Ways of Being Interesting

Theo Tait

  • The Children Act by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 215 pp, £16.99, September 2014, ISBN 978 0 224 10199 8

For some years, I have nursed a modest hope concerning Ian McEwan: that one day he should write a novel without a catastrophic turning point, or a shattering final twist. That for once no one should be involved in a freak ballooning accident, or be brained by a glass table, or be wrongly convicted of a country-house rape; that no one should experience a marriage-ending bout of premature ejaculation, or have their child stolen in a supermarket, or suffer a terrifying home invasion at the hands of a thug with an easily diagnosed neurological condition. Wouldn’t it be good to see him do without his habitual narrative crutches: the constant undercurrent of menace; the crafty, miserly paying out of crucial plot information; the old 180-degree switcheroo in the final pages? This is not to denigrate any – or at any rate, all – of the above. Many of those sequences are, quite understandably, among the most celebrated passages of recent English fiction. In a literary landscape often dominated by baggy monsters and po-mo sprawl, McEwan’s determination to grip his readers – to have something singular and resonant happen in his novels – seems both admirable and canny. It’s no accident that he is read on a different scale from most of his contemporaries; McEwan is fond of quoting Henry James to the effect that the only obligation of a novel ‘is that it be interesting’. Yet you only have to think of James to realise that there are many more subtle, and perhaps more rewarding, ways of being interesting.

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