Photo credits: Randolph Quan.
If you’d asked me, a few years ago, who my favourite living writer was, I would’ve answered without hesitation: Ian McEwan. Circa 2007, McEwan was at the summit of his art and eminence as a novelist: Atonement, probably his best book, had just been turned into a brilliant movie (directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy), Saturday, his novel about post-9/11 Britain, had been published in 2003 and confirmed his skill in dealing with contemporary state-of-the-nation feelings, and he had just published a beautiful novella, On Chesil Beach, which was shortlisted for the Booker. Moreover, McEwan had managed to bridge the tricky gap between literary and commercial fiction; his books were on university reading lists and bestseller lists alike.
I read McEwan for the first time that year after seeing the film version of Atonement around Christmas. The truth is, I was probably seeking for a film adaptation of book to fall in love with; the previous Spring I had read and thoroughly enjoyed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, only to be severely disappointed by the film version, which I’d had so many hopes for. Then came Atonement: beautifully directed, it had important things to say about art, contained big themes like love and war, and its ending was heart wrenching without being melodramatic. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, recommended it to everyone around me, and read the book over Christmas. The novel provided me with a literary mirror for the film. I found it just as great; it had everything I looked for in a book: compelling story, complex characters, beautiful writing. Most importantly, it felt literary (I’d been careful to buy the original paperback with the indignantly bored little girl on the cover, not the movie tie-in edition), which was essential to me at a time when I as trying to define myself as a reader of real literature, but still liked my books to be compelling. I was hooked on McEwan.
When school finished that Spring I read through Saturday, a strange novel that follows its neuro-surgeon protagonist, Dr. Perone, through an ordinary weekend day that turns out to be extremely unordinary. Saturday is a tour-de-force in its ability to manipulate the reader: at the beginning, I thought the story advanced very slowly, with lots of flashbacks and filler material and very little going on, but halfway through the novel I realized how attached I’d become to Perone and his family. By the end, when this family is threatened, the novel turns into a page turner because the McEwan has successfully built an emotional attachment between the reader and his characters. Then, in the fall, I read On Chesil Beach in a couple of days, and the same trick operated: very little actually happens for pages, except you get so close to the characters that by the time the story reaches its climax—a conversation on the beach between two newly-weds who misunderstand each other on the deepest level—I was sitting on the edge of my chair, breathless, whispering words of encouragement and disappointment, depending on what was being said. Again, I was thrilled with the beauty and efficiency of the language, and at how much complexity and characterization McEwan could concentrate in so few pages.
McEwan is a realist. He said so himself at a recent lecture he gave at Harvard (unfortunately, I couldn’t attend—my invitation got lost in the mail), entitled “The Lever: Where Novelists Stand to Move the World.” He’s very careful in his descriptions of places and things and events in order to recreate the right setting for his novels, be it modern-day London or Dunkirk in 1940. Of course, the precepts of realism requires that you describe the real world as faithfully as you can, down to the right constellation, the right brand of cigarette. It’s true that McEwan does this; some passages in his work are almost frustrating in their attention to detail, their desire to describe everything in detail. But where he is truly remarkable is in his ability to stretch reality to its limits, by placing his characters at the edge of normality, in situations that throw them completely off-balance. Sometimes, as in Atonement, where a little girl’s lie threatens to destroy the lives of two lovers, the results are stunning. Other times, as with the two loony lawbreakers in Saturday, coincidences seem a little bit exaggerated and the plot, like dough stretched too tightly between two hands, becomes torn. Yet as Alice Munro once said of another author, the writer always wins in the end. This is especially true of McEwan: even when he carefully walks you through a plot that seems implausible, he usually catches you with the elegance, restraint, and creativity of his writing. Usually.
There are still those who argue in favor of early McEwan (see the hilarious book trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story), but I have a feeling that, in some time, when McEwan will have passed away (although I wish him long life!) and critics look back on his work, the three novels of his I first discovered—Atonement, Saturday, On Chesil Beach—will be considered his best. Here’s a writer at the top of his form, perfectly in control of his art, but still discovering things about writing, experimenting with voice and form and plot. Previously, McEwan had written a lot of books—just under a dozen, by my count—including two collections of short stories. Among these were Enduring Love, which still ranks among some of his best work (I haven’t read it yet so I can’t say), The Innocent (a kind of emotional spy-novel, set in Berlin during the Cold War), and his booker-winning Amsterdam, which frankly is not great by any standard (the conclusion seems to be that 1998 was a very bad year for fiction in English). McEwan’s early work earned him the nickname “macabre,” because of his unrestrained descriptions of gore. In The Innocent, for example, the main character needs to get rid of the body of someone he’s accidentally killed; a very long description of how to cut up a corpse into pieces and carry these pieces out of an ensues (a scene, as it turns out, that he now regrets). McEwan became relatively well-known in the 90s, but this was nothing like the stellar reputation he would gain in the early 2000s with the three books I mentioned above.
Then he published a new novel, Solar, in 2010, which I looked forward to and took a break from school readings to enjoy. Except I was disappointed. McEwan knew what he was doing in this novel—which is a kind of satire about climate change, featuring a ruthless, obese, nobel-prize winning physicist—but he knew it too well. The writing is too polished and self-conscious, the plot seems stretched, and the humor falls flat. The novel is so neat it feels dead. McEwan will be publishing a new novel this summer, Sweeth Tooth, a return to the spy genre he’d flirted with in The Innocent. An excerpt, entitled “Hand on the Shoulder,” about a young woman’s recruitment into MI5 by professor and lover in Cambridge in the 1970s, was published this week in The New Yorker. It provides usual McEwan fare: light irony, play with memory, importance of authenticity, interesting descriptions of food and sex… But again, I felt a little short-changed when I read. In an effort to make everything seem logical, plausible, McEwan describes emotions in too much detail; plot points are sold paragraphs in advance, so all you’re left to wallow in as a reader are feelings. And feelings only go so far. Am I evolving as a reader? or is McEwan really regressing as a writer? If the answer to the latter question is yes, then McEwan’s writer’s career fits into what Rick Gekoski has recently described as a usual curve of ascent into maturity and descent until death. Most author’s, Gekoski argues, rarely publish their best work last. But there are exceptions—Philip Roth, Henry James—and perhaps McEwan will count among them. Only time will tell.