Friday, April 15, 2005

Extreme narrative order: James Wood on Ian McEwan

James Wood’s review of Ian McEwan’s Saturday is very odd. Is there something missing?

There are 5,346 words yet, although we all know what the subject of the novel is, it mentions the word "Iraq" only twice. However, the word "September" (as in the 11th) appears thirteen times.

Wood reminds us that the novel is set on the say on which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators will gather in London to protest the British government's apparent determination to go to war against Iraq, a decision that might itself be the rotten fruit of the events of September 11.

Apparent determination? Makes it sound like admirable resolve rather than contempt for overwhelming public opinion. And "rotten fruit"? The British government insisted it was due to WMD - nothing to do with September 11th at all. I detect the deadly hand of TNR’s literary editor.

I suppose all that Wood is trying to do is to make this a discussion of how novelists deal with public events, particularly those like September 11. While he says this particular event was over-represented

its actual dynamics remain under-represented. We still know extraordinarily little about the human motivation of the suicide bombers, despite the millions of journalistic words that have been spent on them.

Saturday is perhaps worthy in that it elucidates the human motivation of Western liberals who allowed the invasion to go ahead. In that way we get to see the process by which they avoid, or at best dilute, their culpability in the deaths of 100,000+ people (by calling the invasion and occupation a ‘war’ for example). We're all little Eichmanns now.

Wood says we are in an era uniquely marked by the obsessive over-representation of public events. The massacres in Fallujah were not a public event then. There are still some things that cannot be talked about in polite society. Wood identifies why, but only by accident: "Reading McEwan" he says "there are times when one feels that the extreme narrative order have been purchased at too high a cost to credibility, and sometimes even to animation and free life". Yes. There is something missing, or at least disproportionate. It’s not unlike reading a TNR review written by James Wood!

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