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.

Even as long ago as Black Dogs (1992), McEwan acknowledged that the pivotal turning point is a bogus contrivance: ‘Seeing the light, the moment of truth, the turning point, surely we borrow these from Hollywood or the Bible to make retroactive sense of an overcrowded memory?’ More than twenty years later, in Saturday (2005), the main character notes that in life, unlike in novels, ‘moments of precise reckoning are rare.’ Yet both novels, like most of his books, are constructed around just such moments; and these extreme episodes – survivals, perhaps, from the gothic mode of his early stories – have often knocked his work of out shape. Especially recently, the lurid plotting has seemed at odds with the reasonable, empirical tone of his writing; it’s curious that a scientifically minded author should concern himself with such far-fetched hypotheses.

McEwan’s whole career since, say, The Comfort of Strangers (1981), can be seen as an attempt to balance the irrational and the rational: what Forster called the ‘low atavistic form’ of storytelling with a larger explanatory context – social, historical or scientific. There’s a passage in McEwan’s spy novel Sweet Tooth (2012), a light but compelling box of tricks, in which an author who closely resembles the early McEwan is reproved by the narrator for writing bleak and modishly pessimistic stories: ‘This was an easy nihilism that never doubted that all we had made was rotten, never thought to pose alternatives, never derived hope from friendship, love, free markets, industry, technology, trade and all the arts and sciences.’ And you can see in most of his novels this urge to balance the vivid, possibly irresponsible narrative gestures with a more reasonable and honest vision of the world. His more successful books, such as Atonement (2001) and On Chesil Beach (2007), are arguably those which manage to control the turning point, to find an adequate context for his compulsion to have everything hinge on one dreadful moment: those books are carefully tricked out, in terms of character, plot and historical setting, to make sense of, retrospectively, the rape and the disastrous marriage night. Whereas in Saturday and Solar (2010), McEwan seemed unhelpfully torn between the desire to write loosely plotted, minutely observed realism – perhaps in the vein of Herzog or Rabbit Is Rich, which provided the respective epigraphs – and the old desire to drag the reader inexorably on. Suspense, one suspected, was being used to mask some absence of overall purpose; the books offered generic plotting in the place of more thematically satisfying and believable resolutions. Given how much interesting and entertaining material both those books contained, it seemed a pity. Surely, England’s national novelist (according to the New Yorker, anyway), with his calm intelligence, the authority of his storytelling, the precision and tact of his language, has earned the right to do something less gimmicky and more ambitious.

At first glance, The Children Act looks like just such a novel: serious, scrupulous and muted in its plotting. A career that started out in wild rebellion against drab British domestic realism seems to have come full circle. If not a Hampstead adultery novel – a form often invoked, but seldom actually seen in the wild – it is a Holborn adultery novel. Where once McEwan dealt with marginal perverts, here he writes about the great and good. Like Saturday and Solar, though in a very different mood, the new book deals with what it calls ‘the eminent life’ (eminence seems to be on McEwan’s mind: his protagonists encounter ‘various eminences’ at parties; they have many ‘eminent acquaintances’). Fiona Maye is a distinguished High Court judge, presiding over important cases in the Family Division. As the story begins, she is considering her judgment in the first of several lawsuits that will pit children’s rights against the religious beliefs of their parents. But her mind is elsewhere: after 35 years of happy, childless marriage, her husband, Jack, a professor of ancient history, has told her that he wants to have an affair with a younger woman. He still loves her and doesn’t want to break up the relationship but, he says: ‘I need it. I’m 59. This is my last shot. I’ve yet to hear evidence for an afterlife.’ (Is this where it leads, the Dawkins cult?)

The other main plotline concerns Fiona’s professional life, and has its origins in a well-known real-life case from 1990, Re E (a minor), in which a 15-year-old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukaemia refused a life-saving blood transfusion on the grounds that it was contrary to his faith. Mr Justice Ward, as he was then, gave the hospital leave to treat E against his will, declaring that the courts ‘should be very slow to allow an infant to martyr himself’. Where a child has sufficient intelligence and understanding to comprehend their medical treatment, they generally have the right to accept or refuse it; but, faced with the prospect of a boy dying of a stroke or internal bleeding, Ward cut across this principle, finding that ‘he has no realisation of the full implications which lie before him as to the process of dying.’ ‘I respect this boy’s profession of faith,’ he stated, ‘but I cannot discount at least the possibility that he may in later years suffer some diminution in his convictions.’ The boy was transfused; but when he turned 18 he exercised his right to refuse further transfusions, and died. In McEwan’s version, the boy, Adam Henry, is ‘a very strange and beautiful young man’. He is nearly 18, intelligent, charismatic and talented. Fiona, still reeling from Jack’s declaration, hears the case and then visits him in hospital to ascertain his state of mind, aware that what she is doing is a ‘highly unconventional’ and possibly even a ‘sentimental whim’.

The novel, according to V.S. Naipaul, ‘is a form of social inquiry’. It’s a nice idea, the novelist as a sort of Leveson figure, calling witnesses and taking submissions from learned counsel, and The Children Act cleaves to it more literally than most. It offers chewy themes: religion, death, freedom. Reason and faith are arraigned against each other, ‘masked surgeons pitched against supernatural belief’. Fiona’s encounter with Adam occasions some reflection on her and Jack’s childlessness, and their mortality (like McEwan, Jack is a geology enthusiast, and given to ‘oppressing’ his wife with discourses on ‘the weight of meaningless time’). The two plots create a series of ironies concerning the disjunction between her professional and personal lives. The law demands that she act as an ideal ‘reasonable parent’, when she is nothing of the sort; she has ‘the power to remove a child from an unkind parent and sometimes did. But remove herself from an unkind husband? When she was weak and desolate? Where was her protective judge?’ Beyond all this lies the broader question of ‘welfare, happiness, well-being’, the ‘philosophical concept of the good life’. This is the significance of the apparently clumsy title, a reference to the 1989 legislation of that name – which affirms that ‘the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration,’ trumping the parent’s.

McEwan clearly feels a deep affinity for Fiona, with her ‘crisp prose, almost ironic, almost warm’, her concern for ‘fine-grained particularities of circumstance’, her ‘civilised reach’: she is an excellent pianist; she knows her Shakespeare, her Adam Smith and her John Stuart Mill. Like Henry Perowne in Saturday, she is enlightened and honourable: a quietly heroic technocrat who brings ‘reasonableness to hopeless situations’, a liberal-paternalist superego figure who sorts things out sensibly, by compulsion if necessary. Notwithstanding an opening that alludes to Bleak House, and a couple of specific gripes that don’t connect much with the main flow of the novel, the law and London bar are lovingly presented. Gray’s Inn, in McEwan’s eyes, is just the sort of place where friendship, love, free markets, all the arts and sciences etc are valued: ‘A gated community of a historical sort, a fortress of barristers and judges who were also musicians, wine-fanciers, would-be writers, fly fishermen and raconteurs. A nest of gossip and expertise, and a delightful garden still haunted by the reasonable spirit of Francis Bacon.’ All this will presumably annoy those who value the darker, early McEwan, not the comfortable, slightly smug later version. And there is something mildly provoking about his elaboration of the Roy Jenkins-style good life: Fiona and Jack, with their charming Gray’s Inn flat, their holidays in Meribel and ‘the cheaper sort of castle’, their interesting political discussions, their prosciutto and olives, their ‘warmed pain aux raisins from Lamb’s Conduit Street’.

However, the more significant problem for The Children Act is that McEwan doesn’t do his traditional thing with the suspense and the horror, but neither does he manage convincingly to shake off his old habits. It reads like 1990s McEwan, watered down, with the plotting conducted in a minor key. As well as the schematic opposition of reason v. unreason, there’s a delusional admirer à la Enduring Love (1997), whose behaviour comes close to stalking. Later, there is some gentle violation of taboos, and a mild edge of unease which sharpens towards the finale. It has that distinctively McEwan-ish combination of surface tidiness and underlying confusion, with the problems surfacing most clearly in slightly improbable episodes: there is, as in the notorious ‘Dover Beach’ scene in Saturday, an occasion in which high art is required to work an immediate transformative magic – in this case Fiona sings Britten’s arrangement of Yeats’s ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ to Adam.

Still, as ever, McEwan achieves the rich, fine-grained realistic texture that makes his novels, sentence by sentence, a pleasure to read. His description of the judge’s working life is interesting; his fictionalised accounts of famous cases give a humane and philosophical spin to the ‘surgical’ prose for which he is famous. Here is Fiona reflecting on a lawsuit very similar to the conjoined twins case of Re A (2000), a humanist staring into the void:

She saw in the remembered pictures of Matthew and Mark a blind and purposeless nullity. A microscopic egg had failed to divide in time due to a failure somewhere along a chain of chemical events, a tiny disturbance in a cascade of protein reactions. A molecular event ballooned like an exploding universe, out onto the wider scale of human misery. No cruelty, nothing avenged, no ghost moving in mysterious ways. Merely a gene transcribed in error, an enzyme recipe skewed, a chemical bond severed. A process of natural wastage as indifferent as it was pointless.

McEwan’s sketching of the moral dilemma posed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses is fair and dispassionate, allowing Adam’s family to make a surprisingly convincing case for refusing blood. He offers what Fiona calls ‘the respect owed to piety’, though he doesn’t go much beyond that – and shows little interest in inhabiting the religious mindset. (He also makes a small and uncharacteristic error of background detail: he has Adam wax lyrical about the Christian cross, when in fact the Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that Jesus was put to death on a stake, and that the cross is a pagan symbol adopted by Constantine for opportunistic reasons.) Perhaps inevitably, in the end the novel takes an uncompromisingly New Atheistic stance, concluding that at heart Adam wanted ‘what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.’

But, as is often the case in later McEwan, the passing observations, the obiter dicta, are more nourishing than the overall narrative thrust. There is Fiona pausing, after her argument with her husband, to take mental notes, ‘to measure the insult carefully’; or finding the relief of returning to her work and ‘being delivered onto the neutral ground, the treeless heath, of other people’s problems’. Later, she listens to the World Service in the middle of the night, ‘calm voices discussing the day’s savagery’ and passes a crowd outside Conway Hall in Red Lion Square: ‘decent, white-haired, careworn people, Quakers perhaps, ready for an evening of remonstration with things as they stood’. Rather than the novel’s larger movements, God – or meaning – is in the details.