Monday, July 27, 2009

Ian McEwan

I came late to Ian McEwan’s writing, but I finally have to admit that I’m a big fan. I’ve just read my third McEwan novel – I devoured it in about 24 hours – the short, concisely plotted Amsterdam (1998), and have been filled with admiration for McEwan’s ingenuity at creating the perfect blend of satire, surprise, and keen observation of the human psyche. Previously I read Enduring Love (1997) and Atonement (2001), and have found all his novels equally compelling.

It’s also rather breathtaking to consider how many of his novels have been translated into film – Atonement, Enduring Love, The Comfort of Strangers, and The Cement Garden – in addition to his authorship of original screenplays (The Good Son and others). Taken together, his novels and screenplays represent a world that is, to use my friend Amy’s word, unnerving. In some – The Comfort of Strangers comes to mind immediately – “unnerving” is an understatement.

On reading Enduring Love last month I recognized what is not exactly a formula for McEwan’s novel, but may be more accurately described as a trope, or a technique for developing the plot: he throws together a group of people (mostly strangers), subjects them to an intense emotional experience, and then explores what happens to them (as individuals and in relationship to each other) as a result of the traumatic incident. He devotes lavish attention to setting up the situation, the emotional crucible, which is most fully developed in Atonement: the climactic event – the rape of a visiting young cousin – is preceded by the description of one day’s events which takes up practically the first half of this novel. In Enduring Love, the first chapter was described by one critic as the best first chapter of any novel he’d ever read.

The characters McEwan throws together are either complete strangers or a mix of strangers and intimates. In The Comfort of Strangers they are two couples; in Amsterdam they are four men whose connection is that they all loved the same woman (the glamorous Molly, whom we never meet – the story begins with her funeral). Two are best friends, but all four are rivals.

McEwan explores consequences, the effects of events upon individuals’ emotional and psychological states. He’s interested in perceptions: the differences among different people’s perceptions of an event, the subjectivity (and hence unreliability) of perceptions, and the way our perceptions color our responses and reactions. Perception may be unreliable and sometimes completely wrong, but we are trapped within our own perceptual boundaries; perception is all we have for understanding our world, our relationships, our lives.

Another common feature of McEwan’s novels is that they always end up being about something completely different from what the reader initially thinks they’re going to be about. By the end of the novel, the main character is doing something that would have been wholly unthinkable at the beginning of the novel, yet McEwan takes them (and us) there in a convincing manner.

McEwan is interested in the darker sides of the human psyche. Sometimes this takes the form of extreme sexual perversity, but more often it’s an exploration of jealousy, obsession, delusions of grandeur, rationalization, selfishness, malice. He presents moral and ethical dilemmas, and his characters’ failure to act nobly. My, how they rationalize their behavior! Only in Atonement does the main character display remorse over her action and its dire, irreversible consequences.

As it happens, one of my first posts on this blog was a review of Atonement; here I will say a few words about the other two McEwan novels I’ve read recently:

Enduring Love

This novel is about something called “de Clérambault’s syndrome,” or erotomania, and includes as an appendix an article on the syndrome published in the British Review of Psychiatry. It’s very well researched, and in fact is based on the true story described in BRP. Initially I thought it might turn out to be like the film Notes on a Scandal (based on the novel What Was She Thinking? By Zoe Heller), with an unreliable narrator, but it wasn’t at all.

Coincidentally, erotomania is the subject of the French film He Loves Me…He Loves Me Not, starring Audrey Tautou, which is one of my favorite films. (See my review of He Loves Me...He Loves Me Not elsewhere on this blog.)


This is the shortest and funniest of the three McEwan novels I’ve read, and it won the Booker Prize in 1998. It’s a work of biting satire in which McEwan ridicules politicians, journalists, and bohemian artsy types. The rivalry among four men involved with one woman reminded me too of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel about four men, three of whom are involved (successively) with one woman. The Fountainhead is not a work of satire by any means – it’s more like an allegory of capitalism in which each of the men represents a different political ideology. Like Amsterdam, The Fountainhead’s cast of characters includes a publisher and an artist (the architect Howard Roarke). Other than that, Amsterdam and The Fountainhead have nothing in common; Ayn Rand has virtually no sense of humor, but she does write a compelling tale.

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