Surface Tensions

Alfred Hitchcock had a term he deployed with special pejorative mockery: ‘plausibles,’ as in ‘the plausibles’ – moviegoers who get their kicks not from the proffered thrills of a film, but from niggling at it with petty complaints about the plot. They’re the ones who root around for holes. Rather than gasp at the appearance of the villain behind the door, they mutter that he probably couldn’t have gotten all the way across town in time to be there.

Plausibility is a trust between the audience and the storyteller. The audience agrees to a share of the labor inherent in the narrative act, usually called the ‘willing suspension of disbelief,’ and the storyteller agrees not to abuse that willingness.

A writer who often approaches the boundary where the use of a reader’s trust swells into an abuse is Ian McEwan. In a recent essay in the London Review of Books, James Wood called McEwan a ‘stager of traumatic contingency as it strikes ordinary lives.’ It is an apt summary of a long career. Both The Cement Garden and The Child in Time, two early novels, install the main traumatic episode at the beginning – the death of both parents in quick succession and a child’s abduction, respectively – and from there chart its consequences; another early novel, The Comfort of Strangers, builds menacingly and inexorably toward a concluding trauma of great violence and grisly imagination. (The same is true of Amsterdam.) In later novels – notably Enduring Love and Saturday – McEwan twins his traumas, using antipodean ordeals at the beginning and the end to hold the entire plot in gravitational thrall. Enduring Love offers an operatic hot-air balloon disaster which inaugurates a series of escalating misunderstandings, concealments, and reprisals, and which narrows itself into a violent confrontation orchestrated with the intimacy of chamber music. Saturday starts with a prosaic encounter – a donnybrook with some chavs over a minor traffic accident – and cresendoes in an evening of cruel and shocking event. In both novels, public incident is compressed into private catastrophe.

Surprise is the core unit of narrative pleasure in McEwan’s fiction, just as the richness and precision and intelligence of his prose are the foundation of its aesthetic pleasure. You don’t know where his novels are headed; you only know it will be dark. But an inclination toward surprise can bend to error; McEwan occasionally selects narrative pathways which, while they startle the reader upon first turning the page, serve also to dismantle a carefully built logic. They curdle into silliness. As Wood writes (albeit of a slightly different aspect of McEwan’s fiction): ‘They retain our narrative hunger, though perhaps at a cost.’

Amsterdam, for instance, retrofits an urban legend into a taut novella of masculine rivalry. Here McEwan marshals some of the richest prose in his bibliography in the service of utter nonsense; what exists as a compelling premise for three quarters of the book – two old friends pushed from romantic rivalry into murderous contemplation – cannot sustain the preposterous circumstances of its final pages. The finale is formally elegant at the expense of narrative credibility.

Even in the far more serious and contemplative Saturday, McEwan puts kinks in his logic in the service of formal aims. Baxter, the thug who has taken the Perowne family hostage at knifepoint, and who until this moment has shown no aptitude for compassion and certainly no appetite for literature, manages to reset his plan of rape and possibly murder while in rapturous sway to a recitation of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach.’ (He is under the impression that it is a poem by Daisy Perowne, as is her father.)

Baxter begins by asking Daisy, whom he has already forced to remove her clothing, to read something from her published collection of poems, which he’s found on a table. That much is credible enough: Baxter intends to extend and amplify her humiliation. McEwan describes the flow of Henry’s thoughts as his daughter reads: ‘The lines surprise him . . . They are unusually meditative, mellifluous and willfully archaic.’

All well, up to this point. As a reader I feel safe in the writer’s hands: the vehicle is running smoothly. Then comes this passage:

Everyone else is watching Baxter, and waiting. He’s hunched over, leaning his weight against the back of the sofa. Though his right hand hasn’t moved from [Daisy’s mother] Rosalind’s neck, his grip on the knife looks slacker, and his posture, the peculiar yielding angle of his spine, suggests a possible ebbing of intent. Could it happen, is it within the bounds of the real, that a mere poem of Daisy’s could precipitate a mood swing?

That last sentence is awfully bold. It invites the reader to cry out, ‘No! Absolutely not!’ And that was, more or less, my own reaction. The attentive physical descriptions of Baxter – ‘the peculiar yielding angle of his spine’ – aren’t a substitute for a real conviction on the part of the reader that Baxter would alter the muscular pit bull trajectory of his violence from nothing more than the tranquilizer of a poem. McEwan adds, presumably to gather a stronger atmosphere of narrative credibility, that Daisy attempts ‘the seductive, varied tone of a storyteller entrancing a child.’ The reader already knows that Baxter, for medical reasons, is susceptible to mood swings. But the change to his state of mind that precipitates the novel’s concluding events is a pretty big mood swing indeed.

Of The Innocent, a novel from 1990, Wood writes that it too deftly tightens its little drawstring of thematics around a repeatedly underlined connection between tunnelling and sex, rape fantasies and war conquest, dismemberment of the body and dismemberment of Berlin into four sectors.’

But The Innocent is one of my favorite of McEwan’s novels precisely because it doesn’t seem too tightly circumscribed by its themes; the ‘thematics’ that Wood names are, I think, subsumed successfully into the momentum of the fictional dream: you don’t dwell on them as you’re reading. And the book’s great trauma – the application of a handsaw to a dead body, surely the most literally visceral thing to be found anywhere in McEwan’s fiction – is fully natural within the motion of the story, rather than externally imposed by the author in order to adhere to the formal project he’s set out for himself.

I started off with Hitchcock because I want my allegiances to be clear: I stand on the side of the writer who takes the kinds of risks McEwan takes. Fiction without risk and without surprise is moribund; no one likes a ‘predictable’ or ‘formulaic’ novel. (In 1948, George Orwell published a review, in The New Yorker, which mercilessly dismantled the guiding logic of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, a novel I keenly love, and which I continue to love despite the fact that Orwell’s brickbats are for the most part irrefutable.) I tend to think of the problem of narrative credibility in terms of a very full glass: the writer’s job is to add drop after drop of water to the perilous shivering crown of the meniscus without letting it run over; the reader’s job is not to prod the glass.

The issue of risk-taking in fiction is something I often ponder, especially since my own novel, City of Strangers, contains characters who make decisions in the heat of the moment that press into the frontiers of credibility. The level of the water rises above the rim of the glass, and, as I discovered, it is a delicate operation to keep it from overflowing.

McEwan is one of the most important novelists of the last three decades, and Saturday – which is, in addition to the other pleasures it offers, beautifully written – is a rare instance in which he gambles on the reader’s suspension of disbelief and loses. Frankly, McEwan seems to have been unwilling to condemn the Perowne family to the pits in which many of his other characters now writhe. (The only other novel of his that features a happy ending is The Child in Time.) Reading McEwan’s novels reminds us that writers who risk adding those last few drops indulge the reader of suspense fiction with a further element of tension. Can the writer himself pull it off? Will he overflow the glass?


~ by mackenz on May 25, 2009.

One Response to “Surface Tensions”

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more on Amsterdam.

    Thought you might enjoy this post on Wood’s article.

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