mother of all storms, we see the granular erosion of capitalism in Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow. Classic cli-fi novels include Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and Ian McEwan’s Solar. This is a small sample of the burgeoning genre.
Like all of the natural “antagonists” in the books above, Shelley’s imagined plague advances with a creeping surefootedness, not unlike the incremental buildup of troubling symptoms within the global climate system. There’s an almost unfathomable (and growing) body of data about climate change and the ways it will disrupt our civilization’s pleasant march toward enlightenment. Meteorologists can point to the residential neighborhoods the future’s floods will swallow, forest ecologists can draw the lines of retreat for harried conifer groves, marine biologists can deluge you with estimates of fishery collapse, and glaciologists would prefer instead to recommend options for inexpensive bourbon, so dire is the condition of our planet’s large ice reserves. By these predictions, we can start to imagine the loss of the places to which we’ve grown most connected.
Coming to terms with those losses will take more than insight or experience. Describing the strange remnant world left at the conclusion of his aforementioned novel Borne, Jeff Vander Meer writes:
There comes a moment when you witness events so epic you don’t know how to place them in the cosmos or in relation to the normal workings of a day. Worse, when these events recur at an even greater magnitude, in a cascade of what you have never seen before and do not know how to classify. Troubling because each time you acclimate, you move on, and if this continues, there is a mundane grandeur to the scale that renders certain events beyond rebuke or judgment, horror or wonder, or even the grasp of history.
If mourning is the process of acclimating to loss, then climate fiction is a new literature of mourning.
Recall Shelley’s exhortation to duty in the face of grief: “bestowing pleasure where we can, and by force of love, irradiating with rainbow hues the tempest of grief.” While “tempest of grief” may be the most apt and chilling phrase for global warming, “force of love” is a good description of the radical political willpower required to counteract our decline. Both emotional states will naturally arise from the loss of those things, places, and people we cherish most. But, Shelley continued: “Nor will I repine if in this extremity we preserve what we now possess.” This is her exhortation to cherish our individual happy memories, our civilization’s grand triumphs, and our species’ fateful legacy. If we do not mourn those things, we cannot move on from our grief.
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.
At the bottom of Ian McEwan’s new novel The Children Act, a brisk tour of the English family courts, is the same bitter pill the writer has been mulling over since his early work, refusing to swallow. A youthful and artistic idealism must be sacrificed to responsible administration. In The Cement Garden, McEwan’s first novel, a house of orphaned adolescents ward off government services for a time by storing their mother’s body in an elaborately cemented trunk kept in the basement. But this doesn’t eliminate the need for those children to implement grotesque variations on the lost parental order. The state’s eagerness to do more — to midwife the parents — is in turn skewered by The Child In Time’s mammothly dysfunctional Official Commission on Child Care, the recommendations by its 14 subcommittees always mired in political and commercial interests, its members plagued by personal tragedies.
For McEwan, neither the citizens nor the bureaucrats seem up to their end of the social contract, which is why the impersonal law persists to safeguard the sovereignty of individuals in the private, domestic sphere while protecting victims from those who abuse their parental privileges. To be a grown-up worthy of commanding the law is truly a higher, almost divine, calling. So McEwan, stalking secret wellsprings of authority through steady production in five decades, tilts his frame from the easy drama of arguing attorneys to the fallible hand that hands down the judgment. Even a discipline as seemingly objective as Nobel-level physics, as witnessed in Solar, could decay into a Ponzi scheme with the right human contamination. The trendy sociologists in that book, explaining how the discovery of a specific gene or subatomic particle was socially constructed, were supposed to be academic court jesters. McEwan continues to demonstrate how similar social truths can best be delivered elegantly by a novelist.
In The Children Act, High Court Judge Fiona Maye, 59, is highly esteemed and remains invigorated by the cases passing through her Family Division, each exotic claim and novel circumstance “assimilated at speed.” She believes in her work and considers it “a significant marker in civilization’s progress” that the law favors the needs of children over their parents, as coded in the statute that lends the novel its name. The law is an esoteric language, a forbidden fruit whose knowledge causes litigants to lapse. “Parents soon learned the new vocabulary and patient procedures of the law, and were dazed to find themselves in vicious combat with the one they once loved.” After 35 years, Fiona’s marriage is stagnating, and her husband Jack, a Classics professor, candidly asks her permission to pursue an affair with a 28-year-old statistician, Melanie. When he leaves, she changes the locks.
McEwan tailors his sentences for each book, but tends toward Jamesean intricacy, rigging each clause with multiple detonations of meaning. Here is McEwan introducing Solar’s physicist, Michael Beard:
He belonged to that class of men — vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever — who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue.
This plume of competing impressions — physical details and projected airs — is anchored by the storyteller’s pretense to contain his man and pin him to a type. Beard’s elusiveness makes him seem more real. In The Children Act, McEwan uses a closer third-person that mimics Fiona as she coolly itemizes the relevant facts in one of her cases, or in the marital ordeal that consumes more and more of her attention:
Her days were full, and in the evenings recently, various dinners…and taxis, Tube trains, dry-cleaning to collect, a letter to draft about a special school for the cleaning lady’s autistic son, and finally sleep. Where was the sex? At that moment, she couldn’t recall.
Tracks often switch mid-paragraph. Self-pity in others embarrasses the judge, but she can’t help but feel victimized by the ruthless decision her husband makes in favor of a fling. Out of all her courtroom experience, Fiona observes kindness as the “essential human ingredient.” She can sometimes pursue this one humanist virtue in the law by using it to save a child from an unkind parent. The problem is that kindness is voluntary, unwarranted by law.
Circumstance can also prohibit kindness by forcing the choice between two evils. Fiona is still haunted by a famous case of Siamese twins, which left her to decide between a surgery that would result in the death of one brother and letting both die by doing nothing. She cites the trauma of this decision as a turning point, when sensual pleasure between herself and Jack ceased. The case that takes up the bulk of The Children Act offers a medical solution, but to get there Fiona must first grapple with religious fundamentalism. Adam, a cancer-stricken teenage Jehovah’s Witness, refuses a lifesaving blood transfusion. He is 17, not 18, but can be ruled responsible for his elected martyrdom by a standard he easily exceeds.
The judge and the novelist are interesting analogues. McEwan already offered a look in the narrative kitchen with Black Dogs, a literary son-in-law sniffing out one side, then the other, of an estranged marriage that withered away with Communism. As an allegory, the compassionate wife and the sharp-minded husband served as the synthesis absent from Communism’s historical moment, but they could just as easily stand for the two best sides of Fiona. She is entirely credulous about the law. She’s made it her fate. And she can play it like the baby grand that sits in her living room, jazzing up her judgments with Aristotle and John Stuart Mill.
The Children Act is light by McEwan’s standards. It arrives at big questions too easily. Its simplicity nonetheless exposes the limitations set on a society that sees only in laws and how to profit from them. Fiona expresses a typical cynicism when we are given her impressions of a pervasive greed. The children become counters in a game, and every petty grievance is a money grab. Contrasting this “moral kitsch” is an alien display of substance that logically slides toward self-annihilation. Fiona determines that she needs to visit Adam in the hospital in order to rule, and finds that he’s only too aware of the consequences of his conviction. He is intelligent, charismatic, brave, and shows ambition, if not promise, as a poet and violinist. Is moderation even possible?
Fiona is reminded by her many nieces and nephews of just how much of her own life her ambitions have gobbled up. What shines through her legal mastery is McEwan’s commitment to a clear-eyed reckoning of the forces at play in his world, even his own circle, whether through a bitter divorce or the zealous death threats leveled at fellow-writer and friend Salman Rushdie. To remain a prominent, serious novelist in this culture — and not merely among novelists — requires a certain level of engagement with the headlines, and maybe a certain accent. What keeps McEwan afloat is an almost callow ambition sustained, from book to book, by an amateur’s curiosity.
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.
New this week is The Tiger’s Wife, the hotly anticipated debut of Téa Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 from last year. Also new in the fiction aisle is Carol Edgarian’s Three Stages of Amazement. David Brooks’s latest pop sociology effort The Social Animal is now out — this one, excerpted in the New Yorker — sets itself apart from similar tomes by illustrating its findings through a pair of fictional characters. Now out in paperback are National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, Ian McEwan’s Solar, and Rebecca Skloot’s non-fiction blockbuster The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.