a living, flaming presence


In other words, McEwan’s fiction has sometimes felt artificial. It should be said, in his favor, that most contemporary novelists feel artificial because they are not competent enough to tell a convincing or interesting story; it is a peculiar excess of proficiency and talent, like McEwan’s–or like Robert Stone’s, W. Somerset Maugham’s, or Graham Greene’s–that produces a fiction so competently told that it also feels artificial. Still, one has tended to read McEwan with the sense that he is beautifully constructing and managing various hypothetical situations rather than freely following and grasping at a great truth. (That this latter mode is also an artifice is only a banal paradox.) In particular, McEwan’s characters, while never less than interesting, lively, and sometimes interestingly weird, have tended not to be quite human. Many of them have neither pasts nor futures, but are frozen in the threatening present. Many of them have parents who died when they were young. They rarely refer to their childhoods, and seem not to have the use of deep memory as such. McEwan, unlike most writers, has not seemed to need any kitty of childhood detail on which to draw. This absence of past stories, of loitering retrospect, allows him to polish the clean lines of his stories. Since his writing rarely dips into the reflective past, it can exist the better as pure novelty. This is the key to McEwan’s extraordinary narrative stealth. His fictions, like detective stories, are always moving forward. They seem to shed their sentences rather than to accumulate them.

more from TNR here.