EVER SINCE HE EVOLVED out of producing what he describes as ‘staring-at-the-wall’ fiction — those slender stories such as The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers set in no tangible time or place —Ian McEwan has become England’s premier documentarian, the chief recorder of her near past in novelistic form.
Moving seamlessly between time periods, from the Second World War to the liberation of Iraq, McEwan’s attention is drawn not towards the deeds of great men that flavor the works of say Hilary Mantel or Robert Harris. McEwan, while oftentimes anchoring his works in the past, is by no means a historical novelist. Rather, his novels attempt to reflect the Zeitgeist, how the ever-changing political, social, and cultural climate impacted or impacts the lives of ordinary or at times extraordinary people.
Amsterdam — a novel largely underrated as a consequence of it being overrated by the Booker Prize committee — was set and published in the 1990s and is above all else a manifestation of both pre-millennial and post-Soviet angst. Clive Linley’s inability to create an original, harmonious, and uplifting conclusion to his Millennial Symphony is a sign of the politically and culturally directionless state of the nation at the fag-end of the Major government, and the fear that the 1990s was to be an uninventive, imitative decade. “They say you’ve ripped off Beethoven something rotten,” music critic Paul Lanark says to Linley at a reception for his composition. “I suppose you’d call it sampling.”
Through Linley and McEwan’s other central character, the newspaper editor Vernon Halliday, McEwan explores in addition the individualisation of English society during that period — a consequence of 18 years of Thatcherite administration. Both Halliday and Linley make decisions related to their work which they believe may secure them and aid their advancement, yet impact negatively upon the lives of others. As Linley rambles across the Lake District, he chooses to ignore a violent disturbance, concerned more with the melody forming in his mind.
Remarkably astute too is McEwan’s post 9/11 novel, Saturday, which captures not only the fear and anxiety that was all too palpable at the time and continues to mutate the ways in which we interact with the world, but also the sense of naked vulnerability that enveloped residents of London, New York, and metropolises elsewhere, born of a knowledge that terrorists had struck once and could quite easily do so again:
London, his small part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for its bomb, like a hundred other cities. Rush hour will be a convenient time. [...] The authorities agree, an attack’s inevitable. He lives in different times — because the newspapers say so doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
With the possible exception of Atonement — where class resentment is a latent cause of Briony’s hostility towards Robbie, and the total effect of war forces her to cross boundaries, becoming a trainee nurse in a London hospital for the wounded — the England of McEwan’s novels does not give life to all classes. His characters usually enjoy comfortable lifestyles, as members of the professional and artistic classes inhabiting worlds of plush abodes and boozy suppers. The beginning of Enduring...read more