McEwan: The Wizard, Peeping From Behind the Curtain
New books dissected over email.
March 19 2002 7:58 PM

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Dear Erik,

OK, so the truck-crash metaphor in The Child in Time seemed self-conscious to you. What about the heartbreakingly imagined sequence where the father painstakingly chooses and wraps the birthday presents that he'll never be able to give his missing child? I only have to think about that passage to get teary, 15 years after I read the book. To me, that passage, way back when, signaled "Ian McEwan's arrival as one of the major writers of our time." Now, with books such as Amsterdam, which I found engaging enough but rather slight, and the uneven Atonement, he's hanging around the edge of the party, wolfing down the champagne and canapés without making a huge contribution to the repartee.

Pause here for a little bit of totally irrelevant McEwan gossip. Those who don't like such things should avert their eyes for one brief paragraph.

Scene: London's glittering Guildhall. Year: 1992. Occasion: the Booker Prize banquet. Me (present for journalistic purposes), seated between the guy who runs the Booker company's mushroom division and a man from the British Library whose "very old house in the country" turned out to be a castle that'd been in his family since the Norman invasion. McEwan, short-listed for the admirable Black Dogs, seated with his publishers while a BBC cameraman poked his lens into the small space between the author's potato puree and his mouth. (The Booker is a blood sport, televised live.) For the first and only time in Booker history, the judges decided to split the prize between two books, neither of them McEwan's. The author, barely able to keep his countenance, folded his napkin and flounced out, not even waiting for the, in those days, obligatory toast, "to poor Salman who can't be with us."

Anyway, speaking of ungraceful retreats, you wonder why I didn't mention Part 2, Robbie's admirably imagined retreat under fire through rural France, in my first posting. To be sure, on my initial reading of Atonement, I arrived at this section with immense relief. It was like walking out of a stuffy room full of boring people into a bracing starry night. It's very good; unexpected, emotionally vivid, with the unrelenting pace of a forced march. Indeed, the onward momentum of it, with its odd and unlooked for encounters, its fine descriptions of eating and drinking after unbearable hungers, had an almost Homeric resonance.

But, here's the thing: The very next novel I read was last year's fellow Booker short-listee Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room. At the risk once again of talking about books we're not reviewing, I need to say that the centerpiece of the triptych that makes up this remarkable book is a novella titled "Lore," which tracks the journey of five German children trying to get to their grandmother's house between the pincers of U.S. and Soviet invading forces. It is an extraordinary, accomplished piece of writing, and McEwan's paled in the glare of its harsh brilliance. So, you ask where I stand on the epilogue. Determined to maintain my orneriness till the last dog dies, I am inclined to a more positive view than you. I am a sucker for novelistic head games, and also for having my loose ends tied up. (It's a weakness, I know; I'm struggling with it.) McEwan's Briony is a much more convincing, more rounded character as a 77-year-old on the edge of dementia than she was as a 13-year-old idiot-savant. There are gems embedded here—one of which you flagged in your first posting—the description of the transmogrification of the Tallis house into a golf resort—and, my personal favorite, the writer's glee at getting right the small facts that make fiction viable. Briony has had a letter from a military source commenting on her manuscript and pointing out that no British soldier would say "On the double" when the correct term is "At the double." "I love these little things, this pointillist approach to verisimilitude, the correction of detail that cumulatively give such satisfaction." That's Briony talking, but you know that McEwan would say exactly the same thing. Indeed, the wizard peeps from behind the curtain a few sentences later. "Like policeman in a search team, we go on hands and knees and crawl our way towards the truth."

Perhaps only McEwan could put it like that. I look forward to his next book.

It's been fun disagreeing with you,
Geraldine

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