Mirror, mirror

Alas, now even the great Ian McEwan has succumbed to the dreary trend of writers writing novels about writers writing novels.

By Helen Macleod
Published April 3, 2002 7:46PM (EST)

There is something profoundly sad about the inevitability with which a well-established writer will write a novel about a writer writing a novel. It's as inexorable, apparently, as the way golf rises up in middle age to claim the successful business executive. You may have been an irreverent bar-hopper, stand-up comedian or amateur chef during your climb up the corporate ladder, but, at a certain point on a certain morning, you wake up and realize that golf is upon you. You are engolfed.

So goes the story, it seems, for authors and their novels about novelists. And so, sadly, it has been with Ian McEwan. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind if the central character in a novel happens to be a writer. After a few decades of doing nothing but writing fiction, it must be hard to carry on fudging the fact that really what you know about best is the life of a fiction writer. ("The protagonist is a newspaper columnist, perhaps, or a business motivational speaker or maybe, ooh, a composer, say ... Okay, what the hell, let's make him a novelist.") Being professionally imaginative is hard, no doubt. But turning the craft of fiction writing to the exploration of the art of writing fiction is one of the least worthwhile things a novelist can do.

I feel particularly pained on this point in the case of McEwan's highly acclaimed "Atonement." I am a voracious, longtime fan of his. As a teenager, I read his richly dark short stories in "First Love Last Rites" with a horrid fascination and was hooked. "Amsterdam" won the Booker Prize. "Enduring Love" deserved to. "A Child in Time" is surely one of the best novels of the 20th century.

I special-ordered "Atonement" to be delivered to my New York home from England because it was being released six months earlier there. I held this fat hardback with its intriguingly stark cover (a grainy black-and-white photo wrapped around the dust jacket; the author's name, title and publisher's imprint, no other lettering at all). I breathed in its promise. I imagined all the powerful ways that a great writer like McEwan would explore the themes of atonement. How his tireless exploration of human souls and actions would offer fresh insight into the subject, would take me on a road I feared to travel without the author's firm hand to lead me. And instead, I found myself trudging through a thinly disguised exploration of the mores and piques of fiction writing.

It may seem churlish to complain. It's not as if McEwan's the first novelist to try to pull this off, but I sincerely wish he were the last. Gosh, I'm a novelist myself, and even I don't want to read a novel about the internal philosophical strugglings of a novelist finding her way into her craft.

The first third of the novel is slow. Almost deathly. Only McEwan could pull it off. There are 150 pages of sunlight sliding over quiet stone walls and people sort of thinking a lot about things, and then, finally, a quick-fire assault of events -- a misdelivered letter, a witnessed act of coitus, a disappearance, a ravishing, a false accusation, an arrest. OK, so we've set the scene for atonement, but it turns out much later that this first third is supposed to be a revised version of a manuscript written by an as-yet immature literary hand, submitted to the famous 1930s journal Horizon and rejected at improbable length by its editor, Cyril Connolly.

In the novel's second part, we plunge into a grueling first-person description of the 1940 Allied armies' retreat to Dunkirk, and a section where several of the main characters try piecing together some kind of life and forgiveness out of the previous betrayal and imprisonment. Aha, this is more like it, you think. But then it turns out that most of the crucial later plot developments may or may not have been imagined by the narrator. Bringing the narrator into doubt can add welcome intrigue to a story, but it's annoying to find out that you are reading a fictional novel: one not written by Ian McEwan at all but by a fictional fiction writer.

This aspect interleaves an extra, slippery layer in the relationship between you, the reader, and McEwan, the writer. What is McEwan trying to say? What is he trying to prove? Haven't there been any interesting murders or incidents of stalking in his neighborhood lately?

We're living at a time when literary criticism, the nonfiction version of what McEwan is doing in this novel, is barely hanging on by its fingernails as a subject worthy of general interest. Probably the only reason it still beats in the heart of anyone under the age of 50 is that people like Martin Amis are rendering it entertaining and serious at the same time. F.R. Leavis, when he's remembered at all, is an undergraduate synonym for the crusty academia everyone knows they hate.

If literary criticism is barely alive, then this sort of novel is stiff with rigor mortis. Setting the larger part of it around World War II does not ameliorate the fact that it is aimed at a 21st century audience. Even the self-referentiality of '90s literary post-modernism is too old hat to provide an excuse. The reader is left trapped inside a smugly crafted airless box of literary allusions and double-bluff cross-references while a sort of damp scrap of a good story flaps around outside.

Even if you appreciate a well-decorated house, you don't want to watch the paint dry. Novels about the craft of novel writing are usually like that -- even more boring than golf. It's a testament to McEwan's skill that this book still holds the attention, but it's a dull use of his talents. You can argue that good films have been made about filmmaking, but that is a collaborative process, and the inevitable mix of humans thrown together often begs a story in its own right. The process involved in the solitary arts should be left alone.

Let me ask you this: How many symphonies have been written about the esoteric pains of composing? How many pop songs about writing pop songs? How many paintings about being a painter? Photographs of photographers at work? Not many, not many. When you go to a restaurant, does the chef come out and regale you with the careful agonies he has suffered over your sole meunihre? Do you find, upon the first bite, that the dish is, in fact, made of recipe-book pages disguised as fish, or some self-referential stuff that tastes of nothing at all?

Why should writing be any different? Can't we just all agree that novels about novel writing are out? Dead? No longer of any interest whatsoever? Can we, please?

Helen Macleod

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