Thoughts On Ian McEwan

(Written 14 August)

Amsterdam was the third stop in my summer self-administered crash course in Ian McEwan. I’d decided long ago that he was one of the Famous Authors I Really Should Read But Haven’t, and since the Marine Parade Library has all his books except Atonement, I thought it was as good a time as any to start.

I think most of the impressions I formed of his writing in the first two books I read (Enduring Love and The Child In Time) are borne out quite clearly in Amsterdam. His plots are consistently compelling – I never have difficulty focusing on the read, whereas with, say, Kavalier & Clay (my other most recent read) I often had to consciously commit myself to finishing a chapter. There, it was sometimes hard to figure out the point of what I’d just read, if any, and whether it was going anywhere worth going. A question I often ask myself is why the author’s decided to leave something in, what exact contribution it’s made which enabled it to survive the brutal editorial process.

I don’t have any problems answering these questions with Ian McEwan books, especially Amsterdam. On the contrary, he sometimes seems a little heavy-handed with his Messages; in Amsterdam he repeatedly follows a certain pattern in setting up his morality points: i) man is aware of another person’s misfortune or distress, ii) man briefly considers this, perhaps even experiences a small surge of caring, although it’s probably more accurate to say he’s briefly aware that he should care but doesn’t necessarily actually feel anything, iii) self-absorption takes over and man is caught up in his own needs and interests, iv) man chooses to serve his own interests and rationalizes this to himself without much effort.

There is also almost a fixation with making his characters authors or musicians, but since I like the way he writes about both art forms, this is an observation rather than a criticism.

While I think he’s more pointed than he needs to be sometimes, what really makes the reading worthwhile is the quality of the prose. It’s clean, hardly ever more complex than it needs to be, and effectively conveys an insight that feels very real to me. In the opening chapters of Enduring Love he writes about love the way I feel it. The teetering balance between his characters’ self-immersion and their connections with other people seemed spot-on in Enduring Love and The Child In Time, but Clive and Vernon seemed exaggeratedly narcissistic in Amsterdam. Then again, it may also be because the former two books both dealt with this in the context of the breakdown and reconstruction of romantic relationships, while Amsterdam deals with it in terms of how the characters deal with certain issues of principle. I suppose the point is that I’m more capable of a personal response to his writing about relationships (though I have little experience thus far of the foundering of a happy relationship), whereas Amsterdam’s choices aren’t choices I’ve ever had to directly confront.

Anyways. The reading’s been worthwhile so far, and I’m definitely starting on Atonement when I get back to the UK and can buy it used off Amazon.