The Gooseyard

Home » Posts tagged 'Ian McEwan'

Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

Remaindered: Thy Name is Value!

 

IMG_0330 (1)

Photo by author. (The Bulk Barn is located in the same strip mall as my local Indigo book store, so a new batch of books usually means a fresh bag of sour jujubes – seen here to the left of the book pile – to help me get underway with my recent acquisitions).

 

If you’re reading this, it means I’m already dead… (Oops, sorry, that’s another blog I’m working on!)

*Presses RE-SET*

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re a blogger. Which means you’re a writer (of sorts). Which means you’re probably also a reader. Potentially, even a crazy, hardcore, old-school, the-book-as-artifact-is-the-thing-loving bibliomaniac reader like myself. Or maybe not.

Whatever the case, if you’re someone who has seldom, if ever, left a bookstore empty handed, then you’re my kind of people.

I do try to control myself. Sometimes I even just use my cell phone to take photos of the books I want to buy, then rush home and submit an on-line request for them at my local library. But even in those instances, I still hardly ever leave the bookstore without at least one bag of “product.”

So thank the book gods for the “remaindered” tables, or, as I like to call them, the “how-can-I-not-buy an-interesting-hardcover-book-for-between-$6.99-and-$10” displays. (Though it pisses me off when the retailers insist on marring the underside of a book’s textblock with a marker line before moving it over to the “discount” side of the store. We know they’re remainders already, so leave the marker in your pocket for Chrissake, and stop defacing my future books!)

That’s not say I don’t buy full-priced new books hot off the presses as well (anything by Ian McEwan or Carlos Ruiz Zafon, to name a couple), but it’s amazing what eventually makes its way to the remaindered table if you’re patient.

Yesterday’s catches, for example, for just under $30CAD (including taxes, and allowing for my 10% loyalty card discount), were as follows:

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, by Alan Weisman, for $3. Yes, $3! I have, in fact, taken this book out of the library before, but never did get the chance to read it, so this is a double win for me. Personally I think we’ve damaged the earth beyond repair at this point in human history, so it’ll be interesting to see what Mr. Weisman has to say.

Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and other Typographical Curiosities, by Keith Houston, for $10. Yeah, if you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a bit of a word / grammar / punctation nerd too, so I’m excited about this one. Plus I really liked the design and feel of the mock-imprinted dust jacket.

The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers, by Donald Maass, for $10. This goes on the shelf with my gazillion other writing guides. Well maybe not a gazillion, but — especially if you’re a wanna-be writer like I am — you know what I mean; there’s enough of them that, even if I started reading them this morning, and diligently completed all the various exercises and prompts each of them takes you through, by the time I finished the last of them, and was ready to start writing — or, I should say, finish writing — my breakout novel, I’d be about 107 years old. But, still, it’s got that nice Writer’s Digest binder-esque workbook construction about it, and seemed like such a perfect companion piece to my similarly-bound The Nighttime Novelist: Finish Your Novel in Your Spare Time (also purchased from the remainder shelves), that I simply could not not — notice the clever use of the double negative there to further accentuate my thesis and expose my internal state of conflict about the whole matter — bring it home with me.

A Fatal Likeness, by Lynn Shepherd, for $7.99. Well, I couldn’t leave without at least one work of fiction in my bag. Right? And this one traffics in that 19th century Gothic mystery atmosphere I’m  such a sucker for, to say nothing of promising some sophisticated literary intrigue and even a Frankenstein connection: “Hardly a conniving criminal, Claire Clairmount [who is trying to sell a cache or rare papers that supposedly belonged to Percy Bysshe Shelley] is in fact the stepsister of Mary Shelley, and their tortured history of jealousy, obsession, and dark deceit looms large over the affair that Maddox must untangle.” Again, even if it turns out to be crap, how can you go wrong for $7.99? It still fills up a bookcase as convincingly as any other of its more worthy brethren.

So, tell me, how do you curb your bookstore cravings? Or do you?

Road Trippin’: Shiny Pearls of Wisdom from My Inaugural Autumn Writing Retreat

IMG_0212

Retreat Headquarters (© Philip Jefferson)

 

OK, so my long-anticipated, self-initiated, inaugural writing retreat is now little more than a blur in the proverbial rearview mirror of my life. And, like most things one spends too much time thinking about in advance, it was, and was not, exactly what I thought it would be. So what’s the take-away?

 

“Everybody has a plan — until they get punched in the face!” (It’s not often that Mike Tyson “out-quotes” a former US president, but I find the aforementioned snippet far pithier that Dwight Eisenhower’s rather more prosaic WWII-era version: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”) The main worry I was grappling with in my pre-retreat blog was that by seeking to maximize what I hoped to get out of the weekend — either creatively or socially — I might actually “plan the life out of it.” Well, I’m glad to say that I didn’t. True, I knew how I wanted the days to unfold — how I had calculated I could eek the most productivity out of the limited time I had before me — but once I felt that first fist against my jaw (in Tyson parlance), I’m proud to say I just let things unfold as they presented themselves. I knew there existed an overarching structural “plan” lingering in the shadows that I could revert to if required, but, instead, I simply sought to channel my inner Zen-novice and “relax into things.” Relaxing, of course, is anathema to word count. But it was an incredible autumn weekend and we had a lot of fun out and about at the farmer’s market and local wine festival. And ate waaaay to much!

 

I’m pretty much toast — intellectually — by the end of the work week. Those of you who are regular visitors here at the Gooseyard know that I’m something of a “fanboy” when it comes to the writer Ian McEwan. The one exception is an interview I once saw with him where he pontificated — rather flippantly in my opinion — that you simply can’t write serious fiction if you haven’t managed to divest yourself of a full-time “day job.” I think part of the reason I was so incensed at this “literary pronouncement from on high” was that, deep down, I rather suspect he’s right. It’s damn near impossible to find the gumption to knock out a few thousand decent words a night when you’ve spent the bulk of the day toiling in the salt-mines of [insert your job here]. (OK, yes, yes, shut up, I know, if I were truly committed I’d get up an hour earlier every day and get my writing done then, or get divorced and move into a studio apartment or something, but that’s a different blog altogether). And as hard as it is to discipline oneself to sit down and write something worthwhile after a single day at the office, I find it damn near impossible to write — or do anything else requiring any conscious level of dexterity for that matter — on a Friday night, after having logged five over-busy work days in a row. Maybe it’s a symptom of middle-age, but lately my ideal Friday evening seems comprised mainly of seeking to achieve a kind of languid, Netflix-induced somnolent trance, my eyelids drooping somewhere south of wakefulness, my belly full, a liquid intoxicant of some description at hand, and the hum of the laundry tossing itself clean in the washer in the near distance. [Aside to Millennials: See what you have to look forward to when you grow up?] So even though my retreat-mates and I made sure to take Friday off to give ourselves a full, three-day session at the cottage, the limited amount of writing I was able to convince myself to do that Friday afternoon — after my nap — was still a bit of a slog. And the evening, as usual, found us simply relaxing with a movie (though, in our defence, it was, at least, a book-related movie).

 

ktel

Things suffer when you make them serve too many purposes at once. Remember those K-Tel ads for that ultimate, multi-purpose kitchen gadget: “It slices, it dices, it juliennes!” Well, sometimes — usually quite often, in fact — we end up over-burdening the things in our lives by trying to make them serve too many disparate purposes at one time. And thus overburdened they don’t end up serving their primary purpose(s) anywhere near as well as they should. The Porche Cayenne you bought, because you wanted a sports car, but still needed enough room to schlep the kids to school and pick up the groceries, is not going to perform like the 911 you always dreamed of. The writers’ retreat was no different. Because it was also a couple’s retreat. And a fall getaway. And a food fest. Which are all valid reasons to get in the car and go somewhere. But the more you load up something with the requirements for it to be something else at the same time, the less well it is going to perform in any of its expected roles.

 

image

[Greta and] “I want to be left alone.”  The more I write, the more I realize that I need real solitude to do so. What Virginia Woolf referred to — though admittedly her focus at the time was on women writers — as a “room of one’s own.” This metaphoric room, as any writer will tell you, represents far more than a simple, physical space, however. It is, rather, the all-encompassing “realm” in which the writer most effectively undertakes his or her work. Every “realm” is different. In my case, I need three things to hit the “zone” running: a sufficient expanse of free time in front of me to get started and maintain some reasonable momentum; complete physical separation from other people (except, occasionally when I make the conscious decision to attempt some writing in a cafe or library); and a reasonably-sized window to look out of (preferably across a natural vista of some sort). Or to put it another way, and with a nod to Corinthians 13:13, “And now abideth time, landscape and solitude; but the greatest of these is solitude.” In a way — and this isn’t an original analogy, though it is one I’ve argued before in one form or another — writing is a lot like masturbation: it’s not something that’s particularly easy to undertake when there are other folks in the room (even if it is just your wife and a couple of really good friends). The retreat certainly gave me time to write, and we definitely had an incredible view across the Northumberland shore line from the cottage’s dining room window, but it seems I really need to be alone to truly hit my writerly stride. With all due respect to Meatloaf, two outta three may not be bad, but it’s not going to generate a proliferation of prose on my part.

 

So, what’s the final verdict? Would I do it again? Definitely — in fact I hope to do it agin next year. Did I achieve the purported goals outlined in the last paragraph of my pre-retreat blog? Let’s review.

 

Enjoy some fall foliage? Check.

 

Have a couple of drinks and share a few laughs with friends? Check, and double check!

 

Produce a half a dozen pages of decent prose? Umm, not so much. Maybe three. Though they weren’t bad. (And we had a really invigorating discussion Sunday morning about using dialogue to advance one’s story — as opposed to a rambling interior monologue approach which, I’m sure, will eventually be my literary downfall.)

 

Next year, however, I’m going to take a page out of Bridget Jone’s diary and simply refer to whatever autumn excursion we decide to undertake as a “mini-break.” If I happen to get some writing done, great. If not, that’s OK too. And part of the reason that it will be OK is that I’ve decided to plan a true Writers’ Retreat before then. I imagine it will involve a locked door, a small room and a big window. I’ll keep you posted.

 

P.S. What are your “must-haves” when it comes to the creative endeavours you undertake? I’d love to hear from you.

Saturday Morning and a Double Espresso

Photo credit: tonx via photopin cc

Photo credit: tonx via photopin cc

Apparently, suggest the cognoscenti, my blog lacks focus.

“If you think you have what it takes and are determined to stay the course then know that blogging begins with defining a purpose for your blog that clearly expresses your aim to blog with passion about something that matters…. From the outset you need to be able to describe your blog’s purpose by expressing what you intend to blog about in as few words as possible.” (Creating an Effective Blog Description by timethief)

One option, of course, is to embrace the obvious dichotomy between this recommended requirement for a “grand unifying theory” — as the physicists might call it — and my blog’s present lack thereof. My focus, in this case, becomes its inherent lack of focus, a deliberate thematic diffusion. A menagerie of miscellany. Which, I suppose, it already is. As are most blogs, I would argue, regardless of their purported descriptions.

I tried to start with a focus. My “official” tag line, below The Gooseyard banner, for example, is “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think…” Hopefully that supposition at least hints at the fact that I’m interested in thinking / writing about the end-run we’re all attempting to make around the concept of our own individual mortality.

Then, beneath my author’s photo (as you’ve probably already seen if, in fact, you’re reading this blog) is a more explicit, supplemental attempt at defining a unifying principal amongst these digital pages: “A (mostly) literary blog.” Except it hasn’t been. Not really. But I do talk a lot about Ian McEwan. He’s awesome. (Though, truth be told, I’m somewhat less than impressed with his website.)

The “literary blog” thing, in retrospect, turned out to be more of an “aspirational” tag than an elucidating descriptor. It was required of me far too early in the process. Like asking a child what he wants to be when he grows up. We can’t all be firefighters after all, but we never really understand this little heartbreak until it’s too late.

Thus far, it turns out, my blog has simply been about what it’s been about. I’m sure there’s a special place in hell for those of us who traffic in such tautological pedantry, but I’ve decided — experts be damned — that I’m simply not going to be pinned down at the moment. Mainly because I’m not sure exactly what I’m doing yet myself. I don’t know if what I’m attempting in this forum can ultimately be construed as entertainment, human interest, or maybe just wordpainting for dummies. Comedy or tragedy? I don’t know if it’s good or bad or utterly indifferent. If it’s poetry. Or therapy. Or a plaintive cry for some last vestige of human community — digital or otherwise.

What I do know is that, when it comes to the various blogs that I follow myself, what matters to me far more than how accurately the authors describe what their blog is about is the quality of their writing. In fact, I seldom find myself reading blogs that focus on single-topic content. Blog-wise, I quickly determined that I’m far more engaged by a good writer writing about something in which I have no particular interest, than I am by a bad writer writing about something close to my heart. Ultimately, the quality of the writer / writing matters far more to me than the consistency of the topic.

And it’s this type of simply-write-about-whatever-may-catch-your-attention-but-make-it-interesting-and-writerly approach that I seem to have adopted by default. I suppose I blog at all because it is an inherently un-focused activity. I’m focused all day —  every day — at work. Like a laser. If I were then to also maintain this focus into my non-work hours, well, the universe might actually begin to falter. That would be waaaay too much focus for anyone to deal with. With that much focus I’d be liable to generate another big bang or something. (SHUT UP! This is so a brilliant metaphor! The big bang was all about things becoming too concentrated, too focused, right? Same as me. Really! I’ve done the math!)

So what’s the take-away in all this bloggerly beating of breast and gnashing of teeth? I’ve decided to revise my tag line to “An (occasionally) literary blog.” Whew, I’m glad I got that off my chest! I bet the suspense was killing you.

NB. timethief (onecoolsitebloggingtips.com) also writes that there are about 39 million posts uploaded to WordPress every month. Talk about the perfect opportunity to fall through the cracks and never be heard from again! Given those kind of numbers I may end up having to simply Freshly Press myself at some point. Though I imagine this would be considered rather gauche by all those who have actually already achieved such distinction. And probably frowned upon by the folks at WordPress.

Not that it really matters anyway given that timethief further advises that the stats indicate that most of us new bloggers won’t last out the year to begin with.

I may need to reconsider my subscription to onecoolsitebloggingtips…

On the kindness and, one hopes, the prescience of one’s early readers

reading3

Every time I lock myself in this room and try to put something to paper, my mind reels.

Why? Why do I do this to myself?

Why the hell, after an exhausting day in the salt mines of [insert your day job here], do I come home and seek to force myself on the page?

When it’s sunny outside. Or when I should be playing video games and bonding with my teenaged son. Or finishing the floor tile in back hall that I started last year.

If you’re a writer, you already know why. You’ll also have your own very personal reasons, of course, but, ultimately, it’s a compulsion thing. You can’t help yourself. It’s kind of like masturb . . . uhmm . . . I mean, like when you open that big bag of potato chips promising to only eat one. Maybe two or three, tops. And then proceed to eat the who bag. You simply can’t stop. The only thing harder than writing — and this only goes to prove the universe’s twisted sense of irony — is not writing.

What makes it all worthwhile though, and I suppose this is probably true for any endeavour, are those little bursts of joy we get when stuff actually works out to our satisfaction. Like Hannibal from the A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together!” And for writers there’s that extra little jolt of accomplishment that comes when, every now and then, we learn that we have actually made some sort of connection with our readers. That we’ve gained another “Follower” on our blog or won a story competition or had something published — all things contingent upon there being actual human beings on the other end of our words with whom we’ve somehow made a connection.

It’s surprising how minuscule such tidbits of positive feedback can be and still provide huge spurts of motivation. Even over relatively long periods of time, and especially for those of us writers who don’t yet, and very well may never have, an honest-to-goodness “fan base.”

I remember my first job out of university. I worked for a PR and advertising firm and spent the better part of a year organizing a national conference for a large professional association. During the conference itself I barely slept for about 72 hours. The day after it was over I returned to my desk to find a cream-coloured envelope there with my name on it. Inside the envelope was a crisp $100 bill and a handwritten note from the company president thanking me for my diligence in putting together such a successful event. Before then I barely had the sense that the president even knew who I was, but everything about that card was just right. It was immediate enough after the event that there was no way it could be construed as an afterthought. It contained cash, rather than a company cheque, which further personalized the monetary token — and it was a nice crisp $100 at that, obviously not something he had simply reached into his pocket and pulled out. And the amount, while not staggering, wasn’t a pittance (at least to me) — it was just enough to show gratitude without being vulgar. He had made — to my mind — an authentic connection with me. After that, I would have done almost anything for the guy.

But when writers get positive feedback from a reader, — when someone’s actually crawled into your psyche and experienced your words along with you, and is able to communicate to you that they have gained something by the experience — now there’s a rush! And you hoard these experiences as a bulwark against the bleakness of the daily writing grind. Squirreling them away to be re-ingested at 2am sittings when you’re on the fifth edit of a particularly troublesome piece of crap that has you considering ditching writing altogether in favour of doing something a little less painful like, maybe, gouging your eyeballs out with a butter knife.

Yet this unique behavioural feedback loop only really works if those folks from whom you’re receiving praise don’t have some previous vested interest in your success. Thumbs up from Mom does’t count — she’s a ringer. And spouses are doubly problematic. Part of them wants to be your champion no matter what you undertake. The other part, however, may very well want to scream at you to stop wasting your time playing make believe and actually finish the tiling in the back hall. Both, I would argue, are equally valid responses. And, with this insight, it may often be better to simply leave this particular keg untapped when you’re looking for reassurance of your emerging, literary genius.

Of course there are always exceptions to the spousal rule. A friend from my writing group, for example, earned some high praise from his wife indeed, after the performance of a play he had written a few years ago, when she informed him, “I thought it was great. By the end I had completely forgotten you had written it.” Okay, maybe a little bit backhanded, but still on the positive side of the ledger nonetheless. (Another friend of mine offered a similar “compliment” on my short story, “Anhalter,” that I posted last month: “Oh, that was yours? I thought it was just a story you stumbled upon by someone else and posted it to your blog ‘cause you thought it was interesting. I liked it. It’s didn’t sound anything like your usual stuff.” Uhmm, thanks. I think.)

But the real breakthroughs come when disinterested (or, at least, mostly disinterested) third parties are able to “pick up what you’re putting down.” Sometimes they’re even able to discern what you’ve done better than you are yourself. I remember when I originally read “Saturday Afternoon” (which I posted here last week) to my writing group. I was a little worried because the several friends I had shown it to previously were completely confounded by it: “Uhmm, it’s . . . good? I had to read it a couple of times. I’m not quite sure I get it. There was a plane crash, right?” But one of my writing group colleagues immediately exposed something I didn’t even understand — consciously — about the piece until she mentioned it: “I like it. Engaging imagery. It’s really more like poetry, this story, isn’t it.” YES! YES! That was it! The imagery, the cadence of the climactic paragraph reeling and arching with the rhythm of the poor, pre-destined pinball. Someone “Got it!” and, in doing so, had even helped me to see my own work more clearly. This insight kept me writing for a least another six months.

Then, last year, I sat down and wrote the first chapter of a novel that had suddenly taken up residence in my mind. I had seen it as a vision: The literary love child of Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. (Yes, more vampires, but not really. Trust me!) I’m enthralled with this first chapter. I think it’s evocative and atmospheric and richly character driven. Somehow I haven’t had the time and / or energy to block out the rest of the book yet, but I know it’s going to be a winner if I’m ever able to — stop blogging long enough to — get back to it.

I think they liked it at writers’ group, but I recently got some first-hand reader feedback from the sister of a friend of mine to whom I had e-mailed an e-pub copy so she could read on her i-Pad:

OH MY STARS !!! When I got to the part where he thought Gretel was skinning a baby I almost passed out. Your description made it feel like I was standing in the kitchen and I had goosebumps . . . . I need more of that story.

I’m all subscribed and am getting your blogs.

Keep that shit up. It’s good stuff and I enjoy reading it.

Manna from heaven!

And a ringing enough endorsement that I imagine I’ll be “keeping this shit up” for the foreseeable future. Or at least until someone trips over the edge of the hardwood transition in the back hall and I simply can’t put off finishing the floor tile any longer.

Photo credit: University of Warwick (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/al/learning_english/leap/reading/)

Art, Ian McEwan, and Me, Blogging

Image

Ian McEwan. Photo Credit: Annalena McAfee

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?