mcewan’s tricks


In a recent profile in the New Yorker, McEwan said that he wants to ‘incite a naked hunger in readers’. I dislike strong narrative manipulation, but McEwan’s Collins-like surprises certainly work. They retain our narrative hunger, though perhaps at a cost. His addiction to secrecy has a way of ‘playing’ us, and if his withholdings ultimately seek to contain trauma, they also have the effect of reproducing, in plotted repetitions, the textures of the larger, originating traumas that are his big subjects. I don’t mean that his books traumatise us – that would be grossly unfair. Just that we finish them feeling a little guilty, having been exiled from our own version of innocence by a cunningly knowing authorial manipulator. The problem is that narrative secrets of this kind (large and small) ultimately exist only to confess themselves – that is their métier – and when they do we may find that the novels have become too easily comprehensible. (One definition of a narrative convention might precisely be: a secret that has finally confessed itself.) The Innocent, to select only one novel, 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. Note, also, that many of these narrative secrets and withholdings are highly improbable. The woman who kept her pregnancy secret for nine months; the fact that the two dogs that attacked June Tremaine were also used by the Nazis to rape a woman; the dedicated, daylong fanaticism of Baxter, along with Perowne’s decision, at the end of the book, to perform surgery on the man who broke into his house and tried to rape his daughter; the fuse of unlikelihoods that sets fire to the plot of Atonement.

more from the LRB here.