12 February 2013

A Nasty Piece of Work

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes

Ah, the unreliable narrator. Almost de rigeur in highbrow contemporary fiction these days, it seems. Barnes’s narrator in The Sense of an Ending actually warns us on Page One that he’s unreliable. It turns out he’s right—not because he means to lie to us but, more interestingly, because he’s emotionally stunted, hopelessly self-centred, and blind to the characters and needs of people around him. Due to these (rather common) handicaps he perceives falsely, acts inappropriately, and reports inaccurately. He can’t help himself. He is also a rather dull person, of no great utility to anyone, and a nasty piece of work in a petty, unprofitable sort of way. The book is about him coming to realise all this, much too late in life to do anything about it.
     If reading about such a mediocrity sounds like an attractive proposition to you, you will like this book. But what if it doesn’t?
     It happens that this reviewer is a middle-aged man facing retirement with many hopes unrealised and ambitions unfulfilled. He was thus easily able to comprehend and appreciate the numerous insights appropriate to such a condition (which is also that of the narrator, Tony) that fill this book. They ring true—laceratingly so at times. Reading them was not exactly enjoyable, but there was a kind of satisfaction in it.
     Apart from the dubious pleasure of reading unpleasant home-truths, the other main diversion on offer in this book is the challenge of figuring out the truth of the tale Tony tells us. Not the literal details of the plot, but the emotional truth about the characters and their relationships to one another. It’s not really that hard. If (forewarned by Tony) one reads with care from the beginning and takes nothing for granted, one is likely to reach the end of the book with a pretty clear picture of what is going on, and the final revelation, even if not guessed beforehand, is hardly a great surprise.
     The Sense of an Ending is beautifully written, very readable and all too true to life. However, it is a nasty book about a foolish, cowardly, not-very-nice man whom Life punishes in a cursory but very effective way simply by happening to other people. Others may like this kind of thing, but I have to say it isn’t really my cup of tea.

10 February 2013

High-Class Confectionery

Sweet Tooth
by Ian McEwan

I think this must be what the critics call a tour de force.
     Ian McEwan dines at the high table of contemporary English authorship. You expect his stuff to be good, and he rarely disappoints. He exhibits all the conventional auctorial virtues. His observant, insightful psychology is second to none. If he has a weakness, it is that his writing is so absorbing and instantly digestible that you devour it unreflectingly and may find it hard to remember anything about the plot or the characters afterwards. In other words, he’s the ultimate ‘good reads’ author – so good you may fail to notice his artistry.
     Sweet Tooth is a good read, to say the least. Serena Frome (rhymes with ‘plume’)—Anglican bishop’s daughter, Cambridge maths graduate, MI5 employee and self-acknowledged beauty—is sent off to recruit T.H. Haley—redbrick university lecturer, writer of incisive essays and short fiction, reputedly hostile to Communism and the Soviets—into a small stable of authors it intends to support as a counterweight to the dominance of left-wing thought in Western cultural circles (the year is 1973). The support is extended through a dummy foundation and the authors don’t know they’re being used.
     Naturally, Serena falls in love with her target, and complications follow.
     Espionage, love, sex, betrayal, mystery, an artful intermingling of real life with fiction—Sweet Tooth has it all. But there is more to it than a mere rearrangement of well-loved fictional themes. McEwan, the master of the good read, has taken on the challenge of writing a novel that experiments in a postmodern way with the conventions of fiction. In other words, he has taken on the challenge of making a good read out of the kind of literary showing-off that usually results in a very bad read.
     And he has succeeded brilliantly. Sweet Tooth reads just like any other Ian McEwan novel—engaging, easy to swallow, so true to life that disbelief is not so much suspended as abandoned altogether on the very first page. The story is never compromised, never fails to entertain and make you want to read on to find out what happens next. There is not the faintest hint that anything highbrow and postmodern is happening.
     Oh, but it is. The literary experiment is hidden, as Americans say, in plain sight. McEwan leaves plenty of hints in the text to let suspicious readers know something is up. For example, when Serena and her lover are discussing books, we get this:
 Without leaving the chair he stretched forward and picked up John Fowles’s The Magus, and said he admired parts of that, as well as all of The Collector and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I said I didn’t like tricks, I liked life as I knew it recreated on the page. He said it wasn’t possible to recreate life on the page without tricks.’
Sweet Tooth features a manipulated reality like the one in The Magus and a readers’ choice of endings like The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It also has an unreliable narrator (whose identity, too, may not be the one we are given) and sundry other postmodern auctorial tricks. However, none of these are apparent to the reader until the end of the book. And when they are revealed, the result is not the usual disappointment – a breaking of what Serena, a voracious reader of novels herself, would call ‘the contract between the writer and the reader’. It actually redoubles the reader’s pleasure in the book, making it an even better read than it was before. And this, I think, is unique. I've never read an ‘experimental’ work that fully satisfied the terms of that contract before. In fact, it works so brilliantly that today, three days after I finished Sweet Tooth, I keep looking at it and wishing there was some of it still left to read.
     What an absolutely marvellous book this is.