Leo Robson in TNR (photo from Wikimedia Commons):
Flaubert’s prescription, set down in 1852, was never one likely to be followed by Martin Amis, the guy who said he didn’t want to “write a sentence that any guy could have written,” or his contemporary Ian McEwan, who from his earliest stories kept in such close contact with his benighted characters that you could virtually smell his breath on the page. Over the years, the desire to editorialise has proved increasingly hard to resist, with Amis engaging in lofty allocutions on human nature, many of them borrowed from his essays and memoirs (“It’s the death of others that kills you in the end”—Experience in 2000 and The Pregnant Widow in 2010), and McEwan adopting a stealthier approach, superficially more dramatic and yet no less tailored to communicating his personal opinions—on science, mores, ethics.
The turning point came in 1987, with Amis’s story collection Einstein’s Monsters and McEwan’s novel The Child in Time, the first books that each writer published after making the transition from enfant terrible to proud father. For all the books’ differences, a number of shared concerns emerged. Sex, once either casual or squalid, had become something else entirely—cataclysmic, even cosmic. Violence was no longer a pay-off or punchline but a thing to walk in fear of. Also indicative were these words from McEwan: “I am indebted to the following authors and books . . .” And these ones from Amis: “May I take the opportunity to discharge—or acknowledge—some debts? . . . I am grateful to Jonathan Schell, for ideas and for imagery.” Bedtime reading on subjects such as nuclear weapons, quantum mechanics and the Second World War had been delivering the kinds of shocks and thrills that the authors had been aiming for with stories about boys and girls mistreating one another in decaying city bedrooms. It was time to chase a grander frisson.
What distinguishes this move from, say, the more recent fashion for the essay novel—see the work of W. G. Sebald, Geoff Dyer, Teju Cole, Laurent Binet—is that Amis and McEwan have tried to accommodate facts and arguments into a prose that resists being candidly discursive. Ideas about sexual politics (Amis’s The Pregnant Widow, McEwan’s On Chesil Beach), science v. superstition (McEwan’s Enduring Love and Saturday), the new physics (The Child in Time, Amis’s Night Train) and political violence (Amis’s Time’s Arrow, Black Dogs and House of Meetings) are put into characters’ mouths (mostly by Amis) or wedged into a narrative structure (mostly by McEwan). The novels in this period that seem freest from these vices—among them, McEwan’s Atonement and Amis’s Yellow Dog—are beset, to varying degrees, by other problems; in McEwan’s case, maniacal control and, in Amis’s, frivolity and self-plagiarism.