The Innocent — Ian McEwan

The Innocent is deceptively brilliant: for at least the first half of the novel it seems slight, thrillerish without the thrills, about a weakling and pushed-around fool. In the second half it explodes. The character violations that would normally damn the book instead make sense yet aren’t anticipated in advance, at least by me; much of the story is shockingly tense in ways that shouldn’t be. McEwan is very good at delayed resolution and gratification in a way most literary writers aren’t.

There are many essays to be written about The Innocent’s subtleties: about secrets, about sexuality, about the role of the unexpected, about fear, about pride, about loss, about the collision between fantasy and reality, about the instability of personality and its unpredictable development.

McEwan_The_innocentFirework sentences—the ones with elaborate metaphors or epiphanies or rhetoric—are relatively few, but almost all of them hum along and even the mundane sentences like “Maria reached for her skirt and blouse” are often given menace by their context. “Relatively few” does not mean none and some of the obvious ones stand out: “Leonard Marnham [. . . ] had never actually met an American to talk to, but he had studied them in depth at his local Odeon.” An Odeon is a great way to study foreign cultures, of course, a sort of science lab for the soul. Of Maria’s parents, she thinks or explains that “They still resented their daughter for the marriage she had made at twenty against their wishes, and took no satisfaction in the fulfillment of all their worst predictions.” Most of us find our prophecies wrong of failed.

Leonard is the innocent of the title, who discovers emotion at the behest of a woman. He is beset by apparently important work that conflicts with an inner life newly freed from his parents and the constraints of home, and after he meets Maria he thinks that “He knew that if only he had a little more leisure and were a little less tired he could be obsessed, he could be a man in love.” As if he plays a role: he could be “a man in love,” instead of more directly saying that he loves Maria. He needs that mediating, cultural desire to feel his own at this early stage of his development. As the novel proceeds things naturally change.

Without giving anything I’ll also note that the novel uses McEwan’s characteristic end-stage “zoom” effect, in which decades elapse in the final pages. Such a change is disconcerting, disconsoling—yet appropriate. It is brutal but in an acceptable way, or maybe just melancholy.

Here is James Wood on McEwan, though Wood does not share my love of plot. Here is Daniel Zalewski in The New Yorker.

Summary Judgement: Sweet Tooth — Ian McEwan

For a novel about a spy, Sweet Tooth is surprisingly slack. Maybe it’s slack in defense of realism. The cause eludes me, since the writing is as customarily crisp as the story isn’t. Excellent quotes are easy, from the first page, with this description of Serena’s father, an Anglican Bishop: his “belief in God was muted and reasonable, did not intrude much on our lives and was just sufficient to raise him smoothly through the Church hierarchy and install us in a comfortable Queen Anne House.” The parents are distant to the point of barely believable indifference: much later in the novel, Serena thinks, “Would the Bishop even notice I’d been away?” She’s free of parents, like an orphan in a 19th Century novel or a teenager in a contemporary TV show.

That doesn’t detract from the aforementioned beauty, like this, to go back to the second page: “We liked to think of ourselves as bad girls, but actually we were rather good.” Serena, on learning about the difficulties of writing, “went for important walks,” the silliness and accuracy of the phrase “important walks” working so well to conceptualize her state of mind and what many people with intellectual dispositions end up doing.

But the beauty of sentences eventually feels like backdrop when a second or third act fails to develop. The novel ends with a great, revisionary secret, the sort of secret that powers PhD dissertations more often than it does readerly love. We’ve seen these surprise techniques before—most notably in Atonement, but also, after a fashion, On Chesil Beach.

Like many writers, including this one, McEwan, through Serena, is at least interested in and perhaps obsessed by what reading and books do to people. Serena works in books as much as she’s a spy and sleeps with authors (which is the sort of practice I’d like to encourage). She notes what she reads and how she reads it. The book becomes about a love of books, but it does so to the point that the occupant of this book becomes dull. What does the book talk add up to? I’m a person sympathetic to books and book talk, but in Sweet Tooth the answer is “not much.” It becomes easy to lose focus midway through. Sure, for Serena, reading is how she both constructs and understands her world, but then you have to, you know, go do something. That’s not to say that she isn’t artful or funny. Consider this problem, about Jeremy, Serena’s first lover who turns out, predictably, to prefer men:

I wanted him to have a secret and shameful desire that only I could satisfy. I wanted to make this lofty, courteous man all mind. Did he want to smack my backside, or have me smack his? Was he wanting to try on my underwear? This mystery obsessed me when I was away from him, and made it all the harder to stop thinking about him when I was supposed to be concentrating on the maths. Colette was my escape.

Colette was her escape, but into what and from what? From mysteries? From something she can’t quite articulate, perhaps. And Serena, as a narrator, is also willing to ostentatiously tell us that she’s older and wiser now: “What I took to be the norm—taut, smooth, supple—was the transient special case of youth. To me, the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes. And now, what I would give to be fifty-four again!” This intrusion of the future self reminds us that we’re reading something from the future of events, with two pairs of eyes: the eyes of the undergraduate Serena and the eyes of the much older Serena, imagining her younger self from a position of greater articulacy and knowledge. Done too often, though, it becomes tedious. The notes in my copy trail off as the novel advances, and as I hope for Serena to become more than an acted-upon reporter of events. Her own life feels like it happened to someone else. Later in the novel, much later, the reason for this is revealed. But the view at the end of a long trail doesn’t always redeem the journey. The reason is clever, cerebral, not expected and not forced, and doesn’t make me want to read Sweet Tooth again, unless the next reading is part of some academic project about the usual sorts of academic things.

Serena says this of her reading habit:

All thanks to my mother, I didn’t stop reading. I’d never read much poetry or any plays at school, but I think I had more pleasure out of novels than my university friends, who were obliged to sweat over weekly essays on Middlemarch or Vanity Fair. I raced through the same books, chatted about them perhaps, if there was someone around who could tolerate my base level of discourse, then I moved on. Reading was my way of not thinking about maths. More than that (or do I mean less?), it was my way of not thinking.

Reading can be a powerful way of not thinking. I know from experience, even if most people think of reading as a highbrow, intensely intellectual activity these days. It isn’t, necessarily. And the assigned essay can be a chore instead of a pleasure. Serena wants it to be a pleasure:

My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes, and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between—I gave them all the same rough treatment.

Simple intellectual and erotic needs might be easier to fulfill than complex ones, in one sense, but also harder, in the way that a simple task executed perfectly may be harder than a complex task executed with a margin for error. Still, Serena should have known that it isn’t vulgar to want love and marriage and plot. It’s vulgar that professors and highbrow critics might make her think it is vulgar to want those things, to want fiction that might be, to use that overused term, “relatable.” That one might be able to follow effectively. Serena isn’t a close reader, or someone practicing towards being a professional.

But she is someone who learns how to be through books, which makes her different from someone who learns how to be from in other ways, or someone who never learns how to be. She says, “I caused amusement among my Newnham friends studying English when I told them that Valley of the Dolls was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. They laughed, they teased me for months. And they hadn’t read a line of Susann’s work.” Her friends are snobby and dismissive. Given the choice between snobby and unrefined but passionate, I’ll take the latter. The difference between those becomes a running issue, as when Serena begins to write a little column, and, like bloggers, something unfortunate happens: “I had written half a dozen jaunty pieces when something went wrong. Like many writers who come by a little success, I began to take myself too seriously.”

It’s a narrow act, the stance that straddles too serious and not serious enough. When I’m waffling between them, I try for “not serious enough:” after all, we’re talking about fiction here, not life and death. But for Serena the two become bound together because of her work. That’s an interesting theme; if only the plot were drilled more vigorously through the loam of Serena’s mind and story.

The Uses of Poetry and Search Queries

Blog search traffic patterns are fascinating when they clearly relate to someone’s English class—over the past couple days, I’ve seen a few dozen hits on “Ian McEwan and ‘The Use of Poetry.’” Many come in a form like this, from today: “the use of poetry ian mcewan analysis”. On November 15, when I’m writing this, the McEwan piece already has 20 hits, which is very unusual for a two-year-old post that hasn’t been, so far as I know, linked to by other bloggers or discussed on forums. Given the nature of the queries, I would guess that students are the prime consumers, and out there somewhere are papers on “The Use of Poetry” that will claim seduction to be the primary use of poetry, never mind the distinction I make that seduction is the primary use of poetry for Michael Beard, the eventual protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Solar, and what is true of Michael Beard will not necessarily be true of every reader of poetry.

This semester I assigned Tom Perrotta’s Election and Anita Shreve’s Testimony to my own students. When the first draft of the paper came due, I noticed that “Thoughts on Anita Shreve’s Testimony and Tom Perrotta’s Election” was getting an unusual number of hits; points two and seven occurred distressing frequency in the papers I eventually read. Some of that is probably due to those features being obvious in the novels. The rest might be attributable to the Internet. No one outright plagiarized, to my knowledge, though I have heard professors say that students search the Internet, find one of the professor’s articles on a subject, copy it, and then turn it in to the very professor who wrote the article.

These practices remind me of William Deresiewicz’s essay Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts,” where he says

I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12.

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever.

What worries me about the people searching for “The Use of Poetry” or Election is simple: I get the sense many of the people doing so are becoming “hoop jumpers,” instead of thinking for themselves. The scholarly and intellectual practice of seeking the opinions of others to stimulate your own thinking is an important one. But how many of the searchers for “analysis” are doing that? I suspect most of them are looking for someone else’s pre-digested work to parrot back to their instructors. And this might be a viable way of getting through school. But the digestion is the point—without the time spent struggling with a problem in your own mind, you’re not going to learn how to identify and solve problems that no one else has seen, or worked on, or discussed.

I see this issue around me among grad students (and, sometimes, professors). A lot of grad students have spent their whole lives trying to please someone else, and when they get to the point in their careers—usually around their dissertation—where they have to work without real guidance or guidelines, many flail. A lot of people in general experience that sense when they leave school, whether they leave at 18 or 38. The externally imposed goals and rules get removed. Instead of being told the use of poetry, or statistics, or calculus, they have to decide it for themselves. But if they haven’t spent time thinking about what poetry might do in “The Use of Poetry,” or how McEwan expresses himself, or any number of other things, they aren’t going to have the skills they need not only to write, but to deal with life.

The Internet is a wonderful thing for seeking the opinions of others, but it’s a mistake to seek them before you’ve taken the time to try and develop opinions and skills of your own. If you lean too much on others, you won’t be able to work through things for yourself. Deresiewicz gets this, and the perils of too much copying and listening to others and going to the Internet for opinions: “I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.” Used wrongly, the Internet can become a vessel not for thinking, but for its opposite. Before you hit the Internet for ideas, you need to give yourself time to develop what Grady Tripp, in Wonder Boys, calls “the midnight disease,” which writers suffer from; he describes it this way:

[… it] started out as a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to ‘fit in’ by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your hostile gaze.

And I don’t think this unique to writer: programmers, hackers, engineers, scientists, and others probably feel too (Richard Feynman in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: “Mr. Frankel [. . .] began to suffer from the computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about. It’s a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. The trouble with computers is that you play with them”): all the people who, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, still desire to walk free under the sun even as they are compelled to return to darkness and solitude. The solitude is what it takes to do the work. Writers, at least of the novelist variety, are usually writing about people, which makes it odd that one needs to get away from people to describe people, but it’s nonetheless true. Tripp calls it a “disease” and “a simple feeling of disconnection,” both with their negative connotations, but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it Flow and others call it creativity. Creativity needs other ideas to stimulate it—that’s one of Steven Berlin Johnson’s main points in Where Good Ideas Come From—but it also needs silence. It needs to stay away from Google, from other people babbling in your ear and telling you what to think and giving you their dubious “analysis.” The Internet gives us the option of letting others do our thinking for us. So, if you’re reading this on the Internet, let me encourage you to think for yourself before others do it for you.

On Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep

The Magicians reminded me enough of Prep in that both deal with what are effectively high school societies, and yet both somehow manage to transcend those societies into something more that I reread Sittenfeld’s book. Although both might lag a bit in the middle, their ends make up for them. Prep is uneven, Lee’s laboriously analyzing of the financial and social intertwining of status at Ault can become tedious, but the final chapter is stunning in its emotional payoff in a way that isn’t predictable early on.

For example, at a needlessly awkward student teacher conference—actually, “needlessly awkward” could summarize most of Lee’s high school experience, though she only realizes it in the novel’s last pages—a teacher winks and Lee thinks:

What was I supposed to do back? Didn’t she realize that this wasn’t a movie about boarding school, where the student and the teacher could have a little burst of chumminess and then it would cut to another scene, like the student at soccer practice or the teacher riding her bike back to her cottage on the edge of campus? No, we were still in the same room, both of us having to breathe and speak in the aftermath of her wink.

Sometimes, Lee, a wink is just a wink and the optimal strategy involves shrugging off what you perceive as a social protocol violation. Social protocols are there to make interaction easier and more predictable, and when they fail, they should be discarded: perhaps one issue in being a teenager is learning how to build new social protocols and transcend old ones. She could have learned that here and applied it later. But it’s her failure to learn from the incident with her teacher that’s most notable: adolescent Lee, although she’s being viewed from the future, doesn’t imbibe what she should imbibe—not until much later. That somewhat sophisticated point of view works incredibly well for the novel, as it does in few others; Ian McEwan can pull off variations of the same technique in On Chesil Beach and Atonement, but few others can.*

In another Prep moment that’s chilling for adults chiefly because of memory, rather than present conditions, Lee is trying to evaluate where she stands with a guy. Her roommate observes, “You need to talk to Cross […] You’re allowed to ask him stuff, Lee. And, at this point, what is there to lose?” The question is being asked during their senior year, but even during Lee’s freshmen year, the answer would still have been the same: nothing. Nothing at all. But Lee doesn’t realize it, not until those final two pages that are more than worth all that comes before, much of which is a delight anyway.


* McEwan also, I sense, feels a greater moral obligation to write well, but that’s only based on a comparison to Sittenfeld’s Prep: I haven’t read any of her other work.

On Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep

The Magicians reminded me enough of Prep in that both deal with what are effectively high school societies, and yet both somehow manage to transcend those societies into something more that I reread Sittenfeld’s book. Although both might lag a bit in the middle, their ends make up for them. Prep is uneven, Lee’s laboriously analyzing of the financial and social intertwining of status at Ault can become tedious, but the final chapter is stunning in its emotional payoff in a way that isn’t predictable early on.

For example, at a needlessly awkward student teacher conference—actually, “needlessly awkward” could summarize most of Lee’s high school experience, though she only realizes it in the novel’s last pages—a teacher winks and Lee thinks:

What was I supposed to do back? Didn’t she realize that this wasn’t a movie about boarding school, where the student and the teacher could have a little burst of chumminess and then it would cut to another scene, like the student at soccer practice or the teacher riding her bike back to her cottage on the edge of campus? No, we were still in the same room, both of us having to breathe and speak in the aftermath of her wink.

Sometimes, Lee, a wink is just a wink and the optimal strategy involves shrugging off what you perceive as a social protocol violation. Social protocols are there to make interaction easier and more predictable, and when they fail, they should be discarded: perhaps one issue in being a teenager is learning how to build new social protocols and transcend old ones. She could have learned that here and applied it later. But it’s her failure to learn from the incident with her teacher that’s most notable: adolescent Lee, although she’s being viewed from the future, doesn’t imbibe what she should imbibe—not until much later. That somewhat sophisticated point of view works incredibly well for the novel, as it does in few others; Ian McEwan can pull off variations of the same technique in On Chesil Beach and Atonement, but few others can.*

In another Prep moment that’s chilling for adults chiefly because of memory, rather than present conditions, Lee is trying to evaluate where she stands with a guy. Her roommate observes, “You need to talk to Cross […] You’re allowed to ask him stuff, Lee. And, at this point, what is there to lose?” The question is being asked during their senior year, but even during Lee’s freshmen year, the answer would still have been the same: nothing. Nothing at all. But Lee doesn’t realize it, not until those final two pages that are more than worth all that comes before, much of which is a delight anyway.


* McEwan also feels a great moral obligation to write well, but that’s only based on a comparison to Sittenfeld’s Prep: I haven’t read any of her other work.

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