Ian McEwan is a great writer, but he is too much like Whoopi Goldberg.
That requires some explanation, I feel. Let me explain. Whoopi Goldberg is a great actress. Speilberg's adaptation of The Color Purple may be flawed (arguably, less so than Alice Walker's book) but Goldberg's performance is brilliant. Her career since then, however, has been marred by her inability to choose good scripts. Burgular, Jumping Jack Flash, Clara's Heart ... Whoopi is game, but was too willing to waste her talents in unworthy vehicles.
Ian McEwan suffers from a similar affliction. Though he's a great writer, he seems to be squandering his talents. He never seems to produce convincing books, or even books that are good but flawed. Rather, his books seem to be poor with occasional flashes oif brilliance. Because good McEwan is like nothing else , these occasional fits of inspiration are often the part that gets reviewed -the fairly weak book attached to them is overlooked.
McEwan's work seems too focused on small things. A middle class couple menaced by a lunatic (Enduring Love), a middle class family in turmoil (Attonement), a middle class family menaced by a lunatic (Saturday) ... you see what I am getting at? Without reading his latest On Chesil Beach, it doesn't sound promising, described by the Guardian as "Trauma of a honeymoon in Dorset on the brink of the sexual revolution" (1). This doesn't bode well.
McEwan seems to be stuck in a rut. His books books are always a) too short, b) too middle class, and c) beset by a sense of smallness.
McEwan's books have always been short. Enduring love was a middling 247 pages (2). Amsterdam was a trifling 208 pages (3). On Chesil Beach weighs in at just 166 pages (4). Black Dogs was 178 pages long (5). Atonement was more substantial, at 371 pages, but that just serves to highlight how slender most of his books are (6).
Quantity does not necessarily mean quality, of course. There is nothing wrong with short fiction. A short intense novella, like John Banville's The Sea, or his even better The Book of Evidence, can provide as much satisfaction, trouble, puzzlement or whatever you crave from fiction, as a far bigger book. Bryce Courtney has mastered the expanded style of fiction - he uses as many pages inone book as McEwan might in three or four. Whether his novels are better than McEwan's are, of course, entirely a matter of personal taste.
I am worried, however, about McEwan's tendency to write short, focused novels. It seems to me that by doing so, and doing so repeatedly, he is limiting himself. By necessity, he focuses on striking incidents and short time frames - Saturday covers the events of one twenty four hour period, unsurprisingly. Attonement ranged far across time and space, but did so in clinically discrete sections. Enduring love focused on the relationship between two middle class people and a psychopath. It is arguable that McEwan is allowing himself to focus on (pretentious phrase alert!) the intimate signifigance of moments, with a forensic level of detail, and that is all very well. But that seems to be all his does now.
As for the charge of McEwan's books being too middle class, the truth of this should be apparent from a survey of his characters and his readership. Perowne is a surgeon - a neuro-surgeon at that. The menaced couple in Enduring love are both successful careerists. The family in Atonement have a big country house and SERVANTS, for Heaven's sake. Characters sport names like Briony, Clarissa, Cecilia and Pierrot. Perowne's children are, respectively, a jazz musician and a poet. This wouldn't be a problem if it was just one instance - ther is nothing wrong with a book set in a middle-class milieu, mordern or old, but since he keeps returning to these environs, it is again a limit on his creativity, his licence to explore lfe in all its forms and all the places where it lurks.
At least part of the reason for might be that McEwan is a writer-of-choice among the middleclasses themselves. These are the people who buy his books - self-absorbed professionals and wannabe intelligensia, who would quite like the idea of their children (often named things like Clarissa and Pierrot) growing up to be jazz musicians or poets. They like reading about themselves, and gain a vicarious thrill from the intrusions of ugly, violent reality into the lives of characters the identify with so strongly. THe real challenge, which McEwan seems reluctant to take up, would be to carry his readers out of their comfort zones and into a world that is unfamiliar to them.
This brings us to the sense of smallness that I identified earlier. This is partly a function of the limited scope of McEwan's preferred form, the novella, and his focus on characters drawn from the middle - or upper middle - class. But there is something else apart from that - a lack of ambition on his part, a failure of desire to venture into uncomfortable, unfamiliar ground himself. This is the gravest failing of all for a novelist - choosing the comfortable and familiar over the risky and new. He does not seem interested in pushing the envlope further, introducing new elements or factors into play. It could be argued that he is trying to perfect one thing, but that seems a deathly pursuit - re-visiting the same tropes, shaking them up or rearranging them in the hope that this time, they will fall perfectly into place. Perhaps this is why McEwan's prose has a dettached quality, even as he describes the most thrilling sequence - he's bored, at some level, by what he is doing.
What McEwan needs to do is blow his boundaries sky high. Shakesspeare wrote great plays that reeled from taverns to court to battlefields, combining ribaldry with calculating ruthlessness, heroism, stupity, venality and everything else. In one play. McEwan should take note, and instead of writing another novella about the troubled middle classes, he should try something different. A huge book, covering the whole of society in all its ugliness, the model used by Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Or put his ability to write unforgettable scenes to full use by writing a war novel - the Dunkirk sequence of Atonement hinted at how brilliantly he could do this. Or even follow John Banville's lead and try his hand at genre fiction. Something new, rather than another clinical exercise of his undoubted gifts in the same style as before.
1 - "McEwan's novella top of the list for Man Booker," by Jonathan Brown
and Rachel Wolff, in the Guardian, 8th of August, 2007. http://arts.independent.co.uk/books/news/article2843951.ece
2 - "Enduring Love," wikipedia article on the book. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enduring_Love)
3 - "Amsterdam," wikipedia article on the book. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amsterdam_(novel))
4 - "On Chesil Beach," wikipedia article. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonement_(novel))
5 - "Black Dogs," wikipedia article. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Dogs)
6 - "Atonement," wikipedia article. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonement_(novel))