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Author: Dominic Head

In this survey, Ian McEwan emerges as one of those rare writers whose works have received both popular and critical acclaim. His novels grace the bestseller lists, and he is well regarded by critics, both as a stylist and as a serious thinker about the function and capacities of narrative fiction. McEwan's novels treat issues that are central to our times: politics, and the promotion of vested interests; male violence and the problem of gender relations; science and the limits of rationality; nature and ecology; love and innocence; and the quest for an ethical worldview. Yet he is also an economical stylist: McEwan's readers are called upon to attend, not just to the grand themes, but also to the precision of his spare writing. Although McEwan's later works are more overtly political, more humane, and more ostentatiously literary than the early work, this book uncovers the continuity as well as the sense of evolution through the oeuvre. It makes the case for McEwan's prominence—pre-eminence, even—in the canon of contemporary British novelists.

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Below the waves
Robert Duggan

Chapter 4 Ian McEwan: below the waves I will know the nature of the offence. Already I know this. I know that it has to do with trash and shit, and that it is wrong in time. (Amis, 1991, 73) The presence of the grotesque, with its characteristic contradictory elements, in Ian McEwan’s fiction is most easily visible in the author’s use of grotesque images and scenarios. As my earlier discussions of the concept of the grotesque have shown, the admixture of contradictory elements, such as death and the comic, has traditionally been described as grotesque. A good

in The grotesque in contemporary British fiction
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McEwan and the ‘third culture’
Dominic Head

points, beginning with the observation that human continuity is clearly indicated in our ability to 202 Ian McEwan engage with the literary representations of character from earlier historical periods: for this to happen, ‘we must bring our own general understanding of what it means to be a person.’ We rely on our ‘theory of mind’, our ‘more-or-less automatic understanding of what it means to be someone else.’ This is the kind of observation that marries with the principles of narrative ethics, as discussed elsewhere in this book, and which implies a necessary

in Ian McEwan
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The short stories and The Cement Garden
Dominic Head

‘single effect’, in Edgar Allan 32 Ian McEwan Poe’s enduring formulation.6 The reason Hanson marks McEwan out as a key practitioner of short fiction, however, is his subject matter: It could be argued that McEwan’s adoption of the short fiction and novella forms is bound up with [his] focus on our most private and usually wellguarded feelings. While short fiction does not deal exclusively with private emotion – inevitably the sense of privacy and exclusion depends on an implied social context – it can shed the weight of social commentary which seems inherent in the

in Ian McEwan
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Dominic Head

anachronistic understanding of literature’s importance. In the case of Ian McEwan, his current standing, as one of the most significant British writers since the 1970s, seems secure. More problematic is the related claim I would wish to advance: that he is possibly the most significant of a number of writers (including Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro and Graham Swift) who have resuscitated the link between morality and the novel for a whole generation, in ways that befit the historical pressures of their time. Implicit in such a claim is the assumption that the novel is a

in Ian McEwan
Saturday
Dominic Head

experiences in startling ways. It is a misperception – and a force for suppression – to suppose that this capacity should not be explored. Paradoxically, then, the shock value of early McEwan serves as a reminder of the range of the literary effect: it is a value that stands for 178 Ian McEwan literariness, giving offence particularly to those who take a narrower view of literature. In a further paradox, the more overtly ‘literary’ McEwan’s work has become, the more uncertain it has been about the role of literature. Eventually, what we see in Atonement is a complex

in Ian McEwan
The Innocent and Black Dogs
Dominic Head

reliability, thus tying in the business of writing to the larger deliberation about ethics and responsibility. 92 Ian McEwan The Innocent The Innocent represents a stylistic departure for McEwan, since its mood and plot is directly influenced by the Cold War spy novel. Malcolm Bradbury feels the presence of the spy novels of Len Deighton and John Le Carré (and behind them the influence of Graham Greene), and suggests that these writers have a bearing on McEwan’s treatment of ‘the moral state of post-war Britain’, and the paranoia that a corrupted Establishment invokes.2

in Ian McEwan
The Child in Time
Dominic Head

in the aftermath of a nuclear attack: the 72 Ian McEwan child, when found, is beyond help and is cradled by the mother until she dies. The notes indicate that the woman’s words ‘are those of an actual Hiroshima survivor who lost her family in the attack.’3 However, aside from this section, and some choral elements where McEwan draws on William Blake, the writing is blunt. This befits the urgency of the topic, but is quite opposed to the non-partisan spirit that McEwan sees as the vital ingredient of the aesthetic of the novel. McEwan summarizes the libretto as

in Ian McEwan
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The Comfort of Strangers
Dominic Head

the most pointed 54 Ian McEwan moment where behavioural codes of the 1940s clash memorably with those of the 1970s or 1980s. Escaping a court martial for assault, Cathy is demoted and sent to work as a general skivvy at Bletchley Park. Here, however, she is closer to the heart of the code-breaking process that fascinates her, and which seems to represent genuinely important war work. She responds to the advances of Turner, partly modelled on Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who worked on the German Enigma codes at Bletchley. Following an unsuccessful

in Ian McEwan
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McEwan’s ‘spoiler’
Dominic Head

an (apparently) hostile political context; but McEwan’s real interest is in the point where compromise becomes capitulation, where self-interest finally ousts the shreds of social conviction that remain. The author’s impression of this stratum of the intelligentsia is conveyed through a detached narrative voice that vacillates between an ironic mood and one that is less implicitly critical. This makes the dissection of amorality in the two principals more complex than a casual reading suggests. 146 Ian McEwan These two, Vernon Halliday and Clive Linley, each

in Ian McEwan