Saturday: You Can, Apparently, Get Away With Self-Insertion If You Won the Booker Prize (p. 18-25)

Still no AU/JP travelougues, alas, but that’s because I’m writing this on the seventh and scheduling it for the thirteenth. As one does. Anyway, it’s pretentious epigraph time!

Perowne dictated monotonously, and long after his secretary went home he typed in his overheated box of an office on the hospital’s third floor. What dragged him back was an unfamiliar lack of fluency. He prides himself on speed and a sleek, wry style. It never needs much forethought—typing and composing are one. Now he was stumbling. And though the professional jargon didn’t desert him—it’s second nature—his prose accumulated awkwardly. Individual words brought to mind unwieldy objects—bicycles, deckchairs, coat hangers—strewn across his path. He composed a sentence in his head, then lost it on the page, or typed himself into a grammatical cul-de-sac and had to sweat his way out. (p.11)

I’m only mentioning this quote because this is how I feel all the time whenever I write, and more importantly this is how it feels to read the prose in this section. Let’s just take the problems one at a time, shall we?

I.             Description

A not insignificant portion of this section is devoted to infodumping Perowne’s appearance and character. I generally dislike it when an author stops the plot for more than a page to tell us what our hero looks like, and I really dislike it when the author stops the plot to tell us how the hero comports himself. You’d think that would be self-evident in the story, so I’m at a loss as to why McEwan elected to mention point-blank that, say, Perowne likes having tension in the operating theater. I think there’s a scene later where we actually see him do an emergency operation, specifically on the fellow who had broken into his house. Shouldn’t we be able to infer how much he likes tension from his actions in that scene?

This suggests to me that McEwan has an agenda. He wants us to think of Perowne in a certain way, the Kindly but Serious Man of Science. We’ll find out later if Perowne’s actions fit this description, but McEwan’s decision to include this whole bit sends up warning signals in my brain, that McEwan didn’t think he communicated this depiction of Perowne effectively in the actual narrative.

Or take this passage:

Patients would be less happy to know that he’s not always listening to them. He’s a dreamer sometimes. Like a car-radio traffic alert, a shadowy mental narrative can break in, urgent and unbidden, even during a consultation. He’s adept at covering his tracks, continuing to nod and frown or firmly close his mouth around a half-smile. When he comes to, seconds later, he never seems to have missed much. (pp. 19-20)

What was the point of that? Once again, couldn’t McEwan have integrated this trait more seamlessly into the narrative elsewhere? While one could argue that this is merely the mounting of Chekhov’s Gun on the mantelpiece, it seems more like an excuse for McEwan to interrupt the narrative and carry on at length about politics and happiness and satisfaction and aging and just what it’s like to be a primary beneficiary of what is pointedly not acknowledged as a fundamentally racist, sexist, classist society.

II.            Fanfiction

McEwan devotes two long paragraphs to describing Perowne’s hands. I don’t need to know anything about Perowne’s hands. I don’t need to know that…

They are knobbly hands, bulging with bone and sinew at the knuckles, with a thatch of gingerish hair at the base of each finger—the tips of which are flat and broad, like the suckers of a salamander. (p. 19)

But he insists on telling us anyway. Probably to emphasize that the good doctor is a good doctor. I think I’d be able to infer that already because McEwan, through describing Perowne’s Friday, has already amply shown that he’s a good doctor. This is simply filler, an excruciatingly long buildup to this:

They are the hands of a tall, sinewy man on whom recent years have added a little weight and poise. In his twenties, his tweed jacket hung on him as though on narrow poles. When he exerts himself to straighten his back, he stands at six foot two. His slight stoop gives him an apologetic look which many patients take as part of his charm. They’re also put at their ease by the unassertive manner and the mild green eyes with deep smile-wrinkles at their corners. […] His head hair, though thinning, is still reddish brown. (p. 19-20)

So…something like this, then?

Just a thought.

Ellis Sharp mentioned that “Perowne is not entirely McEwan,” but in at least broad strokes (appearance, residence, worldview) the good doctor is our humble author. I wonder how many people cottoned on to this, and I wonder if this may have influenced McEwan to write his next scientist protagonist, Solar’s Michael Beard, as a portly, morally bankrupt lech. An anti-Perowne, if you will.

III.           Verisimilitude

I should probably stress that this assessment of Michael Beard comes entirely from an interview McEwan had with the Independent right around when Solar came out. In fact, Saturday is the first McEwan novel I’ve read. So, I’m probably the last person you should ask to assess McEwan’s prose. I have no idea if this is how McEwan writes all the time, or if this is just an affectation to suit the main character, but…McEwan writes like a brain surgeon attempting to write fiction.

On its own, this is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but here it bogs the narrative down tremendously. It means being subjected to two paragraphs wherein the good doctor’s hands are described in loving detail. It means the plot grinds to a halt at page 18 and doesn’t start up again until page 22. Those four pages are almost completely pointless. What are we expositing? What are we establishing? Couldn’t he have sprinkled this big old infodump throughout the novel? Mention his physical endeavors once we get to the squash game, for instance. But here, dropping it right at the beginning…no. Stoppit. We’re not two, Ian. We don’t need you to hold our hands. We can pick up on how the characters think on our own, thanks.

And we certainly don’t need you to tell us how we ought to think of them.

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About theoditsek

I like going places.
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