Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Learning from the masters: Ian McEwan

with 3 comments

Ian McEwan

If I were to recommend a single contemporary novelist as a good model for young writers to imitate, it would be Ian McEwan. Part of this is a matter of personal convenience: McEwan, in many ways, happens to represent the peak of the kind of writing toward which I’m constantly striving, and although I can’t come close to him at his best, I’d like to think of him as the platonic ideal of my own approach to fiction. (For the record, I only discovered McEwan after many elements of my own style were already locked in place; I never consciously emulated him, but I realized after the fact that he was better at what I was doing than I was.) Even if you’re writing in a different mode, there’s a lot that he can teach aspiring authors who are still trying to find their own voices. McEwan’s prose is stylish, elegant, but highly accessible: as T.S. Eliot said of Dante, if you imitate McEwan, you may end up with a boring sentence, but you won’t make a fool out of yourself. He understands the value of research, and he’s constantly expanding the range of experience about which he can credibly write. And while he’s not an intensely personal author, his books reflect a consistent set of questions to which he repeatedly returns—the nature of storytelling, the uneasy relationship between the body and the mind, and the contrast between the ideas by which we try to live and the messiness of human interaction.

He also loves plot, which gets close to the heart of why I find him so appealing. McEwan is a highly methodical writer, and his novels, even the seemingly loose series of events in Saturday, are intricately constructed. He’s an architect, not a gardener, but he’s also surprisingly humane and curious, which affords plenty of room for atmosphere and the careful exploration of character and situation as his stories proceed to their clockwork conclusions. In fact, as I’ve noted elsewhere, McEwan is essentially a suspense novelist who has been elevated into literary circles by virtue of sheer intelligence and craftsmanship. He understands that suspense is a tool designed to keep the reader engaged, and he uses that structure to carry us through complex novels of ideas that might not otherwise hold our attention. Suspense also provides him with a convenient matrix in which to tell stories about ordinary men and women placed in extraordinary situations, often involving violence, and to use the result to generate unexpected revelations of character. This is especially true of his earlier novels, like The Innocent, but you can see it all the way through his latest book, Sweet Tooth, which, among many other things, is a meditation on and subversion of the Cold War spy thriller. (Sharp readers will discern that the “David Cornwell” whom McEwan thanks in his acknowledgements is none other than John Le Carré.)

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I just finished Sweet Tooth last week, and I think it’s his strongest work of any kind since Atonement. It may, in fact, be a better book overall, and much of it reads as a return—in a slightly lighter vein—to some of the themes and strategies of that earlier novel. Both Atonement and Sweet Tooth are founded on sustained acts of literary ventriloquism: Atonement moved easily between the perspectives of characters of a variety of ages, genders, and social classes, and Sweet Tooth is partially an exercise in inhabiting the mind and life of a young woman in London in the 1970s. Since I’ve written frequently from a female point of view, this kind of thing interests me greatly, and McEwan pulls it off in a fashion that is both impressive and slightly showy. The homely details are laid in with a degree of care that I’m not sure we’d see in a female novelist, and the entire time, we’re encouraged both to believe in Serena as a character and to marvel at McEwan’s virtuosity as a writer. In another book, this might be a serious flaw, and as much as I enjoyed Sweet Tooth throughout, I was always conscious of the stylistic feat it was performing, which wasn’t the case with Atonement. By the end, however, we realize that McEwan has been one step ahead of us the entire time, and in retrospect, the entire novel seems even more controlled and purposeful than we suspected.

That’s the mark of a great writer, and I’ll add one more quality to the mix: McEwan’s humanity. That may seem like an unlikely attribute for a writer whose early books tended to excessive darkness, and whose truest precursor may be the gleefully macabre short fiction of Roald Dahl. Like many of us, though, McEwan has become gentler with time, and instead of a failure of nerve, it reflects a progressively more sympathetic understanding of human life. Sweet Tooth gives McEwan the opportunity to revisit some of his own tricks with the benefit of an additional decade’s worth of experience, and within the confines of a genre that sometimes seems to have little more in mind than putting the reader through the wringer, his decisions—which I won’t spoil here—are immensely gratifying. There are ways in which the ending of Sweet Tooth doesn’t quite make sense, and it’s a little too ingenious for its own good. Still, it’s one that I’m happy to accept, both within the logic of the story and in the larger context of McEwan’s growth as an author. He’s so good at what he does that it’s easy to be jealous of him, but he’s also uncommonly generous at giving us the how as well as the what. This is what all fiction could be, if we had his patience, experience, and imagination, and if his most recent work is any indication, it’s only going to get better from here.

Written by nevalalee

April 1, 2014 at 9:37 am

3 Responses

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  1. Fascinating. I have Sweet Tooth on my reading pile and can’t wait to tuck in. I hovered over the architect versus gardener comment. I am certainly a gardener, my husband is an architect. I’m reassured to believe there is a need and place for both in this world :-)

    jackiemallon

    April 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

  2. Darned right!

    nevalalee

    April 1, 2014 at 10:12 am

  3. FWIW, the thing that annoyed me the most about Sweet Tooth was how much Serena’s personality was defined by her falling in love with whatever man passed in front of her path. I specifically thought to myself how much more interesting your female characters were. Of course, a big part of Sweet Tooth is commenting on the sexual politics of the era, but I thought she slid into society’s stereotype of what she was supposed to be a little too easily.

    Nat

    April 3, 2014 at 6:50 pm


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