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Posts Tagged ‘mcewan’

Sweet_Tooth_(novel)By a process that is both conscious and subliminal we form a picture and an opinion of the world from the images presented to us, and from the stories we are told. We pick them up from culture, both popular and highbrow, from the print media, and from the movies we see. Whilst inevitable and obvious, it also renders us vulnerable to manipulation, because what if the world isn’t really like that? And how do we form a truly independent opinion of reality anyway? Is it even possible?

We accept that oppressive regimes will censor the media in order to control a population and to manage its image abroad, but what if we in the west are also subject to a subversive manipulation of the media so that everything we see, read and hear possesses a slant that tips our thoughts in a particular direction? What if, say, even certain authors of high-brow fiction gain prominence and publication for having political views considered favourable, while others are forced to languish in obscurity? What if the very bedrock of intellectual thought itself is tilted by design to enourage a certain line of thinking?

This is the plot of McEwans “Sweet Tooth”, so named after the security operation to recruit unwitting authors into a propaganda machine, to fund them through an apparently bona-fide arts foundation so they might quit their day-jobs and focus on their writing, unaware they are in fact serving other interests.

Our writer Tom Haley, struggling literary author and lecturer at the University of Sussex, is duped by low-level secret service minion Serena Frome into signing up, and the pair become lovers. Set in the early 1970’s McEwan plunges us into a world of power cuts, fuel shortages, the three day week, striking miners and hunger-striking IRA prisoners, all of which serves to remind us that while we think we live in politically perilous times, they are as nothing to what has gone before. But that’s just something else I took from the book, probably because I’m a little late coming to the postmodern party and realising that, as a cultural movement, it’s not completely bonkers – that it’s never wise to accept uncritically the prevailing Zeitgeist as being the only truth there is.

Serena is herself subject to scrutiny by the “service”, result of a past affair with a disgraced officer, and this lends further intrigue, as does the tension caused when operation “Sweet Tooth” begins to fall apart. Worse, Serena is no cold-hearted career-spy; her love for Haley is genuine, but this can only mean two things: the future of their relationship is doomed when she’s finally exposed, as are her prospects for advancement within the service due to her percieved incompetence by her mysoginistic male colleagues. But then all is not quite as it seems,…

Written in the first person, from Serena’s viewpoint, McEwan is convincing as a woman, but is this story really McEwan writing as Serena Frome? Or is he writing as someone else, writing as Serena, and if so, how did this “someone else” come by all the material of Serena’s life including her recruitment to the secret service?

Although ostensibly a spy story, the spy stuff and the political shenanigans of the times, provide only the background music to Serena’s otherwise unglamorous and poorly paid life as a low-ranking officer in what could have been any other drably routine Civil Service department. Instead McEwan steers us into a different territory and tells us something interesting about the times, about the nature and the power of fictional narratives, and the world of the literary intelligentsia. On top of that, he weaves us a cunning love-story while the spies themselves, as drab as they are sinister, display the same petty jealousies and banal office-intrigues as the rest of us.

To finish, he pulls off a satisfyingly crafty twist when we finally get to know just whose story this really is.

 

 

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AmsterdamNovel.jpgAlthough it took the 1998 booker prize, Ian McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ was far from being universally liked. Critical opinion was divided, and perhaps a little heavier on the negative, some pundits wondering how it was even nominated, let alone that it took the award. It was with some trepidation then I picked it up, all be it some twenty years after publication. But I enjoyed it, though I’m prepared to admit this says more about me than the book, or maybe some of the heat has died down in the mean time and the novel has grown into itself. It goes to show one should never be put off by bad reviews, no matter how erudite.

In a nutshell the story opens at the funeral of one Molly Lane, formerly a beautiful fashion photographer, grown old and stricken by a slow withering malady that ended in madness. Two of her former lovers join the gathering to pay their respects – the ageing Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday editor of a struggling London Tabloid. Neither want to go the way of poor Molly, so resolve to see each other out, should the need arise, by way of euthanasia, which had recently (then) been legalised in Amsterdam.

Long time friends, they are united in their contempt for Molly’s husband, the rather dull and overly protective George Lane. They’re also aghast at her rumoured liaison with Julian Garmony, Conservative Foreign Secretary, an otherwise odious man touted as the next PM. When George discovers, among Molly’s effects, photographs she’s taken of Garmony dressed in women’s clothing, he offers them to Vernon for publication in his seedy rag, both men believing the resulting scandal will bring Garmony down. But Clive argues that no matter what any of them think about Garmony, publishing the pictures is morally indefensible, also a betrayal of Molly’s trust. This causes a rift between him and Vernon, and through a series of further misunderstandings, they wind up as bitter enemies.

Although Clive seems at first the more sensitive and likeable character, he’s actually quite a shallow and self centred aesthete. While out walking to clear his mind for composition, he witnesses a rape, but does nothing about it, and doesn’t report it either, seems actually to consider it of only passing importance and hardly relevant when compared with his artistic ambitions. He’s already mentioned the incident to Vernon, and given their later spat, Vernon seizes upon the admission as an opportunity for revenge, and dobs him in to the police.

Of the subject matter, perhaps euthanasia is the one we’d think of as being ripe for moral dissection here, and I admit I thought this was where McEwan was taking us, but he ends up using it as more of a plot device. The business of the closet transvestite politician is more unexpected – publication resulting not in the scandal Vernon (and perhaps we) are expecting, but rather the opposite, that instead it fleshes Garmony out, at least in the public eye, as the more sympathetic and wronged party – so if anyone gets the last laugh it’s him.

The actual denouement of the story was flagged quite early on, so I had a fair idea how things were going to end between Clive and Vernon – you can probably guess yourself. I’d hoped I was wrong because that seemed the least interesting outcome. I suppose, ever the optimist, I was holding out against their pettiness and stupidity and hoping for a reconciliation in Molly’s honour. There’s an element of farce too in the twists and turns, which many critics seem to have taken offence at, claiming the humour fell flat or wasn’t at all funny, and that was true in a way – transformed by the moral vacuity of the protagonists into something far more sinister, and lent instead an abrasive edge to the story that really got under my skin.

If you’re a fan of McEwan you’ve probably already read this one and have your own opinions on it. If not, don’t be put off by the poor reviews.

It’s a short read, and well worth it.

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enduring-love.jpgI find Ian McEwan’s novels accessible on a number of levels, like the skins of an onion. You can read him superficially as the writer of intriguing and imaginative stories peopled by entirely believable characters, or you can peel back a few layers and read more deeply about the whys and wherefores of the human condition. And you can keep on peeling back as deep as you like, or in some cases as deep as you dare.

With Enduring Love though I stepped in a puddle early on, was completely wrong footed, possibly because of my own inner workings, but partly also on account of some quite deliberately laid plot red herrings that had me thinking too deeply, or not,.. maybe.

The opening is dramatic enough – innocent strangers drawn suddenly together by a bizarre ballooning accident in which the protagonists leap onto the ropes of a fast ascending balloon in order to save the lives of the balloonist and a child tossed senseless by freak winds. The balloon passengers escape but the would be rescuers hang on to the ropes a moment too long and are carried upwards, each then letting go as the ground falls away and their nerve fails, landing shaken but unhurt – all except for one man carried too high and hanging on until the last, when he falls to his death.

Had all rescuers hung on, the death might have been prevented, or they might all have died. Who knows? But with this opening scene McEwan raises questions about our fallibility and how the every day actions of innocent people can have profoundly disturbing consequences for both themselves and others.

The main protagonist – one of the would-be rescuers – Joe Rose, is a science writer and a deeply rational man. He’s also conflicted, not just by the incident and his involvement in it and his feelings of guilt at the man’s death, but by his job which he has come to see as a parasitic profession when what he really wants is to be a scientist doing real pioneering work instead of just writing up the discoveries of others. After the accident, another of the rescuers, Jed Parry, a young man of almost messianic religious beliefs, begins to stalk Joe, speaking of loving him and wanting to bring Joe to God.

This is where I was legged up by the story, suspecting Joe Rose of being that most sneaky of plot devices, the unreliable narrator, and Parry’s obsessive stalking as basically an invention of Joe’s, that Parry’s coming was in effect a manifestation of Joe’s unresolved inner spirituality come to break his rational materialism which was souring his life. Anything else and the story would for me have simply been a thriller – about an unhinged stalker and how nobody believes his victim until it’s too late. This seemed a little too prosaic, so I congratulated myself on spotting the deceit early on.

More fool me!

Parry leaves frantic messages on Joe’s answer machine – but Joe deletes them so he cannot offer them as proof of Parry’s maniacal fervour. Parry writes long letters to Joe, but Joe’s wife remarks the handwriting is similar to Joe’s. Parry waits, rain and shine outside Joe’s apartment, but always slinks away when there is a chance Joe’s wife might spot him. Joe complains to the police but, like his wife, they think he’s deluded – no one else has seen Parry.

In this light we view Joe’s dogged pursuit of the facts only as an accumulation of evidence of his own dangerous unravelling. As his paranoia deepens, the cracks begun to show in his marriage – he irrationally suspects his wife of an affair, they argue, fall apart. Finally, convinced of the possibly imaginary Parry’s malign intent, Joe acquires a gun.

But then it turns out Joe was right all along, the we, the reader, Joe’s wife and the police were all wrong, that Parry was outrageously – though not altogether convincingly – real and dangerous, taking Joe’s wife hostage and ushering in a tense thriller-like finale.

Hmmm,… weird!

You’ll find lots of revision notes and crib sheets online about Enduring Love. This suggests it’s been pored over quite a bit by critics and lit students over the years. They’ve turned it inside out torn it apart line by line for its essential meaning but I can’t find any that work with the premise Parry’s stalking was imaginary. The Enduring love of the title, the notes tell me, can be seen as the enduring love of Joe and his wife who eventually muddle through to a happy ending, also the love that Parry professes for Joe, but I’m confused by both of these since the former pretty much fell apart except for a rather unconvincing end-notes denouement, while the latter was clearly delusional.

What would have made more sense to me was for the enduring love to have been that of the love of God Parry professed to be bringing to Joe, that in spite of Joe’s hard headed rationalism, there was something of the spirit abiding all the while in him, in all of us waiting, enduring, attempting all the while to temper his egoic materialism, which his wife described at one point as the “new fundamentalism”. This was a novel about the conflict for the soul of mankind, the fight between materialism and spirit, however you want to define it, and then suddenly,… it wasn’t. Joe’s ego, his materialism, scientific materilaism won out to an altogether more bleakly trite conclusion.

Okay, I was wrong about much of what I read, but then there’s a lot about literature I never got, at least according to the Spark Notes and my grade D “O” Level in the subject (Ha! The fools). Still, should we always accept verbatim what others think? It depends who they are, I suppose. It can be useful as a guide when mulling over a piece of work, but I find the critiques are better read afterwards, in case they colour our expectations too much and render us blind to what our own minds are capable of taking away. I can only say there’s something deeply strange about Enduring Love, but that’s no bad thing.

A terrifically engaging book that really made me think! I got a lot out of reading it, even though it turns out most of that, like Parry’s fervour, was delusional in the end.

 

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