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Problems with the Contemporary Political Novel (& Ian McEwan)

16 March 2010

7:10 PM

16 March 2010

7:10 PM

Following these ruminations on Iraq, Shakespeare and the contemporary political novel, I came across this post by Nick Cohen in which he discusses the provenance of some scenes in Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar. I’ve not read the book – which is, at least in part, about global warming – but McEwan’s publishers promise "a serious and darkly satirical novel, showing human frailty struggling with the most pressing and complex problem of our time. A story of one man’s greed and self-deception, it is a profound and stylish new work from one of the world’s great writers." Of course they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Anyway, Cohen relates that at one point McEwan’s protagonist, a seen-better-days physicicst named Michael Beard, addresses the Institute of Contemporary Arts:

“When he mentioned the metastudies reporting that girls’ language skills were greater on average than boys’, there was a roar of derision and a speaker on the platform rose fearsomely to denounce him for the ‘crude objectivism by which he seeks to maintain and advance the social dominance of the white male elite’. The moment the fellow sat down he was rewarded with the kind of cheers that might presage a revolution. Bewildered, Beard did not get the connection. He was completely lost. When, later, he irritably demanded of the meeting if it thought that gravity too was a social construct, he was booed, and a woman in the audience stood to propose in stern headmistressly tones, that he reflect on the ‘hegemonic arrogance’ of his question.”

Beard’s opponent is a Jewish academic who, despite her opposition to Beard, also "loses" the audience at the ICA for reasons that are not hard to fathom. Should you be in difficulty, however, McEwan lays it on pretty thick:

“From the point of view of the audience, which seemed to be of one mind in all things, she had points in her favour and points against. As a woman she was a poor hegemon, and being unconfident poorer still. (Beard thought that he was getting the hang of this term.) On the other hand she was a Jew, an Israeli and, by association, an oppressor of the Palestinians. Perhaps she was a Zionist, perhaps she had served in the army. And once she got underway, the hostility in the room began to grow. This was a postmodern crowd with well-developed antennae for the unacceptable line. Its heart, when not seized by correct utterance from correct quarters, turned cold.”

Cohen calls this "an acid scene" and that’s one way of putting it. Another is to observe that it reads like a Nick Cohen column. Which is fine for 900 words once a week; rather different when there’s 300 pages of the stuff. This isn’t a slight against Cohen (who is a fine columnist) and, granted, it’s doubtless unfair to judge McEwan on the basis of a couple of paragraphs. But the writing here really isn’t very different from anything you could find in the sunday papers or the Spectator and nor, frankly, is the perspective.

If slamming the kind of people who attend the Institute of Contemporary Arts – that is, people who suspect Guardian editorials are dangerously heterodox – counts as "dark" or "acid" satire then, really, heaven help us. I thought it had long been understood that there are just as many targets for heavy-handed satire on the left as exist on the right. But perhaps I’m mistaken.

Anyway, as I say, these paragraphs demonstrate one of the problems with writing a contemporary novel that deals with politics: how do you make the writing sound natural and unpretentious while also ensuring that it’s not as stale as last month’s newspapers? On the – admittedly brief – evidence of these paragraphs, McEwan has failed to solve that problem.

Now maybe McEwan’s novel is better* than this – though on the evidence of his dull Iraq book Saturday one shouldn’t suppose that it will be – but in these few paragraphs at least he has shown, I think, some of the reasons why some novelists might be better avised to set their political books in the past. You can write better and with  more originality and flexiblility and irony back in that distant country.

Perhaps one is doing McEwan a disservice. His publishers promise a satire which is telling in its own way since, most of the times anyway, satire has a shorter shelf-life than other types of fiction. There are savage exceptions to this, of course, and it is in any case always tempting to think that satire (or tragicomedy) is the only sensible response to the ghastliness of one’s own times, but it remains the case that most of it is slim stuff that is, in obeying its own conventions, as workmanlike, satisfying and perishable as any other genre. (It’s also better, most of the time, as short-stories or, at a pinch, a novella.) Nothing wrong with that either, but let’s not make too many claims for this sort of thing, nor suggest that McEwan is more than he is.

*Matt d’Ancona for instance, raves about it.


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