A Christian Looks at the Fiction of Ian McEwan
My essay, “A Christian Looks at the Fiction of Ian McEwan,” was published in issue 10: “The Spirit of the University,” of Second Spring Journal. Back issues and subscriptions to this fine journal, edited by the late and sorely missed Stratford Caldecott, can be ordered here.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the opening section:
Two things need to be gotten out of the way before anyone attempts to address the fiction of English novelist Ian McEwan in a disapproving vein: First, he is one of the most acclaimed writers of our time; Second, unless your name happens to be, oh, John Updike, it is almost certain that McEwan is a better writer than you are.
In other words, one had best proceed with some humility, and I do. Rightly regarded as one of the finest stylists in the English language—McEwan’s prose is as perfectly calibrated as a Swiss watch, or a time bomb―his Booker Prize win in 1998, though for one of his fluffier little books, Amsterdam, was nonetheless not entirely misplaced. Sentence for sentence, it simply doesn’t get much better….
But great episodes do not a great novel make, and after reading, with a writer’s appreciation, six of his eight novels, I confess myself disappointed with the collected works of Ian McEwan. More, mine is that greatest of all disappointments in artistic terms, the disappointment of unfulfilled (great) expectations. This guy is so good, so fine a wordsmith―at crafting a sentence, a paragraph, a scene―that one ought to feel confident that he will be reckoned among the few authors of our time who will outlast our time.
And yet, set side-by-side with the Greats of previous eras, McEwan, in my view, comes up perpexingly short. In place of a fully-realized narrative structure complete with foundation, floor, supporting walls, and a roof, fretted with golden fire, what we get in his books are brilliantly executed but strangely strung-together episodes, many of which end up having nothing to do with anything else in the novel; or which one feels should have led to a wholly different novel. That brilliant pre-migraine scene in Atonement, for instance, serves no purpose in the rest of the story. In fact, neither does Emily Tallis, the migraine-sufferer herself. Instead, Emily drops off the page as the book goes on to tell the story of Emily’s daughter, Briony, a teenager (and budding writer) whose immature misreading of a romantic incident ruins the lives of two people close to her. It was as if the author got a terrific idea for a passage about an approaching migraine, and having no place else to put it at the moment, stuck it in the middle of the manuscript that happened to be on his desktop ….