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Ian McEwan

"The Use of Poetry"

December 7, 2009

The use of The New Yorker's fiction slot as a showcase for forthcoming novels it strikes me as a kind of exploitation is not doing the short story any favors. It's very nice to have a foretaste of Ian McEwan's next novel, Solar, which will be about one Michael Beard, Nobel laureate in physics. This is the fifth such preview that I've encountered, and while each morsel has whetted my appetite for more (much more), only one has afforded literary satisfaction the shattering first section of On Chesil Beach. The full text was printed in The New Yorker, and its portrait of ill-matched newlyweds (one of the spouses had no business getting married at all) was so wrenching that I was almost grateful not to be able to turn the page to continue reading about what was certain to be one of the deadliest honeymoons in fiction. The impact of an earlier New Yorker preview, however, was shockingly gratuitous. Taken out of context, the hit-man episode from Enduring Love seemed merely to revel in the ghastly rupture of civilized life in a London restaurant. It was offensive.

Excerpts of Atonement and Saturday that appeared in Granta were not so disagreeable, although Robbie Turner's long walk to Dunkerque made for a harrowing read (and I was not surprised that this extremely vivid and expensive-to-film stretch of war writing was largely cut from Joe Wright's script). But both felt fragmentary. We were never given a reason to care about Robbie he was just there, tramping through disaster. The Saturday extract was somewhat tangential; Henry Perowne's visit to his Alzheimer's-raddled mother stood to one side of the rest of the narrative, not least in taking place outside of London.

A friend hands you a manuscript. You read the pages. "Is that it?" you ask, just to be sure, when you've finished. You don't want to form a judgment prematurely. If the friend says, "No," then you ask to see the rest and in my view you are entitled to have it handed to you. Only when you've completed a finished piece can you form an opinion. The best that you can say of a fragment is that it is promising. And that is just about all that you can say of it.

"The Use of Poetry" the fragment from Solar (which will appear in the spring) amounts to the kind of backstory that can make the beginning of a novel crackle. (You might also think of it as the complex of appetizing aromas that issue from the kitchen in advance of a great meal.) An episode from the hero's youth, or at any rate from some time prior to the beginning of the action proper, is told at a clip, without lingering over reactions or consequences. The breezy onrush of interesting details sweeps us into the author's embrace in search of more treats. The story comes to an end, but it is not complete, because its resonance has been subtracted for deployment later, when the complexities and blockages of adult fiction provide a richer sounding board.

Here, Michael Beard goes to Oxford and pursues a girl because he has heard that she is "dirty," and this piques him. Dirty or not, she turns out to disappoint the fantasies that he has sketched about her, but it does not take long for Michael to revise his outlook. Maisie, unsurprisingly, is not susceptible to Michael's charms.

But what did she in front of her? A stout fellow with an accountant's look and an earnest manner, wearing a tie (in 1967!), with short hair, side parted, and, the damning detail, a pen clipped into the breast pocket of his jacket. And he was studying science, a non-subject for fools.

Rejection only intensifies Michael's acquisitive resolve. Discovering that Maisie is studying Milton, he bones up on the poet with a comprehensive dispatch that would be funny if it were not successful. Instead, the exercise underscores Michael's contempt for the humanities; if you can learn to bluff your way through Milton in a week, then he can't be worth a lot of study. This is actually tremendously interesting, this reaction; and it poses the possibility that Solar will revive CP Snow's "two cultures" discussion. It has already done so for me. But it would be foolish to extrapolate, in the guise of explication, Mr McEwan's handling of the matter in the yet-unpublished novel. If I'm going to grapple with the wrongheadedness of our ironclad distinction between "math" and "verbal" as if there were two types of brain, I'll take "The Use of Poetry" as a point of departure and continue the discussion elsewhere. I'm certainly not going to second-guess a writer as intellectually fecund as Ian McEwan.

Here goes then: "The Use of Poetry," just as you might, with a gentle thrill, expect, is promising. Very promising.

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