Ian McEwan: Like Martin Amis, but Human
--Ian McEwan, Black Dogs, 1992
One of the relative few benefits of being both a college dropout and a high-lowbrow aesthete is the thrill of "discovering" new authors whom the rest of the world has known about for years. I enjoyed such a thrill this time last year when I pulled from my own bookshelf an unread copy of Ian McEwan's Black Dogs. I knew McEwan's name, of course, having long since perfected the art of seeming like I know more than I do. I also knew he'd won a Booker Prize, and had written novels that inspired one good film (The Cement Garden), and at least two lousy ones (The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent). This, sadly, is more or less all I can tell you about most contemporary authors of fiction-- how good were the movies based on their novels?
Little did I know what I was in for. I tore through Black Dogs in two days, pausing only to marvel at the ferocious delicacy of McEwan's prose ("the huge kitchen with its jambons de montagne hanging from the beams, demijohns of olive oil on the stone floor, and scorpions sometimes nesting in the cupboards...") and the beautifully modulated sense of dread that pervades a short novel about the conflicting desires for liberty and family. Like all McEwan's books (I was soon to learn), Black Dogs centers on a single calamitous event that alters the life of the main character so completely that all the other characters are forced to contend with the ramifications. To oversimplify, the action in a McEwan novel describes the subjectivity of human perception and response. More acutely, however, his books are about the immeasurable distance between us and those to whom we feel closest.
In the case of Black Dogs, the calamity is a vividly imagined nightmare scenario: A woman on her honeymoon in 1946 is attacked by two gigantic Nazi-trained guard dogs in the middle of the French countryside, while her husband is off (impotently) sketching caterpillars. In surviving the attack--the climactic description of which makes one's heart feel ready to explode from the suspense--the woman divines a spiritual meaning in the universe that her pragmatic, embarrassed, socialist husband not only fails to comprehend but dismisses entirely. After several years of intensifying, the disparity between their worldviews leads them to split, leaving their son-in-law (the narrator, an unsentimental writer whose own parents died when he was young) to try to reckon how a gulf so wide can exist between two people who have shared so much for so long.
Because I am a binge reader, I spent the next few months devouring McEwan, moving from Black Dogs to Amsterdam (the Booker Prize winner), to Enduring Love (the masterpiece), to Atonement (the other masterpiece), to The Child in Time, to The Cement Garden, The Innocent, The Comfort of Strangers, and back to Atonement for good measure. I had reached a point where my ears would settle for no other author's voice. Each of these novels conjures a riveting horror, the conception of which is as outlandish--a freak balloon crash, a kidnapping, a dead parent buried in concrete, a murder, a double murder, a false rape accusation--as its presentation is credible. Like a great genre filmmaker, McEwan tantalizes you with a bizarre event, but rewards you with a payoff, which, in most of the books, anyway, enlarges your understanding of the normal world. This is not to suggest his works are genre exercises; they're just good old-fashioned great novels. But within that generalization lies a world of pre-postmodern craft--artfully constructed stories about recognizable characters--absent from the books of some of McEwan's flashier, more famous contemporaries. I'm thinking of one in particular, an author whose work defined my literary taste and sensibility throughout my late teens and 20s, about whom I have written and argued and proselytized tirelessly for years and years to any friend who would listen (and plenty who wouldn't).
Martin Amis' early novels--especially The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, and Money, but also Time's Arrow, The Information, and about half of London Fields--were thrilling discoveries for me; the books seemed to have been written specifically to entertain, even to pander to, my sense of the world. They were arch, aloof, dark, nasty, hilarious, cruel, offensive, unforgiving, stylistically extroverted, emotional but never sentimental, right but never righteous, moral but post-humanist; all qualities I imagined as ideal states when I entered my 20s (and which now, at 30, embarrass me). The novels are high travesties, full of toadish men seething with contempt for their glorious rivals and burning with lust for unattainable sex goddesses; horrible violence befalls most of them, and those who are spared suffer, too. Amis at his best lives to punish his creations, erecting grotesque burlesques of the real world in which anything can happen, so long as it's horrendous, and story be damned. At his worst, he backpedals into a kind of faute de mieux moralism, as if to declare that despite his vivid literary heartlessness, he is, in the end, a concerned citizen of the world, too. I have no doubt that Amis does care. But the concern doesn't inform the writing; it's more like an addendum. And as a result, the novels suffer with advancing age--not theirs, but mine.
Ian McEwan is no stranger to punishment. His novels mete out terrible pain to their protagonists--not merely the grand pain of disaster, but the more incisive blows of stalled marriage, romantic mistrust, parental failure, self-doubt, and impotent fury--in the form of what screenwriters call "inciting incidents." But the author of these devices is less interested in torturing his characters than in testing the mettle of their conceits. The world he builds may not be "real," but its dynamics are intimately, innately recognizable. And absolutely riveting to read about.
McEwan's turning points matter; not, as the narrator of Black Dogs suggests, because we need to be told what to feel, but rather because we need to believe that the feelings of those we're reading about bear some relation to our own. It may not be fair, or even relevant, to compare the two authors--after all, though I have not read widely (nor too well), even I can find room on the shelf for more than one early-middle-aged British novelist. McEwan's ingenious stories expose the humanity of the creations on the page. By contrast, Amis now seems merely ingenious.
Ian McEwan lectures on his life and work for Seattle Arts & Lectures at Benaroya Hall (Third Ave and University St, 621-2230 for tickets) on Wed March 31 at 7:30 pm, $9-$23.