A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Be Good, Sweet Novelist, and Let Who Will Be Clever

Lately I've read two novels by distinguished contemporary writers that left me wondering if it's possible to be too clever for a novelist's own good.

The other day I posted about one of the novels, Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, which has lately established itself firmly on the bestseller lists and on some of the ubiquitous "best novels of 2012" lists compiled by various critics. I observed that although the novel seems to be heading in the conventional direction of first-person narratives with an ironically self-deprecating voice characteristic of some British fiction, McEwan was also using his narrator to score a few points about the recent and contemporary British novel.

It turns out that McEwan is doing precisely that and more. His narrator -- or rather let us say, without giving too much away, his ostensible narrator is Serena Frome ("rhymes with plume," as she remind us and others from time to time), a young woman who, fresh out of Cambridge with a not-very-distinguished degree in mathematics, goes to work for British intelligence." Eventually she is asked to perform a "secret mission," to inform a young writer named Tom Haley that he is the recipient of a lucrative grant from a foundation that supports up-and-coming writers. In fact, the grant is funded by MI5, which has set up a program to support anticommunist artists, in a rather lame and half-hearted attempt at tilting the propaganda war against left-wing Brits. If you remember the scandal in which the British literary magazine Encounter was revealed in 1967 to have been funded by the CIA, leading to the resignation of its editor, the poet Stephen Spender, you know what's at work here.

Haley accepts the grant, and he and Serena fall in love. Since she's a very junior staff member in MI5, usually tasked with typing and filing, she's eager for advancement. But she really is in love with Haley, and is tormented by the fact that she's forced to lie to him not only about the source of the money he's receiving but also about her role in selecting him to receive it.

Now, there are some very obvious ways a novel with a plot like this can go. She can risk losing him and/or her job by telling him the truth. She can keep lying and get found out. And once he learns the truth, he can either break up with her in anger and disillusionment, or he can forgive her and they can live happily with the deception. But although there are plenty of novels that would resort to either the happy lie ending or the painful truth ending, both endings have something phony about them. They're characteristic of popular fiction, not of the kind of keen-edged literary fiction McEwan is known for.

I won't tell you how McEwan resolves his plot, except to say that it's extremely clever. And that it seems like a cheat anyway. He has set up a romantic dilemma and resolved it with a metafictional gimmick. Yes, it's thought-provoking, and when you look back through the novel you can see how carefully McEwan has set it up. At one point, a character tells Serena,
In this work the line between what people imagine and what's actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big gray space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things -- and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real.
The "work" being referred to is Serena's work for MI5. But it can also be taken to refer to the "work" that is McEwan's novel. Double-meanings of this sort abound in Sweet Tooth.

Don't get me wrong: I was entertained and intrigued by the novel. It's a pleasure to see fiction stand itself on its head. But at the same time, I don't read novels to solve puzzles, and something of the heart went out of the book when I discovered what McEwan is doing.

Which brings me to another terribly clever book, Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, also ensconced on bestseller and best-of lists. Here the cleverness is not in the plotting, although Chabon is certainly skillful in that regard. It's a story set in contemporary Oakland and Berkeley, and its major virtue is that, unlike McEwan, Chabon introduces us to a set of vivid characters that we've never met before. It deals with the owners of a used-record store in Oakland whose livelihood is threatened by the arrival of a chain megastore -- the Walmart of used records plus electronics and other goodies -- and with their families and customers and competitors and so on. This is a novel teeming with colorful characters.

But it's also a bit like a party at which there are all sorts of interesting people to meet and talk to, except that it's being thrown by a host who just won't shut up and let you meet them. He (i.e., Chabon) is interesting and fiercely witty himself, but every time you start getting to know one of his guests, he pops in with his own comments and asides. He is also a master of what McEwan's Serena referred to as "a form of naive realism." In Sweet Tooth she says of the novels she reads,"I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car." And Telegraph Avenue is rife with that kind of mentioning: places, people, events, trivia all centered on the Oakland-Berkeley area, particularly the parts adjoining the titular avenue. 

Some of this is gratifying to a Bay Area resident like me, and I was amused when Chabon alluded to the old station breaks on a local TV station, which featured dogs who turned their heads toward someone off-camera when the words "Channel 20" were spoken. It's the sort of in-joke you feel oddly, somewhat smugly pleased at sharing with the author. But it's also irrelevant. It's local color for the sake of being locally colorful. 

There's way too much of that sort of thing in Telegraph Avenue, whose stylistic cleverness is as provoking and distracting as McEwan's cleverness in upending his narrative.