Every so often, you may've observed, the Intellectual Hooligan turns his bloodshot eye (rolling disconcertingly in its socket) upon the field of literature. He's regurgitated Hamlet. He's ogled the spermatozoan buttocks of Richard Yates. He's hollered abuse (albeit admiringly) at the bastardly Martin Amis.
So what's on the agenda today?
Ian McEwan – and his debut novel, The Cement Garden.
But let's start off with a little context.
I've read two of Ian McEwan's later novels: Enduring Love and Atonement. And both I found ever so very slightly lumpen in one way or another. Passages occasionally strike me as a little clumsy, not quite assured. Small imperfections grate upon the ear like an off-pitch note in a violin solo.
Here's such a passage from the first chapter of Enduring Love – following lines in which the narrator has described the many greetings he observes while waiting at the airport for his partner, Clarissa:
I was just wondering how convincing I myself could be now in greeting Clarissa when she tapped me on the shoulder, having missed me in the crowd and circled round. Immediately my detachment vanished, and I called out her name, in tune with all the rest.
Now, that inflicted upon me a small cringe when I first read it – and it inflicts a similar cringe when I read it again. Possibly because it seems to be close to busting a cliche (in this case, correctly identifying the fact that – far from being spontaneous emotional effusions – much-anticipated airport greetings may take on a curiously abstract quality) ... But, where master-Modernists like Joyce and Eliot would've dived in and whacked the cliche, McEwan loiters goofily around on the edge of it, half-heartedly throwing pebbles and clumps of soil. The first sentence is awkward, marring the clever insight; the second is just prosaic. The whole thing has a slightly otiose earnestness to it – it's a little fussy, a little effete.
Perhaps you'll think this is pretty nit-picking. You're right. I remember Enduring Love to be full of interesting ideas – and graced with a brilliantly geometric exposition in which the superbly-conceived opening action is imagined from a buzzard's perspective:
I see us from two hundred feet up, through the eyes of the buzzard we had watched earlier, soaring, circling, and dipping in the tumult of currents: five men running silently toward the center of a hundred-acre field. I approached from the southeast, with the wind at my back. About two hundred yards to my left two men ran side by side. They were farm laborers who had been repairing the fence along the field's southern edge where it skirts the road. The same distance beyond them was the motorist, John Logan, whose car was banked on the grass verge with its door, or doors, wide open. Knowing what I know now, it's odd to evoke the figure of Jed Parry directly ahead of me, emerging from a line of beeches on the far side of the field a quarter of a mile away, running into the wind. To the buzzard, Parry and I were tiny forms, our white shirts brilliant against the green, rushing toward each other like lovers, innocent of the grief this entanglement would bring. The encounter that would unhinge us was minutes away, its enormity disguised from us not only by the barrier of time but by the colossus in the center of the field, which drew us in with the power of a terrible ratio that set fabulous magnitude against the puny human distress at its base.
(I'd say the prose overreaches itself in the final sentence, though.)
But, yes, as I was saying – I may be nit-picking. But when a writer's tone is prone to falterings (however infrequent), it is extraordinarily hard to take his grand ideas seriously.
Onward to the main feature
On Friday evening, though, I read McEwan's first novel, The Cement Garden. It is leagues more convincing than anything else I have read by him.
The opening is – again – brilliant. As a first sentence, 'I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way' is pretty strong. Especially creditworthy, though is its successor: 'And but for the fact that it coincided with a landmark in my own physical growth, his death seemed insignificant compared with what followed.'
Why's this so good? Because the rather posey, deliberately dramatic quality of the immediate opening is offset marvelously by the careful insouciance with which it is qualified.
At no point in The Cement Garden does McEwan's first person narrative make me cringe a la Enduring Love. That may, of course, be because – by adopting the character of a taciturn, bleakly detached teenager – he's given himself an 'easy' voice with which to speak: characters with extreme personalities are considerably easier to animate and render convincing than 'normal', boring folk. But be that as it may, McEwan identifies a narrative voice and sticks to it with total success. No wavering, no thuddingly leaden overexplications.
There's also some excellently minimalist dialogue – of which the opening (again) provides a fine example:
'Cement?' one of [the delivery men] said. I hooked my thumbs into my pockets, moved my weight on to one foot and narrowed my eyes a little. I wanted to say something terse and appropriate, but I was not sure I had heard them right. I left it too long, for the one who had spoken rolled his eyes towards the sky and with his hands on his hips stared past me at the front door. It opened and my father stepped out biting his pipe and holding a clipboard against his hip.'Cement,' the man said again, this time with a downward inflection. My father nodded ... The tightly packed paper sacks of cement were arranged two deep along the floor of the lorry. My father counted them, looked at his clipboard and said, 'Fifteen.' The two men grunted. I liked this kind of talk. I too said to myself, 'Fifteen.'
Here, there's a shade of Joyce – specifically, of the linguistic fascinations of the self-conscious young Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ('That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt. One day a fellow said to Cantwell: —I'd give you such a belt in a second.')
And I'd say that the influence of (early) Joyce is clear throughout the novel.
Which is no bad thing.
It's a muscular, tight, economical novel (less than 150 pages). Psychologically, it charts extreme territory: the power-play, increasingly unchecked sexuality, aggression and grief of four children isolated together after the deaths of both parents.
Again, we should remind ourselves that it may be easier to be convincing when chronicling the outlandish: what made Joyce so brilliant, after all, was his success, in Ulysses, in rendering the mundane life of advertising canvaser Leopold Bloom linguistically (and allegorically) epic.
But I don't think anyone's suggesting McEwan's a Joyce. And by choosing an insulated, dramatic, dark and psychologically fascinating scenario, he plays to his strengths.
The novel is most brilliant, I'd say, in the realism of the characters' interactions. The manner in which they scrabble for hierarchy, for consistency. The shimmering influence of their parents' authority illuminating their own fitful stabs at domesticity.
Some people will read (and have read) The Cement Garden and call it grotesque. Gratuitous, even.
But those people are idiots. It's actually rather nuanced, and – in spite of the subject matter – has a clear moral orientation.
I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't recoil instinctively at taboo without pausing to consider what it is from which they're recoiling. And if that sounds like a qualified recommendation (er, well, it clearly is, innit?), that's only because this novel explores fairly dark territory. But it does it with intelligence, punch and humanity.
And did I mention that it's really, really short? You could read it (like I did) in an evening.