Ian McEwan fans, of whom I am one, expect experiments – philosophical-tract novels, twisted spy novels, novels embedded in current legal controversy. Even so, to tell a murder story through the narrative voice of a sarcastic foetus is quite a gamble. He is not the first to give the unborn a literary voice: Sterne and Grass come to mind. And there is the strange autobiography of the late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn MP, in which, I seem to remember, he attributes to himself as a foetus feelings of apologetic concern towards his mother for distorting her beautiful figure so grossly out of shape.
But McEwan makes it particularly hard for himself. He doesn’t even try a foetal voice that is innocent or wide-eyed. Hamlet is everywhere here, drenching both the story and the unable-to-act protagonist. Inevitably, therefore, his unborn narrator is hugely knowledgeable, wry, dry and at times ancient-sounding, like Private Eye’s baby columnist, able to rap on the condition of modern Europe and the failures of the BBC World Service.
This placenta-fed, womb-confined philosopher, worried about his future as an air-breathing human being, quotes Shakespeare and Marvell and Confucius. He knows rather too much about fine wines and Balkan history. His wicked uncle’s penis bounces uncomfortably close to his head. McEwan makes a stab at trying to persuade readers that his foetus could have imbibed knowledge, and then understanding, through the headphones his mother uses to listen to downloaded radio programmes, or by eavesdropping on conversations and television. But he doesn’t really mean it. He doesn’t try hard. As the baby says at one point: “I know.
Sarcasm ill suits the unborn.”
Once we cross that impossible literary doorway, we find a classic McEwan story of cultured and loathsome people doing terrible things to each other, mostly pissed. A poet and poetry editor, who has the indefensible habit of reciting verses to explain himself, is married to a much younger woman, pregnant with his son. She is trying to push him (the kingly father, not yet the baby) out of the very valuable family home in north London, so that she can flog the place and marry his grasping, vile, philistine brother. Overheard by the poet’s aghast unborn son, the prince behind the fleshly arras, they plot the perfect murder. All this takes place over a stickily hot summer in rooms of describable – indeed, much-described – squalor. All around them, the Western world is going to hell in a shopping trolley. Vast quantities of wine are drunk. It ends badly.
Get through the first few pages, swallow the conceit, stop periodically to suspend that pesky disbelief again, and you find yourself in familiar and enjoyable territory. Nobody else skewers the English intellectual upper middle classes as well as Ian McEwan: he inhabits like a native their solaces, douceurs, complex snobberies, crawling angst, and redemptive hunger to be better informed. He is also deep inside the entrails of the beast, observing with a chilly, beady eye the middle-class fear and loathing of the poor; the hatred of religion; the overwhelming obsession with capital.
McEwan is the nearest thing we have to a “state of (much of) the nation” novelist. He does commentary with crisp verve:
Now that the Russian state was the political arm of organised crime, another war in Europe [was] no longer inconceivable. Dust down the tank divisions for Lithuania’s southern border, for the north German plain. The same potion inflames the barbaric fringes of Islam. The cup is drained, the
same cry goes up: we’ve been humiliated, we’ll be avenged.
As in Solar, he is again prepared to fold our present anxieties about global warming into his narrative; but this time, like many of his readers, he is also channelling Matt Ridley in hoping that things are getting generally better, not worse. Imagine a novelist in the distant future, trying to rediscover the authentic musk of the teenage years of the 21st century. He or she will have to read McEwan.
And how do we come across? As uncontrollable, self-pleasuring, solipsistic and unattractive people who, despite our vast knowledge, are pessimistic and scared of almost everything. The murder of a poet – whether a good poet or a bad one, it scarcely matters – in pursuit of a good profit from a house in north London is a decent metaphor for how McEwan thinks things are. Even better, his murderess almost instantly convinces herself that she didn’t really do it: that she, too, is a victim.
Again, a sign of the times. Our foetal narrator assesses the new politics sweeping through British academia:
I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be. Let poverty go begging and climate change braise in hell. Social justice can drown in ink. I’ll be an activist of the emotions, a loud, campaigning spirit fighting with tears and sighs to shape institutions around my vulnerable self. My identity will be my precious, my only true possession, my access to the only truth. The world must love, nourish and protect it as I do. If my college does not bless me, validate me and give me what I clearly need, I’ll press my face into the vice-chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation.
There’s a lot in this book to chew on and laugh with. The problem is that McEwan is morphing too decisively into a commentator. As a journalist roundly criticised for tiptoeing into fiction to make my prophesies, I think I can recognise a far greater writer striding in the opposite direction. Here, the structure of this short novel (the unborn child eventually becomes an essential part of the plot) is neat, and allows for more good jokes than I have acknowledged so far. But it is too hard to accept, a fragile carapace over which great matter is flung. Last year Michel Houellebecq’s violent assault on modern France, Submission, matched form to theme more successfully.
McEwan has long threatened to write a big political novel. Well, if ever there was a moment . . . I’m not alone in being tired of the English fashion for short, super-self-aware narratives. I long for a bigger, more straightforward and blatant McEwan about these extraordinary times we are living through – a newer, fatter Saturday. It’s time.
Andrew Marr’s most recent novel is “Children of the Master” (Fourth Estate)
This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers