James Wood writes about the manipulations of Ian McEwan

In different ways, most of Ian McEwan’s novels and stories are about trauma and contingency, and he is now best known as the great contemporary stager of traumatic contingency as it strikes ordinary lives. In The Child in Time, a child goes missing at a supermarket, and Stephen and Julie’s domestic existence is shattered; in Enduring Love, Clarissa and Joe witness the death of John Logan as he falls from a balloon, are changed for ever, and spend the rest of the novel trying to absorb the consequences of the spectacle; Black Dogs is in part about how Bernard Tremaine, a politician, scientist and rationalist, drifts away from his wife, June (and vice versa), because of what he deems her fanciful, emotional, overdetermined reading of the trauma that was meted out on her in 1946 by the black dogs of the title. In The Innocent, set in Berlin in the mid-1950s, Leonard Marnham, a telephone communications specialist, is having an affair with Maria Eckdorf, a German. But they murder Maria’s ex-husband and dismember his body and find that their relationship can’t survive that traumatic experience. The central protagonists of Atonement have their lives ruined by the traumatic wrongful arrest of Robbie on charges of rape, while the just married couple in On Chesil Beach do not survive the trauma of their honeymoon night. (It is further intimated that Florence has been traumatised by sexual abuse at the hands of her father.) And then there is Baxter, contingency personified, who enters Henry Perowne’s life in Saturday through that most random of urban events, the car accident.

Trauma, in McEwan’s work, inaugurates a loss of innocence. After the mother’s death, the childhood garden is cemented over, in his first novel, and the children, now orphaned, set about creating their own, corrupted version of childhood. The narrator of Enduring Love returns to the field where John Logan fell from the balloon, and thinks, ‘I could not quite imagine a route back into that innocence’: John Logan’s fall is also the narrator’s fall from innocence. A strongly Rousseauian narrative marks McEwan’s work: the haven of pastoralism is appealed to as the escape from corruption. In The Child in Time, Stephen Lewis is a children’s writer, but by accident. He wrote his first novel – about a summer holiday he spent when he was 11 – as an adult book. But his publisher, Charles Darke, insists that it is a children’s book, that children will read it and understand that childhood is finite: ‘that it won’t last, it can’t last, that sooner or later they’re finished, done for, that their childhood is not for ever.’ Charles subsequently has a kind of nervous breakdown. He and his wife, a physicist working on notions of time, give up the corruptions of London and retire to the countryside, where Charles starts dressing up and play-acting as a little boy out of Richmal Crompton, complete with shorts, catapults and a tree house. In Enduring Love, five men attempt to stop a hot-air balloon, whose basket contains a small boy, from rising. Hanging onto the ropes that dangle from the basket, they constitute a little Rousseauian natural society, each of them motivated by altruism or sympathy. But as the balloon rises, one man drops first, then the rest of them, and later, no one will admit to being the first to fall. ‘Our crew enacted morality’s ancient, irresolvable dilemma: us, or me. Someone said me, and then there was nothing to be gained by saying us.’ McEwan plays here with recent work in evolutionary biology concerning the sources of altruism, yet Rousseau hovers behind the text.

Likewise in The Innocent. In the world of postwar Berlin, where Leonard Marnham has come to assist the Americans who are digging a surveillance tunnel to go from their sector to the Soviets’, a regime of secrecy and clearance is in operation. Leonard’s American handler, Bob Glass, explains that everybody thinks his clearance is the highest there is, everyone thinks he has the final story: ‘You only hear of a higher level at the moment you’re being told about it.’ Glass then delivers his version of the origins of the self, a curious mixture of Rousseau, evolutionary biology and rugged individualism:

Back then, we all used to hang out together all day long doing the same thing. We lived in packs. So there was no need for language. If there was a leopard coming, there was no point in saying, Hey man, what’s coming down the track? A leopard! Everyone could see it, everyone was jumping up and down and screaming, trying to scare it off. But what happens when someone goes off on his own for a moment’s privacy? When he sees a leopard coming, he knows something the others don’t. And he knows they don’t know. He has something they don’t, he has a secret, and this is the beginning of his individuality, of his consciousness. If he wants to share his secret and run down the track to warn the other guys, then he’s going to need to invent language. From there grows the possibility of culture.

This is not very far from Rousseau’s theory of how we developed language, with the difference that what seemed a fall for Rousseau seems like salvation for the secretive American. McEwan doesn’t exactly agree with Rousseau or Bob Glass, but the statement seems an important and emblematic one in his work, because his novels so often circle around the idea that a witnessed trauma becomes a corrupting secret whose possession expels one from community; this is the case with Stephen Lewis, nursing his obsessive and in some ways unspeakable grief for his lost daughter, with Joe Rose, with Leonard Marnham, with June Tremaine, and with Briony in Atonement, of whom McEwan writes that she felt she lacked secrets, and could not have an interesting life without them.

‘The distortion of a text,’ Freud says in Moses and Monotheism, ‘is not unlike a murder. The difficulty lies not in the execution of the deed but in doing away with the traces.’ McEwan’s novels follow the traces that trauma makes, and are often shrewd, in a Freudian way, about how difficult it is to do away with them: the children in The Cement Garden cover the corpse of their mother with cement, but botch the job, so that the house begins to smell of her decay and their guilt. But these books also seek, at a formal level, to contain and control the vivid, traumatic happenings that originate their plots. They may be about secrets but they are themselves highly secretive. McEwan is addicted to the withholding of narrative information, the hoarding of surprises, the deferral of revelations; this manipulation of secrecy, apart from its obvious desire to keep the reader reading, seems to incarnate a desire to repeat the texture of the originating trauma, and in so doing, to master and contain it. Major examples might be the deferred revelation in The Child in Time that Stephen’s wife has been pregnant for nine months, alone in the countryside, without needing to inform her estranged husband, who is also her impregnator, a secret McEwan hoards until the very end of the book, the better to provide the novel with a rush of harmony, as the bereaved couple finally replace mourning with new life. (This novel, like Saturday, formally closes the circle of domestic harmony, and neutralises trauma with the possibility of a happy ending.) The first chapter of Enduring Love silently prepares a secret about John Logan (that he was not with his mistress but with a don and his girlfriend), which it withholds until the end of the book.

At a formal level, the confession of any withheld revelation, even an unsettling one, is satisfying. It contains and closes; it solves a narrative puzzle. This manipulation of surprise is reproduced at the level of McEwan’s sentences. He writes very distinguished prose, but is fond of a kind of thrillerish defamiliarisation, in which he lulls the reader into thinking one thing while preparing something else. Here is a characteristic paragraph from The Child in Time:

Stephen was 30 feet away from this tree when a boy stepped out from behind it and stood and stared … It was hard to see clearly, but he knew that this was just the kind of boy who used to fascinate and terrify him at school … The look was far too confident, cocky in that familiar way. He had an old-fashioned appearance – a grey flannel shirt with rolled-up sleeves and loosened tails, baggy grey shorts supported by a striped, elastic belt with a silver snake clasp, bulging pockets from which a handle protruded, and scabby, blood-streaked knees.

It is not a boy, but the regressed Charles Darke, Stephen’s former publisher.

In The Innocent, Leonard and Maria are having sex in her bedroom. He hears her whispering and thinks it is an endearment. This continues for two paragraphs, and then McEwan reveals the content of the whisper. ‘What at last he heard her say was, “There’s someone in the wardrobe.”’ In Black Dogs, June Tremaine is walking in the French countryside. ‘She came to a hairpin bend in the track and turned it. A hundred yards ahead, by the next bend, were two donkeys … As she came away from the edge she looked ahead again and realised that the donkeys were dogs, black dogs of an unnatural size.’ In Enduring Love, Joe Rose thinks he glimpses Jed Parry, his stalker, in the London Library. He goes home, makes himself a drink, and hears a creak: ‘There was someone at my back.’ It is his wife. The middle section of Atonement systematically deploys this kind of negative estrangement. Two apparently hostile French brothers approach the English soldiers; one is holding something long and rifle-like in his hand. It is a baguette. Later, after the Germans have started bombing the British forces, Robbie Turner sees, across a field, the head of a fellow soldier, resting on the soil. McEwan doesn’t need to say what we are thinking, that he has been decapitated. As Robbie approaches, he sees that the soldier is not dead, but knee-deep in a grave he is digging for a French boy.

In this regard Tolstoy and Stephen Crane may have influenced McEwan. Tolstoy, after all, was praised by the Russian formalists for his talent at defamiliarisation. Nikolai Rostov stands on a wooden bridge, in the heat of battle, and there is a sound ‘as if someone has spilled nuts’. A man has fallen down beside him. But Tolstoy’s estrangements are often on the order of moral correction or readjustment; they open up a new vein of sympathy, as when Pierre Bezukhov visits Dolokhov at home, and discovers that the rowdy man-about-town with whom he has just fought a duel is a ‘most affectionate’ son to his old mother and hunchbacked sister. McEwan’s estrangements are, more often than not, visual surprises, designed to keep the reader in his expert grip, and to keep meaning under control. They are secrets, not mysteries. Graham Greene and George Orwell may have been closer models for McEwan (I am thinking of the scene in Down and Out in Paris and London, when Orwell, in the doss-house, is woken up ‘by a dim impression of some large brown thing coming towards me. I opened my eyes and saw that it was one of the sailor’s feet, sticking out of bed close to my face. It was dark brown, quite dark brown like an Indian’s, with dirt’). And behind Orwell and McEwan may stand a Victorian manipulator like Wilkie Collins. There is the celebrated visual surprise, for instance, when Walter Hartright sees Marian Halcombe from behind, in The Woman in White. She seems to have a fine figure, a ‘comely shape’, until she turns:

She left the window – and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps – and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer – and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

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.

For McEwan, I suspect, a story is indeed a long string or fuse of heaped improbabilities, and he delights in the way that, retrospectively, all these improbabilities have been neatly made sense of, have been made hermeneutically legible, turned into necessities, forcing us to say to ourselves: ‘it could not have been any other way.’ Leonard Marnham, reflecting on the fact that his engagement party became a fight, then a murder, then a sawing-up of body parts, thinks ‘how all along the way each successive step had seemed logical enough, consistent with the one before, and how no one was to blame’. But if narrative secrets of this kind – narrative improbabilities – must always become, in the end, narrative predictabilities, then such novels will find it much harder to dramatise meaningfully the impact of contingency on ordinary lives. Contingency is accident, but there is nothing accidental about these highly-strung narratives, which in fact attempt to contain and hold accident.

If secrets constitute us as individuals (as Briony Tallis hopes is the case), and secrets are crucial to storytelling, then it must be storytelling itself that expels us from Eden. Storytelling is corrupt and corrupting. This has been one of the themes McEwan has pondered in recent years, and it is hard not to conclude that in so doing he is somewhat anxiously arraigning his own propensity for narrative manipulation. Graham Greene, another enormously successful and artistically serious novelist, did something similar in The End of the Affair, using the book, in part, to reflect on storytelling and the ‘guiltiness’ of highly professionalised storytelling. Bendrix, the book’s first narrator, is a successful novelist praised for his impeccable craftsmanship. The End of the Affair ends with a series of miracles: a book belonging to Bendrix’s mistress, Sarah, has healing powers; a man’s scarred face is suddenly restored; a stained-glass window in a house that is bombed is the only window not shattered. Greene the Catholic asks, as McEwan does in Black Dogs for instance, when is a coincidence just a coincidence and when is it a narrative miracle? In Black Dogs, a Marlow-like narrator reflects a good deal on the unreliabilities and coercions of storytellers. He notes that the remembered trauma of the black dogs has become an originary myth for his mother-in-law, June Tremaine, and he questions the idea that lives have turning points:

Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth … June’s ‘black dogs’? … I found these almost non-existent animals were too comforting.

This arraignment of fiction is problematic. McEwan exaggerates the dastardliness of fiction’s manipulations, and conflates his kind of storytelling with storytelling in general. A rather extreme binarism is thus established, in which the reader is pushed between an absolute trust in fiction’s form-making power, and an absolute scepticism of it. One of Briony’s crimes in Atonement seems to be not that she acts like a bad novelist but that she acts like a novelist at all, imposing form and plot on a story that, properly pursued, would be limitless. Stories, she reflects, are stories only when they have endings:

Only when a story was finished, all fates resolved and the whole matter sealed off at both ends so it resembled, at least in this one respect, every other finished story in the world, could she feel immune, and ready to punch holes in the margins, bind the chapters with pieces of string, paint or draw the cover, and take the finished work to show to her mother, or her father, when he was home.

There has to be a story about Robbie, she thinks,

and this was the story of a man whom everybody liked, but about whom the heroine always had her doubts, and finally she was able to reveal that he was the incarnation of evil. But wasn’t she – that was, Briony the writer – supposed to be so worldly now as to be above such nursery-tale ideas as good and evil? There must be some lofty, godlike place from which all people could be judged alike, not pitted against each other … If such a place existed, she was not worthy of it. She could never forgive Robbie his disgusting mind.

Briony imposes a plot; she makes what she has witnessed mean something. This is just what Henry Perowne, in Saturday, dislikes about the fiction his daughter gets him to read. On the one hand, he thinks, fiction is a clumsy, pointless provider of information more efficiently gathered elsewhere, and on the other hand, it is too tidy. ‘Unlike in Daisy’s novels, moments of precise reckoning are rare in real life; questions of misinterpretation are not often resolved. Nor do they remain pressingly unresolved. They simply fade.’

The second difficulty is that McEwan seems to want to have it both ways, at once decrying too much pattern and making use of too much pattern. It is all very well for the narrator of Black Dogs, or for Henry Perowne, to object to the fakery of ‘turning points’ in fiction, but they are themselves embedded in books devoted to such mechanisms. Atonement prosecutes Briony, and by extension a certain kind of fiction, for a compulsive need to tidy up life’s limitless messiness with plot, to make loose endings too neat; but Atonement is of course itself a very tidy novel, committed to guiding us through the implications of its own self-conscious fictionality.

And yet Atonement, a novel at once manipulative and keen to blame plot-making for its manipulative distortions, is a moving and ample story, in a category apart from McEwan’s earlier work. How does it work? Partly, its multi-sectioned form allows a little air into McEwan’s usual narrative vault; the first section, set in a country house in 1935, is a brilliant feat of storytelling, whereby McEwan manages both to sound like McEwan and not quite like himself. He must sound a bit more ornate and experimental than usual, so that the section can plausibly be revealed, later on, to have been written by the Virginia Woolf-loving Briony Tallis; yet he must also please those readers who want his usual effects – tight plotting, withheld revelations, dark secrets, turning points. Martin Amis is right to consider this long passage McEwan’s best piece of writing: simply at the technical level, it is astonishing to be able to write so well at a slight angle or distance from one’s own customary style, and yet continue to give readers what they want.

And indeed, knowing what readers want is at the heart of the diabolical success of this book. What is especially interesting about Atonement in the light of McEwan’s status as a popular but serious manipulator, is the delicate way it makes readers aware of their own desire to be gratified by serious narrative manipulation. In the fourth section of the book, set in 1999, Briony Tallis is an old and eminent writer, who has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The novel ends with her at her desk, reflecting on the piece of writing she first started in January 1940, and to which she has returned ‘half a dozen different’ times between then and now. But although we comprehend that what we have just read – the text of the entire novel – was written by Briony, we have no great desire to comprehend that what we have just read was made up – i.e. invented – by Briony; McEwan plays on the complacency of readerly expectation, whereby, with the help of detailed verisimilitude, readers tend to turn fiction into fact. If we have just read, in section three, that Briony walked to Clapham and saw Robbie and Cecilia there, this must ‘really’ have happened, yes? On the last two pages of the novel, of course, McEwan lays bare his final secret: Robbie died at Dunkirk on 1 June 1940, and Cecilia was killed in the same year by a bomb in Balham. The lovers never united. Briony invented their happiness as an act of novelistic atonement for her earlier act of novelistic failure.

Plenty of readers are irritated by this conjuring trick. But if Briony made it all up, so did we. If the desperation of both her guilt and her wish fulfilment stirs us, it is because, by way of McEwan’s delayed revelation, by way of his narrative secret, we have ourselves conspired in Briony’s wish fulfilment, not just content but eager to believe, until the very last moment, that Cecilia and Robbie did not actually die. We wanted them to be alive, and the knowledge that we too wanted a ‘happy ending’ brings on a kind of atonement for the banality of our own literary impulses. Which is why the ending provokes interestingly divergent responses: it alienates some conventional readers, who dislike what they feel to be a trick, but it alienates some sophisticated readers, who also dislike what they feel to be a trick; and I suspect that the estrangement of both camps has to do with their guilt at having been moved by the novel’s conventional romantic power. It shouldn’t be possible, but Atonement wants to have it both ways, and succeeds in having it both ways. It is Ian McEwan’s best book because it successfully prosecutes and defends – as inevitable – the very impulses that make McEwan such a compellingly manipulative novelist; and because it makes us willing, guilty, and finally self-conscious co-conspirators in that machinery of manipulation.