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The elegant extremist

Ian McEwan has always tempered his shocking stories with polished prose

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Imagine a parlour game where the aim is to cite two practitioners in one field who are such polar opposites to each other that they make us doubt that it really is one field at all. In cinema, for example, one could offer everything-explodes merchant Michael Bay and nothing-happens master Andrei Tarkovsky. 

In fiction, one extreme might be Ian McEwan, the young author who shocked literary London with stories about pickled penises and a teenager raping his young sister. And the far side would be occupied by Ian McEwan, darling of the twenty-first century prize lists and bestseller shelves, whose novels have appeared on the Queen Consort’s Reading Room book club, and who once said with a straight face, “It’s an aspect of getting older that I find in my social circle a handful of judges.”

… he always was both at the same time

How does one become the other? When did Ian McEwan stop being a risk-taker, the enfant terrible of nasty sex (“Ian Macabre” was Private Eye’s nickname for him), and start being the grandfather of the well-plotted English literary novel of ideas? The answer is that he always was both at the same time. 

A bearded, lank-haired 26-year-old McEwan, looking very Generation Z, loomed out of the publicity materials for his first collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975 (first edition, left). Even the positive reviews of these stories of murder, child abuse and cat-roasting, McEwan recalled later, “were scandalised. What monster had come among us?”

As if that weren’t enough, McEwan doubled down three years later with not only another collection, In Between the Sheets — this time featuring a pornographer having his cock cut off and the love between woman and ape — but his first novel, The Cement Garden, where a bunch of misfit siblings bury their dead mother in cement and then proceed — at least two of them do — to have it off. 

In its review of In Between the Sheets, US outlet Kirkus (calling McEwan, with almost perfect inaccuracy, “the Roald Dahl for the sexually-disruptive 70s”) said the author was “a writer of tremendous style who seems limited by his obsessions”. Yet this assessment precisely misses the balance: McEwan was a writer of obsessive subject matter freed by his style, a style which rescued these apprentice works from oblivion and ensured they remain in print today.

But it was with his second novel The Comfort of Strangers (1981) that McEwan showed for the first time his sublime ability to blend exceptional literary control with deeply horrible, even depraved, subject matter. (It earned the author the first of his six shortlistings for the Booker Prize.) 

Here was an upsetting but compelling sliver of a story — a young couple are befriended by a stranger in a Venice-like city — about power dynamics between men and women, where the sexual chaos and gruesome violence are two sides of the same coin. The horror remains in the mind, but so too does the journey there: the way McEwan draws the reader in, just as the couple in the novel find themselves drawn in, and leaves them stranded with no moral compass. 

Then came the crisis. A gap of six years before his next novel reflected in part that McEwan felt he had written himself into a corner. His response was a series of novels which abandoned the claustrophobic internal couplings of his first four books in favour of a new landscape: looking out at the world. These were The Child in Time (1987), The Innocent (1990), Black Dogs (1992) and Enduring Love (1997).

With The Child in Time there was a sense almost of relief among critics that McEwan was finally putting his talents to less ugly uses. “The McEwan you and I have been waiting for,” offered The Guardian, while The Listener affirmed that the book “attains a new level of seriousness”. Yet this overlooks that The Child in Time was still a deeply eccentric book, set in the future during an unprecedented heatwave, where one character is of unspecified gender and another plot strand involves an MP literally reverting to childhood.

And despite their smoother, maturer surfaces — “To call The Innocent a spy novel would be like calling Lord of the Flies a boys’ adventure yarn,” said The Sunday Times — these were still novels where bad things happen to people excitingly: missing children (The Child in Time), a fight to the death (The Innocent), being terrorised by Nazi-trained dogs (Black Dogs) or victimised by a mentally-ill stalker (Enduring Love). 

The blend was perfect: uneasiness delivered with aplomb

The blend was perfect: uneasiness delivered with aplomb, and at least two or three virtuosic set pieces of action in each book. Zoë Heller called him “the master clockmaker of novelists”. But there was comedy in them too — comedy that readers had overlooked since McEwan’s early stories, and the lack of response to which may have led him to make his next novel the much broader comedy (featuring, naturally, forced euthanasia), Amsterdam (1998).

By now the transition for McEwan to Master of the Universe (English Literary Fiction Division) was complete. Amsterdam — not uncontroversially, as an unapologetic bagatelle among his works — won the Booker Prize, and kick-started what we might call his imperial phase. 

His next novel, Atonement (2001), was fast-tracked to modern classic status. It had everything — spanning 60 years, incorporating country-house romance, war and a twist that meant that, as Claire Messud put it, “complicatedly, this novel is both itself, and a novel about itself”. The twist irked almost as many readers as it delighted, showing that even in his crowd-pleasing pomp, McEwan could still kick against the pricks.

Perhaps it was over-confidence that caused the wobbles in his next novel Saturday (2005), which was shredded with relish by John Banville in the New York Review of Books: “if Tony Blair were to appoint a committee to produce a ‘novel for our time’, the result would surely be something like this”. 

This was slightly unfair: Saturday in many respects is a masterpiece of finesse, drawing on literary legacies from Bellow to Woolf, and studded with impressive set pieces (a squash game, brain surgery). But the architecture creaks — the book is set on 15 February 2003, the day of the Iraq war protests — and the finale, featuring a violent burglar disarmed by a reading of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, was rightly ridiculed. (The poem is reproduced in the endpapers, making Saturday the only modern novel which is both a literary artefact and a defensive weapon.)

It’s true that reading later McEwan has generally been a smoother affair than the early and mid-period novels, but nastiness and strangeness with the edges sanded off are still nasty and strange. In particular, there is an ongoing interest in sexual desire as an agent of chaos: they may be less scabrous than The Cement Garden or The Comfort of Strangers, but On Chesil Beach (2007), the story of a disappointing honeymoon night, and Lessons (2022), McEwan’s hemi-semi-autobiographical epic covering eight decades, both turn on the lifelong impact of childhood sexual abuse.

McEwan, in other words, has always — from the sexy stories to the state-of-the-nation novels — been interested in how to be both, to keep the reader turning the pages, but also stop them in their tracks with a gasp. His status has made him a barn door-sized target for criticism, typically hinging on the upper-middle-class milieu of his characters, or a perception — quite uninformed by reading the novels — that his books are dull thinkpieces in a fictional veneer. 

McEwan is unrepentant, incidentally, on the lack of working-class protagonists in his books. “They don’t ask Julian Barnes that. Why aren’t there any Chinese people in my novels? Why aren’t there any Russians? I have to write what I write.”

He has continued to write what he has to write over the last decade, taking risks no other bankable novelist of his generation takes. His 2016 novel Nutshell is a Hamlet-inspired story of adultery and murder, narrated by a hyper-articulate foetus who sees nothing, but hears everything. (Opening line: “Here I am, upside down in a woman.”) It was his most artistically successful novel in years. 

And in 2019 he published Machines Like Me, which went full science fiction with a story set in an alternative 1982, comprising a love triangle between two humans and a robot. This one, it’s fair to say, was not one of his best (“It’s not the first, or even tenth, place to start reading McEwan,” wrote the New York Times Book Review), but no one could deny the author had lost none of his taste for “cerebral silliness”. It was followed in 2019 with The Cockroach, a novella blending, ominously, Kafka and Brexit.

What we see, therefore, is an author who from the start knew how to sweeten his bitter stories with elegant prose and a meticulous plot, and who in his later years has indulged his flights of fancy while never forgetting to indulge the reader. He has, from start to end, occupied two extremes of the literary spectrum at once. In 2019, when McEwan published Machines Like Me, following his foetal-attraction story Nutshell, his old friend Martin Amis emailed him. “When are you going to stop going nuts?” We should be thankful he never has.

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