Contemporary fiction-wise, I have an aversion to tales that are told in the present tense. It’s a relatively new phenomenon. Dickens didn’t start A Tale of Two Cities with “It is the best of times, it is the worst of times…” nor Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, with “There is no possibility of a walk today.” I blame it on James Joyce and Charlie Chaplin, a conflation of Stream of Consciousness with the rise in the early twentieth century of Cinema. Now authors think cinematographically. The result is like a film script. “He stubs his cigarette out in the ashtray. He stares at me fixedly. (Beat.) He gets up, crosses the room, and closes the door.” Even worse is the present continuous. “I am conscious that I am staring at the curve of her lower back. I am loving the way she leans forward…” And so on. It seems to me to have an overblown quality. If it is happening in the present, it is always happening; it is happening for all time. It’s self-indulgent, inward, preoccupied, and narcissistic. In fiction, it’s almost impossible to be kind-hearted and outgoing in the present tense.
Yet, with respect to his most recent publication, Nutshell, (I keep wanting to call it Nutcase), I have to acknowledge that Ian McEwan could hardly have used any other tense than the present. His narrator is, after all, a foetus. What else can an unborn child know other than the present? Hence: “So here I am…” It’s vaguely reminiscent of Dante, the man “in the middle way”, lost in a wood.
It is – as ever with McEwan – a clever idea. But aside from the choice of tense, it presents the author with an ever present (sic) technical problem. How can the unborn child tell a tale that takes place ex utero? Answer – by a combination of imagination, and eavesdropping. That McEwan can do this, without “clunking” page after page, is technical achievement in itself.
I’m a McEwan fan. I’ve read the canon. I tend to read his books while travelling (I’m writing this in Keflavik Airport), which is perhaps a mistake; one shouldn’t speed-read literary fiction as if it were a murder-mystery (even though, in a way, that’s what Nutshell is). It’s a great gift if you have it, to be able to write a page-turner, and yet I suspect I’m not the only person who reads McEwan too quickly. It’s probably the reader’s fault that sometimes his books seem like Chinese meals; they are appetising and enjoyable yet leave one with a curious sense of non-satiety. They are certainly clever. Again like contemporary film, they often start with a “thesis” or “postulate” that is creative and imaginative. Foetus qua narrator is an example. My favourite of his books is Enduring Love, a tale of erotomania which is really an imaginative exploration and development of a medical case-history. McEwan tells the story and then presents the medical case as an appendix, rather as Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae presents a series of variations and ends with Dowland’s original theme. Is it a trick, a gimmick?
McEwan does play tricks on his reader, perhaps most notoriously in Atonement, where we are tricked about the authenticity of a narration, and again in Sweet Tooth, where we are tricked about the authenticity of an identity. I’m not at all sure about this. You had thought the information embedded in the text was what mattered, when all the time it was the author’s cleverness with respect to it. Too clever by half? Too self-absorbed? Moral power is to be found in a transcendence of the self.
Another charge laid against McEwan, that his characters and his world are too middle-class, seems to me less justified. You write about what you know, and what interests you. McEwan is interested in professions and their mysteries – medicine, the law, literature, science. If his characters seem to be self-centred, mirthless, and lacking in human warmth, maybe that’s because they are indeed all of these things. He can be funny, but in a dark way. You long for somebody to appear who is cheerful, and kind.
I enjoyed Nutshell but it left me feeling anxious and fretful. It’s hard enough living the present let alone reading it. But I know how to snap out of this. I will read a chapter of Jane Austen at bedtime. Then I will know that all is well with the world.