Are you reading Jonathan Franzen’s Purity this holiday season? Or perhaps Tim Winton’s Island Home? While we wait to hear your thoughts on their new works, we bring you this review essay from 2003 on Franzen’s The Corrections, Winton’s Dirt Music and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
Peter Craven appraises three recent novels, one English, one Australian and one American, that contrive to cross the boundaries of serious and popular fiction.
Ian McEwan is one of the most accomplished British practitioners of fiction and one who delivers in a consistently readerly and suave way that puts most of his peers to shame if professionalism, scale and shape form the standard. Amis and Barnes and Rushdie have all written novels that might be ranked higher than anything McEwan has written—London Fields and Flaubert’s Parrot and Midnight’s Children all fall into this category—but McEwan’s performance is pretty consistently steady. If you want a book about the ravages of losing a daughter or what happens in the vicinity of a dead body, McEwan can produce the kind of structured narrative with perfect pitch that shows that the novel with a sustained narrative drive and with a nearly flawless command of tempo can deliver deep satisfactions.
He is an urbane storyteller who rarely loses the short-story writer’s sense that a compelling narrative must be dramatised at every point and sustain this sense of drama throughout. His limitation as a writer is the other side of his strength. Because he is so dab in his dialogue and so neat in the schematics of his plotting, as well as so adept in his tonal shading, he can sometimes look a bit too much like a writer who accepts the novel as an appliqué form, a neat grid, inherited from Graham Greene and the rest of them, with a filmic sense of light and dark and an ability to conjure up a literary sense of unfolding drama that the inner ear won’t let go of but that doesn’t linger in the mind as real, however imposing it seemed at the time.
He is not, like Amis or Rushdie, a novelist who is willing to do handstands with the verbal details of the novel. Rather, he writes within the parameters of the kind of fiction that blurs the distinction between the popular and the literary in the way that Waugh and, more particularly, Greene did, and which any number of fiction makers (John Banville, say, in The Untouchable) contrive to do. This is what Roland Barthes meant by ‘readerly’ writing and it shouldn’t simply be confused with realism because for this kind of writer the romance (in the structural sense) kicks along the reality. Plot discloses character and contains it.
Waugh and Greene were anti-modernists who wanted the economies of fiction without the persiflage of experimentation and McEwan is their heir. He does not employ language as Gertrude Stein or even Hemingway employ it. He spins the yarn and attends to what can be made of the thread. The 1930s perpetrators of this tradition (Orwell as much as Greene) would have at least seen where he was headed.
The thirties is where his latest novel Atonement starts and is part of the texture of this engrossing performance. The tone is reminiscent, never quite pastiching the period and its writing but hung with its glories. It’s 1935 and the novel unfolds in the ugly but picturesque home, on plenty of land, of a very senior civil servant. The thirteen-year-old daughter of the house, Briony, is putting on a play, full of the big words that make her glad. Elsewhere her mother, intelligent but self-involved, lies in bed with a migraine. Her aunt is off in France with her boyfriend, so Briony has the captive aid of her cousins: two little boy twins of eight or so and a full-of-herself red-haired girl of fifteen.
As it happens the play is called off because of frustration from the cousins and Briony goes off to slash at the shrubbery, imagining their dreadful deaths. Meanwhile her sister Cecilia, dark, long-faced and beautiful, is down from Cambridge where she studied English and so too is Robbie, who has got a first in the same field and who is the son of the family’s cleaning woman and whose education has been paid for by them out of fine feeling on the father’s part or an impulse towards democracy.
The dramatic crux of Atonement all comes in the space of a few hours. Robbie inadvertently sends an obscene note to Cecilia, Briony subsequently sees her elder sister in his arms, the twins go missing and a sexual assault occurs by nightfall and takes on strange shapes when it is witnessed by the girl at the edge of adolescence, who will become a writer.
All of this is lustrously executed and occupies the first half of the novel. The second half presents Robbie as a private at Dunkirk, witnessing the desecration of war and meditating on the wrong he has suffered. This is followed, almost to the end, by a narrative dominated by Briony, who is working as a nurse in wartime Britain and who receives a lengthy rejection note from Cyril Connolly for a novel centred on the matter of the first part of the book, and who meets Cecilia and Robbie after years of estrangement, full of a desire to atone for the folly of youth.
In the coda to the novel Briony is a famous old novelist, with the prospect of being robbed of her mental faculties, but for the time being wise and honoured and looking back on the experiences of sixty years earlier. This last brief section has a glowing urbanity and an elegiac quality though it contains a twist that casts a light on what has gone before. McEwan generates a tension between gradually inevitable disaster and the kind of narrative surprise that depends on a maintenance of pace and uncertainty in the face of the action’s curve.
Atonement is a remarkably dashing performance full of poignancy and flecked with a kind of generalised eroticism that is all the more powerful for its restraint. It’s a book that hovers between a kind of nostalgia for a world lost (the charm of long-ago upper-class life) and a kind of knife-edge sense of doom and its purgatorial consequences in a field of contrition amid the ravages and stark austerities of war.
The first half of the novel focuses on the credibility of a world where children are humiliated for wetting beds and a man could get into terrible trouble for thinking about a young woman’s twat, and it does so with such an ambivalent sense of sunlight and shadow that we want to stay in that world forever or at any rate continue to surrender to the slow enveloping play of McEwan’s powers of narrative seduction.
Atonement never quite recovers the momentum of its first half though both the Dunkirk and London-in-the-phoney-war sections have a gritty particularity (a sense of the ugliness and twisted pain behind everything) that provides a powerful counterpoint to what has gone before. And the actual meeting between the three central characters has a steel-like brilliance of execution. Yet the expansive potential for a rounded dramatic consequence that McEwan sets up as a kind of nostalgic conjuring trick is not fulfilled, and although he attempts to ‘cover’ the failure of this expectation with the adroit (and historically feasible) suggestion that the Second World War killed the factitious certainties and too shapely dramas of a country-house world, this is not enough compensation for the frustration of this expectation. In the end Atonement is not a full-blooded narrative of prewar bliss and horrid wartime reality, because the latter seems so truncated.
In a way that swerves from the novel’s readerly charms and leaves its formidable power of design in potential ruins, Atonement is a novel with a massively confident beginning, no middle and an impressively grainy end. The coda, too, has a gleaming attractiveness but the attraction is in the idea rather than what it does for the rest of the novel and is too clever not to be cheapening.
What cannot be denied is the impressiveness of the parts. The scenes of wartime nursing, the gaunt glory of a ward sister who runs her ward like a great commander and the way the brio of this leads into the sustained poignancy of the scene in which Briony calms a dying French boy in his delirium are wonderful and grave. They testify to the lightness of touch that McEwan can bring to a sombre conception and they fill the reader with a kind of wonder that traditional techniques can move us with such a sense of sorrow and pity in an area that could so easily lead to manipulation.
McEwan has his manipulations and his meretriciousness but this flawed slick book rises above the baser temptations even if it fails, in the end, to come off. Atonement cannot quite live up to its promise as a contemporary novel in a late Forsterian mode partly because the allure of that promise predates the reality of the possibilities so much. That it involves evocations of the past without surrendering to inauthenticity and historical costumery is a testament to the seriousness with which McEwan wrestles with the contradictions of his fate as the smooth grey eminence of contemporary British fiction. He realises that he can only tell this story (so close in outlines to BBC period tosh) in the vicinity of history and somehow the blood waves of history (as well as the heartbreaks of class and the chasms it creates) overwhelm what might be too pretty about the picture. That leaves him with a half-formed book, though what we have is more impressive than the nostalgia to which he might have abandoned himself.
If the temptation with the sort of exercise represented by McEwan’s Atonement is to indulge in tosh of the Sunday-night-serial variety, in the case of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music the tempting form is soap. And Winton is markedly less successful in resisting or rising above this temptation. It’s an interesting contrast because Winton’s previous novel The Riders (1994), however many years ago, was a literary piece of transfigured thriller writing very much in the McEwan mode: the missing wife, the poignant figure of the little girl and the eerily beset protagonist making his way through the smoke and mirrors of a Europe envisaged as a kind of vampirish graveyard—all of this was compatible with the vision of the author of The Comfort of Strangers (1981) in a way that the recurring apparition of those Celtic riders (whether they point to derangement or some higher mode of being) could not diminish.
But the airport fiction cover on The Riders points to a quality that flowers like blackberries in Dirt Music. Tim Winton has always been a novelist with the kind of breadth of vision and excitement of storyline that offers the pleasures of the sort of traditional novel often parodied by the trashmasters of popular fiction.Nor is there anything wrong with this. He is a writer with great gifts who also has a lien on the popular imagination and a mastery of the kind of large-canvas effects that might reinstate the novel as an art form that can command the largest possible audience. But he tends to oscillate unevenly between one form of writing and the other. The aspect of his talent that tends to small-scale effects (and to dark tones) can very effectively usurp the apparently yarn-spinning familiarities of a story like ‘Aquifer’, but he is also capable of surrendering to blarney and self-assertion.
Dirt Music is one of those peculiar books that could only be written by a prodigiously talented novelist but nonetheless ends up being much less than the sum of its talented parts. Winton has a command of the rise and fall of the sentence, he can write dialogue that cuts the air and he can produce wonderfully effective vignettes that are shadowed and sinister and whisper with portent and suggestion. This is how he starts Dirt Music, and we think for quite a while that this will be a grand and commanding novel that will take what starts as a small action and turn it into a thing of drama and tumult full of different apprehensions of the riddle of love and faith and culminating in some kind of dramatic showdown that will do justice to the intimations of guilt and spiritual quest that seem to nesde in the language from the outset like so many dark-hued birds of omen.
It’s the story of a woman called Georgie, born to an upper middle-class family and trained against the grain as a nurse. She has lived for three years with a rich and domineering fisherman, the grandee and overlord of the small Western Australian fishing village where most of the action is set. Jim Buckridge lost his wife to cancer and is a man of stark silences and brutal decisiveness. Interrupting the narrative of Georgie and Jim’s domestic incommunication is the point of view of Luther Fox, a lean and nosy fisherman on the edge of the law. Eventually (in the novel’s central event) Georgie falls into the arms of Fox and their love for each other exfoliates in the midst of a separation that is connected with the fear that Jim will bring Fox to grief out of vengeance, enacting the kind of gangsterish blood rites that are part of his inheritance. Fox, in fact, flees to the all but impenetrable bush beyond Broome, but not before his interiority (which has been so suggestive when the depiction is confined to what he sees and feels locally) is filled in with lingering opinionation. He is a member of a musical family though he was the one member who felt the ‘dirt music’, the blues and country music that his brother and sister-in-law played with him with such wildness and elan, to the bone and beyond, to the very depths of his soul. He is also a deep and passionate reader, feeding the inner man with a list of writers from Blake to Heaney, of whom we are left in no doubt the author approves. (And again we feel in this the intrusiveness of mere opinionatedness. It’s all a matter of the novelist as village he-man brouhahaing and triumphing over the village autodidact.)
Fox is also tainted by his own deep impulse towards nurturing and the terrible way it was desecrated by the death of his niece, a little girl he had loved as his own, in a car accident with the rest of the musical family and with himself as the only soulsick witness and survivor. The parallel death for Georgie is that of her mother, which hurls her into the company of her Perth sisters and QC father and which allows Dirt Music a yet more footling diversion into the sentimental and superficial rendition of family life.
On the sidelines and throughout Dirt Music there are various choric characters, often executed with the virtuosic skill of Winton the ventriloquial master of dialogue and it’s interesting that he is at his best here where the characters are semi-flat, with flickering suggestions of inner life rather than sustained inwardness of perspective. This applies to the biker with a taste for musicals and old movies who runs the video shop and spins his folk wisdom and his folk torment for Georgie’s benefit and it applies—a fair bit—to the lean, alert guide who takes Georgie Jutland and Jim Buckridge on their final quest for Fox in the back of beyond.
It works rather less efficaciously in the case of the wise old couple (she’s dying of bowel cancer and in true ineffable Winton fashion is presented taking a dump in the bush and he plays Russian classical music which strains Fox’s ears when they give him a lift in the car). The old woman is a religious seeker, a literary culture vulture (always a potentially dodgy combo) and she is, God help us, one of Winton’s profoundly ‘good’ characters. The effect is effortful, good-hearted and profoundly nauseating. It is also wretchedly, hopelessly camp. There’s a family affinity between this strand of characterisation and other fleeting figures, the Chinese-Aborigine who talks in the soft patter of blackfeller talk and his young black companion, a boy who is disturbed but who yearns to hear whatever music can come from the one-note twang of a cheap guitar. The conception is still camp but the access of colour and exoticism is at least dramatic enough to rescue Winton from the worst excesses of suburban banality.
The climax of the book, with Jim Buckridge seeking to find Fox in order to mete out a mercy at cross purposes to his temperamental lean—a quest that can alone, Jim believes, save his soul—and Georgie coming along for the ride in the hope of seeing the man she loves, has at least a certain breakneck efficiency of execution. And so too the excruciation of Fox, near starvation and hiding from mercy as he hid from malice, shows recurrent signs, potent accesses of energy, that display the master draughtsman in Winton who, every so often in this book, can be mistaken for a great artist.
While Dirt Music exhibits great skills—the perfect pitch of a sentence, the wonderful contour of overheard dialogue—it is forever going off to mooch about in the most indulgent kind of writing. Often when a talented writer fails it is because he can’t access the language that would realise the power of his own design. This happens in Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish where the author does not have the command of parodistic diction or narrative tempo to bring off the undeniably bright idea that has set him writing in the first place. With Tim Winton the opposite thing happens. A writer of manifestly prodigious gifts allows himself to fall, time after time, for an enfeebling bathos of the imagination. Dirt Music is a profoundly vulgar book not because it is about rough and ready people (on the contrary it is dominated by three sensitive souls) but because it constantly bellyflops into a sort of inflated populism of conception to which the author seems oblivious.
Dirt Music is a perverse attempt on the part of a formidable writer to produce the sort of popular fiction that soothes the mind but never touches reality because the imagination is simply not working at that level. That’s one reason it has so much of Winton’s armoury of opinionation. We take this for granted in trash fiction because we know that this is more or less talented applique’ writing in which the assertiveness of cultural reference can do the work of dramatic representation. More centrally, though, Winton constantly follows the ho-hum literalism of’soap’ writing. People don’t know things when it is improbable they wouldn’t have known them for years. Fathers and daughters are attributed great gifts on the basis of the shallowest novelistic consciousness. The logic of the novel is meandering and incoherent.
It would be wrong to rush to judgement about what this book shows about Australian culture. If it shows anything it is the truly disabling unevenness of conception (coexistent with great talent) that can afflict a significant writer when he throws in the towel and ceases even to care about the gulf that separates literature and those hackneyed formulas that amuse the inert mind.
The question of the relationship between the popular and the literary is, in one way, even more marked in the case of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections because this was the big new novel of 2001, the succès d’estime that was also taken up by the Oprah Winfrey book club. It made the author into a kind of overnight star. My advance copy came with encomia from writers I revere—Don De Lillo and David Foster Wallace. But I had already heard the gossip, fresh from Frankfurt, that a famous literary agent had declared sotto voce: ‘Behind the jazzy prose this is just Friends‘ And so, dutifully, at the moment when opinions were being made and surmises were taking their proximate shape, without time to read the book, or any brief to do so, I had read the first however many thousand words that constituted the first chapter and noted that this opening portrait of an old man and old woman moved very s-l-o-w-l-y and that, yes, the prose was marmoreal but it was hard, at a glance, to see to what purpose: it seemed to be functioning as a kind of rhetoric that floated above the action of the novel, like a credential of high purpose rather than integrated evidence.
So how does it stand up a year after the froth and ballyhoo, now that it’s on the streets as a mass market paperback? One thing that can be said about Jonathan Franzen’s novel at the outset is that it’s not hard to see why all sorts of comers thought it was the golden goose and the Christmas pudding rolled into one. It’s a nearly 600-page saga of family life, with more or less expertly overheard dialogue, often elegant and sometimes virtuosic prose and with enough hooks to catch a school of salmon. There’s nothing here to make you query the structure (as you do with McEwan) or feel that the narrative has failed to trace the rudiments of a satisfactory curve, nor is there the sort of descent into narrative bathos, the dereliction of imaginative power, that we find in Winton’s Dirt Music. The Corrections has a high power of visualisation (it generates fantasy) and it has the kind of minimal but intriguing storyline that makes the reader want to know how it turns out (even if the process involves a certain wading through verbiage) and it is enough of a four-square novel, proceeding from A to B, in such a way as to avoid obvious gaps and pitfalls.
Alfred and Enid are a middle-class couple in their mid-seventies with grown-up children. There is the unsettling vision of his failing powers, with the prospect of dementia or Alzheimer’s eroding the vigorous independence of this private, stubborn, decent engineer who wears his limitations like a badge of moral integrity. Enid is a nervy, calculating woman who lives to have her children (perhaps her grandchildren) back for the first time in years for Christmas in hopeless midwestern St Jude.
The middle child, Chip, is a one-time literature academic who falls foul of sexual correctness procedures (through the calculation of a ruthless sexy young woman), and who labours hopelessly over a film screenplay as a substitute and eventually ends up in Lithuania in the company of a pleasing gangster called Gitanus doing his best to delude American investors. His elder brother Gary is the family success story, a stockbroker and portfolio manager who is a naturally dominating type but who is subject to the wiles of a tough neurasthenic wife who cannot stand his neurotic manipulating mother and who does her best to thwart the older woman’s desire to have the kind of Christmas she wants. As a consequence of this (as a consequence of everything) Gary sinks into a pit of depression, despite his best endeavours to do the right thing and in particular his impulse to push his parents round—to make his father act in his own financial interests (never mind his ironclad integrity) and to make his mother face up to the fact that she can’t look after his father forever.
The third sibling, Denise, is the most endearing. She is a star chef in Philadelphia who almost falls in love with her amiable millionaire employer but instead finds herself in the arms of his upright squeaky-voiced wife, a Mass-going Catholic who is descended from a line of Mafia gangsters but is doing her best to live down the crime of her psychopath left-wing brother.
If all this sounds a bit juicy and hand-me-down for art of a high order, it is. The siblings come together at Christmas. Old man Alfred, who has had his own dark epiphany on a cruise (a talking turd) and who falls from a height off the boat and almost drowns, is in a very bad way both physically and mentally. The folio-managing brother is a sane blustering pig, ungenerous and wound tight. The loser brother is full of decent concern—and although he has been picked on he is the trusted favourite of the all-but-demented father—while Denise the beside-herself good girl does her best and more than her best.
Our final vision is of poor old Alfred in a nursing home, longing for the end, of the siblings resolved into a neat pattern of stability and of Enid the whiny wife (who had her own moment of epiphany with a drug called Asian—Narnia is a leitmotiv in this novel) discovering that, old though she is, there is a life waiting for her, now that she’s untrammelled by the mute suffering presence of her morally overbearing husband.
It’s a kind of bombe Alaska of a book, The Corrections. It has a richness, it has a sweetness, it has a kind of monumental exaggeration of effect and it doesn’t amount to much. It is, for great sustained riffs, a very likeable book in which people a bit like us, their locutions well caught and their follies seen clearly, do their best to muddle through. Franzen is very good with children, their bird-like pipings and lunacies, and good at the ebb and flow of close-up familial and intimate relations, particularly when these are under pressure. It’s one of those books in which the author attempts to transfigure the middlebrow novel of narrative momentum. He half-succeeds in this, but we keep hitting up against the fact that although he has quite a burnished armoury of novelistic effects, some of them of a potentially highbrow or crypto-postmodernist kind, he uses them as extrinsic furnishings to a narrative that has its life elsewhere. This leads to the least attractive feature of The Corrections, which is the author’s tendency to milk or inflate his effects to the point of exhaustion. This is in no way because he knows, like Joyce or Proust, how to get temporal or perspectival effects by laying things on thick or using a principle of exhaustiveness in order to variegate or defamiliarise his surface.
The Corrections could probably have lost two hundred pages and been a much more attractive book. Franzen always seems to think more is more, never trusting to the power of implication in his own material. So Alfred, the father in the book, becomes for much of the time a kind of gruff evacuating icon, even though there are the rudiments of a fine ambivalent portrait here, and the same is true to a lesser extent of the other principal characters who emerge, in the end, as less than the sum of their parts.
The Corrections is a seductive book because its soapiness is worldy and sophisticated, rather than willed and clumsy like Winton’s. But it is not ultimately a book with a satisfying shape because its vision derives from the cumulative amassing of empirical detail in a conventional pattern combined with telltale signs of anxiety about gilding the lily, alienating bits of artiness that remain just that.
To be fair, Franzen never quails before the conventionalism of his own endeavour and that gives him the strength he has even if he does his best to embroider his way into nothingness. He can write a sentence and he can do a bracket of dialogue. He is better at the sustained naturalism of the cinema of the mind than the next fiction-maker. He moves, he gives pleasure. What more should we want?
In the end, a bit. Writing on Turgenev, Henry James suggests that there will always be people who like books driven by plot rather than character—where the figures have some resemblance to people in real life but not too much. In Franzen’s The Corrections there’s half a belief that character is fate in fiction, and not just part of the plot mechanism, but then there’s the embroidery, the moral triteness and the endlessness. Franzen, McEwan and Winton make for a trinity of high-powered entertainers, but each on his present showing, and to differing extents, reveals something of the risks and limitations involved in the business of crowd-pleasing. The Englishman manages to transcend these limitations, but this points all the more to the failings and indulgences of the other two, whose books underline the problem of the literary novel at a time of accelerated commercialisation.
Meanjin Volume 62 Issue 1 2003
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