Ian McEwan's vividly and meticulously imagined novels often focus on characters whose imaginations are either unwholesomely vivid or dryly meticulous. At one end of the spectrum lurk the sex murderers in The Comfort of Strangers (1981), Robert and Caroline, whose actions lead their victim's girlfriend to surmise that 'the imagination, the sexual imagination', embodies 'a powerful single organising principle' which distorts 'all relations, all truth'. The incestuous children in The Cement Garden (1978), the kinky politicians in The Child in Time (1987) and Amsterdam (1998), the voyeuristic ex-husband in The Innocent (1990), the stalker in Enduring Love (1997): in most of his books there's at least one character who's mesmerised by powerful fantasies, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. And since 'stories demand simple and incisive sets of oppositions,' as McEwan told an interviewer in 1985, we also meet people who are very impatient with fantasy. Joe, the efficient, highly rational narrator of Enduring Love, is an obvious example, as is Bernard, the no-nonsense materialist in Black Dogs (1992). If the fantasists are too solipsistic, these figures are too relentlessly outward-looking for corrective self-scrutiny. Bernard, like Joe, loses the woman he loves, accused by her of being obsessed with rationality at the expense of emotion.
LRB 3 March 2005 | PDF Download