Ian McEwan

appearing at Schnitzer Hall as part of the Portland Arts & Lectures Series, SW Broadway & Main, 227-2583, Thursday April 1, 7:30 pm, $5-24

One of the relative few benefits of being both a college dropout and a high-lowbrow aesthete is the thrill of "discovering" new authors whom the rest of the world has known about for years. I enjoyed such a thrill this time last year when I pulled from my own bookshelf an unread copy of Ian McEwan's Black Dogs. I knew McEwan's name, of course, having long since perfected the art of seeming like I know more than I do. I also knew he'd won a Booker Prize, and had written novels that inspired one good film (The Cement Garden), and at least two lousy ones (The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent). This, sadly, is more or less all I can tell you about most contemporary authors of fiction--how good were the movies based on their novels?

I tore through Black Dogs in two days, pausing only to marvel at the ferocious delicacy of McEwan's prose ("the huge kitchen with its jambons de montagne hanging from the beams, demijohns of olive oil on the stone floor, and scorpions sometimes nesting in the cupboards...") and the beautifully modulated sense of dread that pervades a short novel about the conflicting desires for liberty and family.

Because I am a binge reader, I spent the next few months devouring McEwan, moving from Black Dogs to Amsterdam (the Booker Prize winner), to Enduring Love (the masterpiece), to Atonement (the other masterpiece), to The Child in Time, to The Cement Garden, The Innocent, The Comfort of Strangers, and back to Atonement for good measure. Each of these novels conjures a riveting horror, the conception of which is as outlandish--a freak balloon crash, a kidnapping, a dead parent buried in concrete, a false rape accusation--as its presentation is credible. Like a great genre filmmaker, McEwan tantalizes you with a bizarre event, but rewards you with a payoff, which, in most of the books, anyway, enlarges your understanding of the normal world. This is not to suggest his works are genre exercises; they're just good old-fashioned great novels. But within that generalization lies a world of pre-postmodern craft--artfully constructed stories about recognizable characters--absent from the books of some of McEwan's flashier contemporaries. I'm thinking of one in particular, an author whose work defined my literary taste and sensibility throughout my late teens and 20s.

Martin Amis' early novels--especially The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, and Money--were thrilling discoveries for me. They were arch, aloof, dark, nasty, hilarious, cruel, offensive, unforgiving, stylistically extroverted, emotional but never sentimental, right but never righteous, moral but post-humanist; all qualities I imagined as ideal states when I entered my 20s (and which now, at 30, embarrass me). The novels are high travesties, full of toadish men seething with contempt for their glorious rivals and burning with lust for unattainable sex goddesses; horrible violence befalls most of them, and those who are spared suffer, too. Amis at his best lives to punish his creations, erecting grotesque burlesques of the real world in which anything can happen, so long as it's horrendous, and story be damned. At his worst, he backpedals into a kind of faute de mieux moralism, as if to declare that despite his vivid literary heartlessness, he is, in the end, a concerned citizen of the world, too. I have no doubt that Amis does care. But the concern doesn't inform the writing; it's more like an addendum. And as a result, the novels suffer with advancing age--not theirs, but mine.

Ian McEwan is no stranger to punishment. His novels mete out terrible pain to their protagonists. But the author of these devices is less interested in torturing his characters than in testing the mettle of their conceits. The world he builds may not be "real," but its dynamics are intimately, innately recognizable.

McEwan's turning points matter because we need to believe that the feelings of those we're reading about bear some relation to our own. It may not be fair, or even relevant, to compare the two authors--after all, though I have not read widely (nor too well), even I can find room on the shelf for more than one early-middle-aged British novelist. McEwan's ingenious stories expose the humanity of the creations on the page. By contrast, Amis now seems merely ingenious. SEAN NELSON