Monday, March 09, 2009

The overplotted life: worth examining

We were in Berlin for a few days, attending a literature conference on the works of Ian McEwan.

The conference was very worthwhile. As was Berlin, despite grim weather. It was only my second time in the city, but there is some undefinable-but-wonderful way that the place combines opposing characteristics: cosmopolitan internationalism and rooted localism; an inescapably deranged past and a reassuringly easygoing present; a grey, bureaucratic sheen and a warm, earthy creative spirit; national grandeur and modest reticence.

Yeah. I like Berlin.

And the conference was great fun.

Since one of the presenters brought up a recent New Yorker profile of McEwan (Daniel Zelewski's 'The Background Hum') that I had seen but not read beforehand, I was inspired to spend some time with it (it is a rather long piece) this evening.

If you have the least interest in McEwan's writing, I'd suggest that you take a look at it. Although we have enjoyed several of McEwan's books (and for our contributions to McEwan criticism, scroll down to the bottom of the pages here and here), I must say that I've never paid much attention to his biography or personal life.

It might be simply that it is in the nature of such author profiles to bring out certain personal connections in their work, but Zelewski's essay does a fairly good job of laying to rest any rumours of the Death of the Author.

It's even possible to see a lot of the themes and plot elements of various books emerging from McEwan's own personal journey, from his somewhat unhappy childhood and early dabblings in hippie mysticism through his growing interest in science(which, it seems, may have led to his divorce from his New Age obsessed first wife).

There are many interesting passages in the essay, but I found this one to be notable, since the division between the 'early' and 'mature' works was often mentioned at the conference:

Much has been made of the diminishing ferocity of his work—if “In Between the Sheets” is a wolf, “Saturday” is a lamb—and devotees of McEwan’s early fiction often regard him with the same pity that music fans have for rock stars who turn to symphonies in their dotage.

McEwan told me that he was “trying to shock” with his early experiments; there was a tone of disavowal. “I began to feel that I had written myself into a corner,” he said. “As I got older, the rather reckless pessimism of my early fiction deserted me.” In fact, the change in his work is not as extreme as it may seem. McEwan’s presiding interest has always been psychology, and, like many scientists of his generation, he has shifted his intellectual allegiances. At first, he studied perversity; now he studies normality. His first god was Freud. Now it is Darwin.

Not, of course, that there still ain't plenty of perversity in the Darwinian mind: but still, the shift seems to have increasingly shaped his writing.

But I wouldn't underestimate the ability of 'normality' to shock and irritate. Indeed, there were a few conference participants who were put off by Saturday's depiction of a 'happy family'. I didn't remember the Perowne family being all that idealised, but it turns out that McEwan was being deliberately provocative:

The portrayal of familial contentment in “Saturday” was meant as a provocation. “No one ever says, except in conversation, that they’re actually enjoying their children, that they might be a source of interest and pleasure,” McEwan said. “I thought there was some bad faith in omitting that as a possibility.” The book is equally rosy about marriage; Perowne has sex with his wife twice in one day. John Banville, in The New York Review of Books, seized upon that detail, writing, “Apparently in the purlieus of north London, or at least in McEwan’s fantasy version of them, no one suffers from morning breath, and women long-married wake up every time primed for sex.” McEwan says, “The critic was revealing far more about himself and his wife’s teeth-flossing habits than anything about the book.”

(If McEwan's retort seems a bit overly icy, you should read the review that inspired it.)

Another criticism that one hears of McEwan is that his books contain unbelievable plots. But after a lengthy look at the lives of McEwan's parents, Zelewski observes:

Critics have noted that many McEwan novels hinge on a single, transformative event: the balloon, the abduction, Briony’s accusation. (In “Black Dogs,” in what may be a self-inoculating gesture, McEwan has his narrator tweak the idea: “Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot.”) Yet the story of his parents conforms to this template. It may be true that some of McEwan’s novels are overplotted; it is also true that some lives are overplotted.

As might be some blog posts.

And this one is overdue for an ending.

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