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If you had told me in my 20s that I would be buying Ian McEwan’s new releases in hardback to read them as soon as they were available, I might have snorted with derision (is there any other way to snort?). You see I had a bad experience with Ian McEwan in my late teens and for many years I thought I would never recover.
When I was 17 I had a fantastic English teacher called Mr. Lempriere. He had a neat beard and wore neatly knitted ties. Mr Lempriere was a man of culture. He was a Guardian reader before I had ever heard of the Guardian. In addition to running through our set texts with us, he used to take it upon himself to actually educate us and, occasionally, he would enjoy shocking us. I was easily shocked. I was very middle class and not at all used to hearing grown ups use swear words.
Mr Lempriere would read to us and put on different accents to match the voices in his readings. He read us the “Punk’s Hamlet” from the Faber Book Of Parodies. On reflection Mr Lempriere did not manage a very convincing punk voice, but I was still astonished every time he said the effword.
His genteel Southern lady voice was much better. He read us several of Ellen Gilchrist’s short stories. They stopped publishing Ms Gilchrist in the UK years ago, but I have chased down each of her books as they came out just to hear Mr Lempriere’s voice in my head again.
And then he read us Ian McEwan. I remember two stories. One was called “Conversations With A Cupboard Man”. It was about a man who spent most of his time in a cupboard… masturbating.
“Pornography” is about a two-timing pornographer. His lovers eventually trap him and tie him to the bed. The story ends as the women prepare to castrate him in revenge for his having (so they allege) passed on venereal disease to them.
And that was pretty much it for ten years. When the subject of Ian McEwan came up, I would involuntarily wrinkle my nose and say, politely, that he wasn’t really my cup of tea. For all the amazing things that Mr Lempriere turned me on to, McEwan was the counterweight.
When Enduring Love came out to rave reviews, I passed. It was only when Amsterdam won the Booker that I decided to give McEwan a second chance and only then because I found a new copy going cheap at a bookshop in Manila. I found Amsterdam a little pedestrian. It had a deliciously nasty streak to it, but nothing as off-putting as the short stories which continued to haunt me.
I must have found enough to like about it because I went back and read Enduring Love soon after. Most reviews of Enduring Love mention that it contains the best opening chapter of any novel ever (sorry Don Delillo’s Underworld!). I’m not sure I could have come up with that claim all by myself, but once it’s out there, it’s pretty hard to refute.
Enduring Love is a triumph and ten times the novel Amsterdam is. It’s a creepy book, but much more accessible than those early stories. It was the first time I decided to really pay attention to McEwan.
Then came Atonement. Atonement is absolutely the real deal. McEwan’s novels all struggle with the same tension between the characters’ need for human closeness and the author’s sense of detachment. Atonement begins in class-ridden England between the wars. It’s the perfect setting for McEwan’s trademark tensions. The novel is filled with regret and resignation. It couldn’t be more lifelike.
It would have been impossible to match the success of Atonement and McEwan’s next novel, Saturday, is not an impossible book. It’s a fine novel that only disappoints in comparison to what has come before.
On Chesil Beach is short but perfectly formed. All the familiar tropes are present–Sexuality (too much vs. too little), regret, the paramount importance of timing. The only problem with On Chesil Beach is that it’s frustratingly brief. The book simply doesn’t have the necessary heft to make it a masterpiece.
And so we come to Solar, McEwan’s most recent novel published earlier this year. The one line review is that it’s not very good, I’m afraid. It’s McEwan trying to be funny. The book is not very funny. I understand that it’s not easy to be funny, but right now I’m halfway through The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis. Amis knows funny. He writes proper funny. Not just second-generation funny, but proper, proper funny. McEwan doesn’t.
It’s hard to pitch Solar as a failure. It has plenty to recommend it. But following McEwan’s recent form, it is a significant disappointment.
In one spectacularly ill-judged set piece the novel’s antihero Michael Beard has to pause during a snowmobile ride near the North Pole to relieve himself:
His mistake was to wait a few seconds at the end, as men of his age tended to do, mindful that there might be more. He should have turned his head to hear what Jan had shouted. Or perhaps he could only have avoided the inevitable if he had accepted one of the other invitations to the Seychelles or Johannesburg or San Diego, or if, as he thought later with some bitterness, climate change, radical warming above the Arctic Circle, was actually taking place and was not a figment of the activist imagination. For when his business was done he discovered that his penis had attached itself to the zip of his snowmobile suit, had frozen in hard along its length, the way only living flesh can do on sub-zero metal.
I’m positive that I will read McEwan again, whatever he does next. But in the meantime I couldn’t be more let down that the man who once terrified me with images of male emasculation has descended to the world of the Arctic knob gag.