Ian McEwan, Connoisseur of Dread

April 1, 2009 at 7:45 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers)

That’s what Daniel Zalewski calls Ian McEwan in a recent New Yorker profile. From this leisurely traversal, we learn much about the man himself, the writer, and the milieu in which he lives and works. Zalewski observes that “It is now a commonplace that McEwan has edged past his peers to become England’s national author:”

The London press pursues McEwan with an avidity otherwise reserved for Amy Winehouse. shortly after “On Chesil Beach” was published, David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, was photographed reading the novel on the Tube….In June, McEwan mentioned the subject of the new novel, at a literary festival in Wales. The next day, the Guardian front page declared, ‘CLIMATE CHANGE PLOT FOR MCEWAN NOVEL.’

(I felt a bit wistful when I read this, as I don’t think the equivalent fascination with a writer of literary fiction – any fiction? – currently exists in this country.)

Zalewski’s piece is rich with anecdote. My favorite involves McEwan and his son Greg handing out novels to passersby in a park near their house. (The books have been culled from their home library.) In an article in the Guardian, McEwan noted that most of the takers were women, who expressed genuine gratitude, whereas most of the men to whom the books were proffered demurred. From this experience, McEwan, drew the following conclusion: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” To this I can only respond, with as much decorum as it is possible to muster in the circumstances….Yay, Us!!

Zalewski also lets fall some tantalizing bits concerning the novelist’s work in progress. The protagonist’s name is Michael Beard. He has a background in science, a subject about which McEwan writes with admirable lucidity.

These are my two favorite McEwan novels:

enduring saturday1

With regard to Saturday, McEwan says that one of his goals was to “incite a naked hunger in readers.” He succeeded – and then some – with this reader.

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I also enjoyed these two:

chesil atonement

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I read these two a while back; they formed my introduction to the work of this fine novelist. At some point, I’d like to re-read both of them:

dogs strangers

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amsterdam1 This novel won the 1998 Booker Prize (now the Man Booker). Amsterdam is quite short;  nevertheless, I felt that it had a churned out quality. So – not my favorite, thus far, from McEwan’s oeuvre.

Ian McEwan is not considered a thriller writer, but he is a master at creating suspenseful scenarios. It’s worth remembering that suspense is not so much a distinct genre as a quality that makes a narrative compelling. Often that quality derives from the novel’s characters: the reader feels an urgent need to know what fate awaits them.

This is what a reviewer for the Toronto Globe and Mail said about Atonement:

“There are characters you follow with breathless anxiety; a plot worthy of a top-drawer suspense novelist, complete with jolting reversals; language that unspools seemingly effortlessly, yet leaves a minefield of still-to-be-detonated nouns and verbs…. rife with…unforgettable tableaux….

McEwan himself sums it up thus: “Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information.”  Apparently, he has been motivated to hone this skill to such a fine razor-sharp edge by a horror of its opposite: dullness. According to him, “Not being being boring is quite a challenge.”  I think that Ian McEwan need have no worries on that score. I doubt that he’s a written a boring sentence in a long time – if ever.

Click here for the full text of “The Background Hum: Ian McEwan’s art of unease” by Daniel Zalewski.

Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan


  1. BooksPlease said,

    Enduring Love was the first McEwan book I read and I loved it. I agree about Amsterdam – it’s not my favourite either. Of the others I haven’t read Black Dogs or the Comfort of Strangers and it’s a tie between Saturday and Atonement, maybe Saturday has the edge. It has that fast-paced action that had me glued to the book until I finished it.

  2. The Millions: best fiction of the new millennium « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] readers. I devour her stories; they are superb. Alice MunroGenerally speaking, I am a big fan of Ian McEwan’s writing. I liked Atonement, but not as much as several of his other titles, such as Saturday and Enduring […]

  3. The Age of Wonder: a truly wonderful book « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] pleased that in a footnote, Holmes references the famous hot air balloon sequence with which Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love […]

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] – Salley Vickers Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Enduring Love – Ian McEwan Trauma – Patrick McGrath Cleaver – Tim Parks Senator’s Wife – Sue Miller The Northern […]

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