David Blackburn

A lone voice of dissent

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There are few heretics before the Church of Ian McEwan, but Thomas Jones’ uses his review of Solar in the London Review of Books to make two points.

Monomania is a feature of English writing – think motherhood to Mrs Bennett, hypochondria to Mr Wodehouse or climate change to James Delingpole. McEwan is unusual in that many of his protagonists are monomaniacs. Jones argues that this robs them of their humanity. Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon in Saturday, is an extreme example. He perceives everything from the perspective of his profession. Occasionally that drives the plot – notably when confronted by a threatening and neurologically unhinged man in the street - but Perowne’s single dimension deprives him of the four other senses – his relationship with his wife was, is and ever shall be predicated on the doctor patient relationship that first united them. The same applies to Bryony the writer in Atonement, Joe Rose the failed scientist in Enduring Love and Len Marnham the electrician in The Innocent, whose sexual imagination is dominated by remembered diagrams of circuitry.

Without consistently credible characters, Jones asserts, McEwan’s novels become exercises in ‘estrangement masquerading as sympathy’, or short stories extended beyond their elasticity point:

‘The disappearance of the daughter in the supermarket at the beginning of The Child in Time (1987), the balloon accident in Enduring Love, the retreat to Dunkirk and the arrival of the wounded at a London hospital in Atonement (2001) are among the most compelling passages of English fiction of the last 25 years. The novels they’re in, however, are schematically structured, with occasionally lurching plot development, and the main themes are loudly hammered home.’

You may not agree with Jones, but he certainly gets you thinking. Each section of say, Atonement, is brilliant. But does the whole work…?