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I think Ian McEwan is one of the most important and interesting voices in contemporary English-language fiction.
As with many others, I imagine, Atonement was the first book of McEwan’s that I stumbled upon. I remember being hugely impressed with the quality of the writing that introduced us to one of the main characters — a child at the time — and her cultural environs at the start of the book. Then, later in the book, the visceral agony of the wrong letter being sent (c-word and all) to a dreamed-of lover, the inversion plot whose consequences would ultimately drive the remainder of the story.
Next I read On Chesil Beach, which I remember for both the crystalline quality of the writing (again) and McEwan’s uncanny ability to immerse us so completely — and often uncomfortably — in the banalities of 1960’s England. But more than anything, what I remember from this book was the sort of awakening I had when I realized that McEwan was such a good writer that I hadn’t even noticed it had taken one of his characters something like six pages simply to complete the action of crossing a room. I didn’t notice because I was seamlessly caught up in this character’s stream of consciousness the whole time, thinking with his brain, as the saying goes. Time and time again, it seems, McEwan shows us what it is really like to be “lost in a good book”.
Then came Saturday, which I think, so far, is my favorite. Then Solar, with our Falstaffian anti-hero awash in the angst of lost potential, that sickness that overtakes all of us who manage to outlive our 20’s.
Over this year’s Christmas break I finished Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s latest book, also with a 1960’s / 70’s English backdrop. This time, loosely, something of a low-level spy thriller, but mostly a brilliantly rendered period piece and a further experiment with narrative voice and fictional conventions.
Finally, this week, I read Amsterdam, McEwan’s 1998 Booker Prize winner. As usual, the characters are neatly and ironically drawn and we end up inhabiting their thoughts to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to get out of their way. In this book, as well, I especially enjoyed the somewhat tangential examination of how, under just the right conditions, creativity may coalesce into artistic expression.
When I sat down to write about Amsterdam this morning, however, the first thing I did was a Google search to find a photo of McEwan to use in this posting. That took me to his Wikipedia entry, then suddenly I was at the Paris Review website (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/393/the-art-of-fiction-no-173-ian-mcewan), and, well, it quickly became apparent to me that my old instincts were taking over — I was suddenly doing a research project, instead of writing a blog. What I was now poised to do was read everything I could get my hands on regarding Mr. McEwan, least I misstep myself in any way in seeking to write about him. Being such a perfectionist, however, has been the death knell to so many of my projects and, I’m certain, lies at the heart of my ongoing procrastination habit: see https://philipjefferson.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/on-writing-2/. Quite often, by the time I complete the data gathering component of a project, I’ve simply lost interest in it: the moment — the moment that held that original, shiny spark of inspiration or insight — has passed. So this morning, let’s damn the torpedoes. Let’s rip into McEwan with nary a whit of background other than our admiration for the man’s work and a cup of cappuccino.
One of the primary story lines in Amsterdam is that of Clive Linley, a world-renowned English composer, who is working on a national commission to write an epic millennial symphony (remember, it’s 1998). We spend a great deal of time in Clive’s head thinking about how the symphony is developing and how creativity — musical and otherwise — ultimately generates artistry.
Having taken the symphony as far as he can within the confines of his rambling London home, he knows that he will only be able to start to discern the outlines of the elusive climax to the piece by setting it aside for the moment, looking away from it so that his subconscious can take over and start its own mysterious creative process (what Stephen King, in a similar fashion in his novel Bag of Bones, refers to as the job of “the boys in the basement”). Linley is reasonably certain, from past experience, that a short walking holiday in the Lake District will free his mind and body sufficiently to allow the climax to the piece to begin to coalesce, independent of his conscious desire to have it do so. Having quarreled with a friend before he left London, however, Linley finds that getting into his “groove” out in the rugged countryside isn’t working as well as it should to kickstart the creative process:
“The open spaces that were meant to belittle his cares, were belittling everything: endeavour seemed pointless. Symphonies [read “Writing” here if you’re a scribbler] especially: feeble blasts, bombasts, doomed attempts to build a mountain in sound [or words]. Passionate striving. And for what? Money. Respect. Immortality [interesting that McEwan doesn’t present these items as interrogatives]. A way of denying the randomness that spawned us, and of holding off the fear of death.”
Arguably, these are the shaky foundations upon which all art — Art— is built. How do you push yourself beyond the apparent “pointlessness” of any intellectual exercise? This question, which I ask myself on a nearly continually basis as I spend my nights and weekend banging away at this keyboard, always puts me in mind of the problem of Schrödinger’s Cat. Inside an opaque box is a cat, a vial of poison (with an atomic trigger) and a bit of radioactive source material. And the fact of the matter, given the nuances of quantum physics under which our universe operates, is that we must consider the cat to be alive and dead at the same time. (No, really: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schrödinger’s_cat). Similarly, we all know that art truly matters in the world, but, then again, if we’re really honest with ourselves, it matters not a whit. This is the essential ouroboros nature of creativity. The only way we can know for sure whether or not art really matters is to lift the lid off the box and see for ourselves whether it’s alive or dead. But that would be cheating — and we can’t figure out how to open the damn thing anyway! Round and round we go…
Nor can we typically sustain such high-flying philosophical ideas for any significant length of time. As McEwan recognizes, and exposes so deftly, — and this is why I so enjoy reading his books — life goes on, regardless. After his hillside epiphany regarding the implications of the creative process, for example, “[Linley] stopped to tighten his bootlaces. Further on he took off his sweater, and drank deeply from his water bottle, trying to eradicate the taste of the kipper he had unwisely eaten at breakfast. Then he found himself yawning, and thinking of the bed in his small room.”
It is within these evocative segues from the sublime to the mundane, from “headspace” to indigestion, amidst the elaborate pattern language of self-delusion and inconsistency, that McEwan lays bare the plight of the modern, human animal. The skill with which he is able to establish and develop his characters, within the larger constraints of their individual familial, cultural and historical milieus continues to make him, for my money, one of the top English-speaking writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Not infrequently, however, McEwan’s incisiveness often exposes our own shortcomings and mediocracies. How does the senior staff at The Judge, the newspaper at the heart of Amsterdam, for example, propose to re-gain readership that has fallen off in the face of their continued stolid and (supposedly) old-fashioned approach to the news?:
“It’s time we ran more regular columns. They’re cheap and everyone else is doing them. You know, we hire someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much. You’ve seen the sort of thing. Goes to a party and can’t remember someone’s name. Twelve hundred words.
‘Sort of navel gazing,’ Jeremy Ball suggested.
‘Not quite. Gazing is too intellectual. More like navel chat.’
‘Can’t work her video recorder. Is my bum too big?’ Lettice supplied helpfully.
‘That’s good. Keep ‘em coming.’ The editor wiggled and paddled his fingers in the air to draw out their ideas.”
Guess I’m busted. Blog anyone?