Wednesday, May 13, 2009

James Wood's McEwan Problem

In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, James Wood examines "the manipulations of Ian McEwan." (This needs to be said: the fact that Wood's name is so totemic that it must be in the title of the essay—which is "James Wood writes about the manipulations of Ian McEwan"—rather than in a byline is absolutely ridiculous. Does anyone else get this treatment? Not Frank Kermode, whose curmudgeonly piece on Austen follows Wood in the print edition.)

Wood begins by trying out two terms on McEwan's oeuvre: trauma and defamiliarization. Both have a certain amount of theoretical baggage in the sense that both are used or have been used in fairly specific, even specialized circumstances in academic discourses: defamiliarization, as Wood reminds us, is a formalist term (for Wood it's almost a term of endearment), and trauma has become a magnet word around which a number of sub- and micro-discourses have arranged themselves, many connected to mourning (and its favored expression, the elegy)—another hot topic.

Wood doesn't exactly handle either term convincingly; McEwan certainly is a writer who is drawn to trauma like a hawk to a hare, but Wood seems to want more from this rather obvious fact than the word itself is willing to give him. Wood acts almost as if reciting the instances of trauma in McEwan's work will expose a hieratic order or some sort of esoteric primal truth glowing dimly in the heart of his novels. Wood makes a very strange extended digression to Rousseau which is distinctly uncompelling; Wood's use of Rousseau isn't so specific as to necessitate the comparison, although necessity doesn't seem to be Wood's criterion for allusion—"This is not very far from Rousseau’s theory of how we developed language, with the difference that what seemed a fall for Rousseau seems like salvation for the secretive American" is simply not a very tight argument. The locution "it is not very far from" is itself "not very far from" something like "McEwan and J. R. Ackerley both write about dogs." The point is, novels about "trauma" and "the end of innocence" are 2 cents a bushel in the past century, but Wood bites down hard on these terms as if he's found out the secret formula to McEwan's success.

Then there is an embarrassing attempt to turn the term "defamiliarization" into "narrative coyness," and then applying it to McEwan's pulpier moments: "[McEwan] writes very distinguished prose, but is fond of a kind of thrillerish defamiliarisation, in which he lulls the reader into thinking one thing while preparing something else." Then we get another catalog of supposedly illustrative passages and yet another free-assocation game:
In this regard Tolstoy and Stephen Crane may have influenced McEwan. Tolstoy, after all, was praised by the Russian formalists for his talent at defamiliarisation. Nikolai Rostov stands on a wooden bridge, in the heat of battle, and there is a sound ‘as if someone has spilled nuts’. A man has fallen down beside him. But Tolstoy’s estrangements are often on the order of moral correction or readjustment; they open up a new vein of sympathy, as when Pierre Bezukhov visits Dolokhov at home, and discovers that the rowdy man-about-town with whom he has just fought a duel is a ‘most affectionate’ son to his old mother and hunchbacked sister. McEwan’s estrangements are, more often than not, visual surprises, designed to keep the reader in his expert grip, and to keep meaning under control. They are secrets, not mysteries. Graham Greene and George Orwell may have been closer models for McEwan (I am thinking of the scene in Down and Out in Paris and London, when Orwell, in the doss-house, is woken up ‘by a dim impression of some large brown thing coming towards me. I opened my eyes and saw that it was one of the sailor’s feet, sticking out of bed close to my face. It was dark brown, quite dark brown like an Indian’s, with dirt’). And behind Orwell and McEwan may stand a Victorian manipulator like Wilkie Collins.
In a previous post about Wood's critical virtues, I praised his ability to construct micro-narratives which can be highly useful in orienting a young or lightly-read reader who wants to figure out where all the names fit, at least enough to begin talking about them and to begin working her way through some canons. This type of passage is the same thing, only really bad.

Before I move on, I want to clear up this thing about defamiliarization. James Wood thinks it's something like an authorial stutter-step, designed to shift the reader's balance just enough to create that instant of separation when the writer zooms past for the easy score. But unexpected twists weren't exactly what the Russian formalists had in mind when they defined the term. Think of it this way: what Wood is saying is that defamiliarization gets you to think of the wrong image, and when you recognize your error and see the right image, you're surprised and possibly pleased (or possibly pissed off). Defamiliarization isn't about tricking the reader into misperceptions; instead, it's about demonstrating the inadequacy of our correct perceptions when they have become habituated or "automatic." Wood's reference to Tolstoy's battle scene is actually this sort of thing: our perception of battle (from movies, now) has made the recognition of gunfire's sounds easy or automatic—familiar. Making use of a completely unrelated idiom of sounds—nuts dropping on the ground—to redescribe the familiar forces the reader to hear things as if for the first time. (Here's part of the essay by Shklovsky which is the locus classicus of defamiliarization.)

Returning to the essay, Wood's efforts are directed toward describing McEwan's novels as "manipulations," but that word is given an egregiously short leash. In Wood's vernacular, "manipulation" is merely 'setting the reader up for a surprise.' Wood tells us that he doesn't particularly like manipulation, and that he doesn't like how the teleology of narrative manipulation forces all contingencies into becoming inevitabilities, how if the purpose of a narrative is surprise—the revelation of a secret which you have been prepared for but prevented from accessing—then chance itself ossifies into a foregone conclusion. Wood fears this: "But if narrative secrets of this kind – narrative improbabilities – must always become, in the end, narrative predictabilities, then such novels will find it much harder to dramatise meaningfully the impact of contingency on ordinary lives. Contingency is accident, but there is nothing accidental about these highly-strung narratives, which in fact attempt to contain and hold accident."

In the paragraph break between that last sentence and the next, there is a tacit acknowledgment that instead of being unusual, this truth about McEwan's fiction may instead be a truth about narrative, that the relation of events (potentially) connected by causality is always subject to this teleological manipulation: "If secrets constitute us as individuals (as Briony Tallis hopes is the case), and secrets are crucial to storytelling, then it must be storytelling itself that expels us from Eden. Storytelling is corrupt and corrupting." But Wood rallies to again make this general case an exceptional one: "This has been one of the themes McEwan has pondered in recent years, and it is hard not to conclude that in so doing he is somewhat anxiously arraigning his own propensity for narrative manipulation." Wood is here arguing that McEwan's better judgment has converted him to a Wooden suspicion of secret-driven teleology, and he proceeds to lay out his case with another cycle through the McEwan corpus.

Wood shows a number of McEwan's creations expressing some anxiety about fiction's "tidiness"—its ability to make sense of itself if it wants to. And that's when Wood appears to think he's got McEwan by the throat: "McEwan seems to want to have it both ways, at once decrying too much pattern and making use of too much pattern. It is all very well for the narrator of Black Dogs, or for Henry Perowne, to object to the fakery of ‘turning points’ in fiction, but they are themselves embedded in books devoted to such mechanisms." Oh dear god, save us from the writer who wants it both ways!

Wood does go on to confess that he thinks that at his best, McEwan gets to have it both ways, but I have a problem with Wood's evident satisfaction in believing that "wanting it both ways" explains McEwan's objectives comprehensively. Wood argues for this explanation by arguing that it mirrors the reader's desires: she too wants it both ways, although Wood notes that, like McEwan, sometimes she finds that having it both ways feels a little cheap.

The problem is, Wood is still caught in the idea of manipulation as a head-fake: feint one way, go the other. And this excessively simplistic definition of manipulation holds him up from conceiving of other possible interactions and transactions between the writer and the reader, and the writer and the text. Wood appears to assume that McEwan's "wanting it both ways" means that there are only two ways to have it—that one can only write thrillerish fiction dedicated to surprise and overdetermined "turning points" or one can write a fiction that is more open to representing "life's limitless messiness." By being smart enough about the first kind, maybe one can attain the deeper truths of the second, but these are the writer's options.

But I suppose I have more of a problem with Wood's obligatory admonition about "life's limitless messiness" than I do about the bleakness of his views on authorial "manipulation." Why is it that we perennially have to genuflect and remind ourselves that life always outstrips fiction when it comes to contingency and complexity? This little ritual is itself a fiction—not because of its truth status, but because we tell it to ourselves repeatedly, and this repetition and the ready accessibility of its assurances are themselves fictional, even if they are not always fictitious. That is, whether or not it is true, this formulation "life is far more complex, more untidy than fiction can be or wants to be" becomes part of the fiction that we create by imagining what our life is in relation to the lives of others. I think McEwan understands that very well, which is a large part of what he's doing with the characters who chafe at fiction's tidiness.

A character like Henry Perowne is taught that occasionally life is as brutally marked by turning points, secrets, and other "thrillerish" elements. The background of the novel is, after all, the launch of the Iraq war, and while that war certainly isn't "tidy" like fiction is, the overdetermination of lives by the existence of secrets and turning points is certainly a dominant feature of the war, as it is of any war. James Wood's insistence on "life's limitless messiness" and its profusion of "loose endings" isn't so much a reminder of life's difference from fiction as it is a preference for events small enough to create only loose endings, secrets small enough not to create turning points. Those things too exist, but they aren't what distinguish fiction from life.


Daniel E. Pritchard said...

The continual reminder about life's primacy is more secular-religious than anything — a refocusing of attention, a reminder of value, not unlike prayer.

Dennis Junk said...

Excellent. Thank you.
Wood reveals his desire for literature that will help him defamiliarize "life's white machine" in an essay on Ben Lerner. He seems to think writing about big, consequential events is too indulgent. But that's what most readers are interested in and feel compelled to read.

Wood is the best when it comes to parsing language, but his thinking about plots and their relation to reality strikes me as confused as it is confusing.