Saturday, June 30, 2018

Ian McEwan

When it comes to Ian McEwan, I think it's time we be a bit more honest. 

Let's start with the good: McEwan can write a pretty sentence -- and On Chesil Beach, the novel I've just finished, is filled with them. There they are, one after another, one more beautiful than the next. 

But does McEwan have a style? How would you describe his writing? For me, this is the difficulty: Chesil Beach is loaded with delicate -- almost ethereal -- sentences. Some of them are even memorable. But as I say: what's his style? This isn't like reading David Lodge or Philip Roth. It's not even like reading Graham Swift. There's a beauty here, but it's not part of something larger.  

Which is not to say that Chesil Beach is a failure: indeed, there are sections of the novel which are very well done. But to my mind, there's a guilty pleasure here, there's a sense in which the novel is a bit too easy: the reader doesn't have to work for satisfaction. 

And more: Chesil Beach struck me as less a novel than a novella, less a finished work that one in need of a second act. Because it's right at the moment of tension, of conflict, that the book effectively ends. McEwan appends an epilogue of sorts which takes the central characters through forty years in ten pages -- but it's not effective. To my mind, the book needed a second half, one in which that conflict is explored further (and perhaps resolved). 

All is not lost here: Chesil Beach does present an accurate rendering, I think, of the early 1960s, that moment just before it all came undone. These are characters born during the war, who came of age amidst the last of the Victorians. The sexual dynamics in the novel are especially strained, and I certainly believe McEwen was on to something in his treatment of what happened there, to that young couple, on Chesil Beach. 

Ultimately, Chesil Beach held my attention: indeed, I finished it in three sittings. But I felt throughout that the narration and plot were held together by something artificial, even gimmicky. I'll be the first to concede that there's the kernel of a tragedy here; I just wish that sorrow had been packaged in more muscular prose, with an accompanying character arc that was allowed to fully develop. 


  1. Hi Jesse, I recently read his "The Children Act" and felt somewhat the same. The novel is about a judge who decides the case of a boy who for religious reasons is denying the blood transfusion that can save his life. The judge is battling a domestic crisis -- her husband cheated on her -- and McEwan joins these two strands to focus on the misery of the protagonist while relegating the more important story of the sick boy to second status. I found something deeply contrived about this.

    As an aside, I would be interested in hearing more about your use of "style" here. I can see that you do not mean it in the way that writers employ language but as something to do with plot and narrative cohesion.

  2. Yes and no, Vikram.

    By "style," you're right: I do mean the way authors use language to weave a narrative. But I also mean it in the sense of employing language with consistency, with more than flourish.

    A somewhat predictable example of this would be Henry Miller: now he wielded a sentence with style, with intensity. I suppose you could say McEwan has a style; it'd be one built on beauty. But for me, that's not enough; the language just doesn't move.

    Thanks for your commentary here, by the way. Much obliged.

  3. Thanks for your response, Jesse. I understand now what you were getting at.

  4. Vikram, I find 'contrived' is precisely the right word for some (much?) of McEwan's work. Have you read Amsterdam? I came close to throwing it against a wall by the end.

    I'm not sure the problem with McEwan is one of language, except in so far as all fiction is a matter of language. It's rather the problem of flourish at the expense of character and plot. Somehow, I've often felt that McEwan doesn't think deeply about his characters. To me, many of them don't feel real, and their actions feel 'set up' as a consequence.

    Jesse, I don't understand what you mean by 'employing language with consistency', particularly in this context. If anything, McEwan's language use is overly consistent. And what's wrong with inconsistency? I like a mix of high and low, for example. Or am I missing what you mean?

  5. Lee, I read "Amsterdam" a long time ago and should return to it, but I have a feeling I will agree with you when I do.

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  7. Probably not worth it, Vikram. There are so many other things to read! I'm on a Helen Dunmore spree at the moment and recommend her both for her style and her understanding of people, especially women.

  8. Isn't the big problem with McEwan – and perhaps it's the result of all the others – that he can start a novel brilliantly, but after that simply can't go anywhere much with either the narrative or the characters?

  9. I completely agree, Lee, as it pertains to Amsterdam. I was confused by all the praise there.

    And you make a fair point about "consistency": maybe that's my issue, in the end, with McEwan: that he's too consistent, too insistent on beauty. Because you're right: there's flourish at the expense of character, particularly in Chesil Beach (which, as I wrote in my original post, stops just at the moment the going gets good)...