Authors Alan Garner, Ian McEwan and Mohsin Hamid

Head boy and head-scratchers

Come autumn, competing literary establishments parade their best

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Autumn is when the literary establishment comes out to play, and publishers release books by their most prestigious names. The reasons are lost in time, but it may be connected to the end of summer: fun is over, they say, time to read some serious books. Or it may be because the book publishing year runs like the academic year from autumn to summer, and so we launch a new literary year with the titles that set the standard.

But in our multifaceted world, many establishments bump up against one another. The head boy of the senior literary establishment in England is Ian McEwan. (Hilary Mantel is head girl.) He started out as purveyor of fictions which would, in a world where books had the currency of music or television, have attracted tabloid demands to BAN THIS SICK STUNT. His blackly comic debut collection First Love, Last Rites included a pickled penis and a teenager raping his 10-year-old sister; his first novel, The Cement Garden, was a festival of incest.

Lessons, Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape, £20)

But a writer does not achieve longevity from shocks alone, and it is McEwan’s prose as well as his ability with old-fashioned features such as story and narrative tension — never of much interest to contemporaries Amis and Barnes — that have lifted him to the top in the half-century since. Now his books are both celebrated — interviews, events, leather-bound editions in the LRB shop — and ignored: nobody really expects his well-turned, mature novels to surprise us any more.

Which is a shame, because his new novel Lessons is very good. Despite the smoothing out of McEwan’s edges over the decades, his interest in the chaos that the sexual impulse brings remains consistent. (As his pal Martin Amis put it, all writers tackle the same themes through their career. The perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn.) Here, the initiating event is the hero Roland Baines being groomed and abused by his (female) piano teacher between the ages of 11 and 15.

It is the seed from which the book grows, as this is a whole-life story, starting with Roland’s childhood and continuing to 2021. He shares his dates and many life events with McEwan: this is, if not quite a late shift into autofiction, at least in stretches a “fictionalised autobiography”, as the author has put it.

Mohsin Hamid is the next generation of the literary establishment

The premise here is that Roland is a man who hasn’t really done much with his life — freelance pianist, poet-turned-greetings-card-versifier — but has had things done to him: by his piano teacher, for one, or his wife who abandoned him and their son to become a prizewinning novelist: “These strange elements — but all part of one ordinary life.” The life exists in its times, which when you filter them enough of course look extraordinary, especially viewed with the vanity of those who lived through them. (Aren’t we important!) So we have the postwar settlement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the, er, rise of New Labour and all points north. 

That’s clearly enough incident to be going on with, but what gives Lessons its life is McEwan’s ability to swoop over the landscape and then drop in for the detail, thereby achieving both scale and focus. It also has a way of naming the world, a level of simple external awareness, that makes those solipsistic new novels about a narrator’s relationship history seem anaemic. Or to put it another way, we need more novels with sentences that begin: “Through an ex-MI6 friend of Malcolm Muggeridge … ”

The other thing that makes Lessons satisfying is that it is, well, satisfying — there’s plenty to chew on here, from how great artists survive bad behaviour to the complexity of processing the past (“No, that wasn’t it either!”). But no need to over-analyse its pleasures: above all it’s a good story expertly told. As Roland reflects at the end, it would be “a shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson”.

Mohsin Hamid is a prominent member of the next generation of the literary establishment. He’s been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is published by a high-end imprint, and publishes slim high-concept novels. For example: his Booker-shortlisted The Reluctant Fundamentalist was written as a long, one-sided dialogue, and his follow-up How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia took the form of a self-help manual.

The Last White Man, Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99)

His new novel The Last White Man can be reduced to a similar elevator pitch — everyone in the world who is white becomes dark-skinned — though for reasons that I hope to make clear, I am not sure “reduced” is the right word. It opens by channelling Kafka (“One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown”) and Hemingway (“This dawned upon him gradually, and then suddenly … ”).

Indeed this is a book of literary antecedents: the conceit of changing race is an old one — think of George Schuyler’s 1935 satire Black No More — and Anders’s initial difficulties in handling his change of skin colour (“a crime that had taken everything from him, that had taken him from him”) are reminiscent of other novels on identity measured through appearance, such as Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another or Marcel Aymé’s Beautiful Image. The style of long, grammatical run-on sentences brings to mind a European literary sensibility.

That placelessness is presumably intentional, since the setting is never specified. The only named characters are Anders and his girlfriend Oona, whose names sound sort-of-European, though the gun-heavy place where they live is more kinda-American. Hamid’s aim, of course, is universality, and placing a story outside any location or era prevents the reader from lashing their thoughts down to one historical and political context.

Similarly, there is no effort made to explain why the world’s skin is turning dark. Nor is there much direct dialogue, with everything instead being reported from overhead, as it were. This gives the whole story — a fanciful, crazy tale, lest we forget — a deadened feel, so that even when Oona’s racist mother involuntarily vomits upon seeing dark-skinned Anders in bed with her daughter, it carries no force.

You may be detecting a pattern here. This is a novel which in content insists upon significance, but in style evades it. As a reader I would always rather bring myself to the novel, and not have everything set out explicitly, but The Last White Man fails to meet the reader halfway. Moments of conflict fizzle out, which is no doubt intentional — perhaps everything is going to be OK? — but it doesn’t make for a satisfying reading experience. 

Alan Garner is a king of the shadow literary establishment

It’s a shame, because there is potential here: occasionally a scene stands out, as when Anders returns to his gym workplace, and that flowing, calm-but-turbulent style is very well executed, but it has the effect of a meal which tastes delicious but leaves you hungry not just afterwards, but whilst you’re eating it. 

The warm, even enthusiastic reviews I’ve read baffle me: it seems to me a book full of ideas, with none of them explored. On the bright side, as the book is fully summed up not just by the first page but by the title, the chances of spoilers are slim.

Alan Garner is a king of what we might call the shadow literary establishment. Publishing a blend of children’s fiction and adult fiction — sometimes in the same book — for more than six decades, he has a passionate following, but has never broken fully into the mainstream. 

Treacle Walker, Alan Garner (Fourth Estate, £8.99)

His new book Treacle Walker is simple to summarise but impossible to explain. When it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, some argued that it was a lifetime achievement recognition, which sounds like a mild dig but is pretty fair. Indeed, the rave reviews of Treacle Walker — all of which come from people steeped in his work since childhood — affirm that this is “the book of a lifetime”.

It synthesises the interests, themes and sometimes characters that Garner has introduced before. Those interests are in the English landscape and culture, the fluidity of time, myths and related paraphernalia. It’s a world of copses, bogs and cuckoos calling, where our young hero Joe Coppock encounters a rag and bone man — the Treacle Walker of the title — who gives him an empty medicine jar and a donkey stone.

What follows is gnomic and (literally) magical, featuring second sight and a double of Joe. Your view on it all will depend on your appetite for dialogue like: “And to show the meaning, put the clout to the glamourie and use the glim that’s in the mirligoes.” Being a newcomer to Garner — I did read his novel Red Shift some years ago but can’t remember a thing about it — it all left me pretty cool, though mostly aware of my own limitations in recognising its significance.

Because the language is so clear, you know the obscurity of Joe’s story is not an affectation but a product of the complexity of the ideas Garner is expressing: though whether he is really expressing them if the good-faith reader doesn’t understand is a moot point. For that reason I finished Treacle Walker largely unsatisfied but with my curiosity struck. If my reaction is typical of Garner ingénues, then the Booker Prize judges may not have succeeded in introducing him to a new readership. The response may be more like Joe’s in response to one of the inexplicable events in the book: “What the heck was all that about?”

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