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                                                          Secular Sabbath
                                                      Unbelief	in	Ian	McEwan’s	Fiction
                                                                                     David Impastato

                                         ver the past two decades, few writ-                           calls the “dead hand of modernity.” He laments that literary
                                                                                                       modernism sometimes smothers narrative by focusing entirely
                                         ers have charmed as many critics                              on character instead, leaving readers with little or no mo-
                                         and readers as the British novelist                           mentum to pull them along. His own novels are page-turners.
                                                                                                       Irony, while mostly absent from his tone and characterizations,
                                Ian McEwan. He is probably best known for                              is abundant in his plots. They teem with suspense, surprise,
                                his 2001 novel Atonement, which sold over 4                            and twists of fate. To create narrative tension, McEwan often
                                                                                                       deploys a violent incident or a threat of violence. His earliest
                                million copies and was turned into a popular                           writing earned him the nickname “Ian Macabre.”
                                movie, but McEwan has been selling books                                  In other ways, though, McEwan is very much within the
                                                                                                       main current of modern literary fiction. His books are as full
                                and winning awards since the mid-1970s.                                of psychological observation as they are of incident. He often
                                Before Atonement, there was The Comfort                                cites as a defining influence Virginia Woolf and her free, indi-
                                of Strangers, Black Dogs, Enduring Love, and                           rect style—a dazzling articulation of consciousness that traces
                                                                                                       the subtlest motions of her characters’ minds. McEwan pays
                                Amsterdam; and since Atonement, he has pub-                            tribute to Woolf both in and by his own writing. Like Woolf’s
                                lished two more successful books: Saturday                             Mrs. Dalloway, McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday describes a
                                                                                                       single day in the life of a Londoner. But Saturday’s main debt
                                and the novella Chesil Beach.                                          is not to other novels, but to science and the culture of sci-
                                   McEwan has won both the National Book Award and the
                                coveted Booker Prize. He’s been informally dubbed Britain’s
                                National Author and, by royal decree, Commander of the
                                British Empire.
                                   Several things account for the McEwan phenomenon. The
                                fine, elegant thread of his language is easy and pleasurable
                                to follow. His authorial voice is genial, direct, and refresh-
                                ingly free of modernist irony. Novelists such as John Updike
                                and Philip Roth, both of whom McEwan has written about
                                admiringly, often tinge their characterizations with irony to
                                avoid sentimentality. But when McEwan presents a character,
                                he is never winking at the reader. He recently acknowledged
                                that a “certain ironical tone” he developed for his forthcom-
Commonweal . October 23, 2009

                                ing novel was hard for him to come by. McEwan’s narrative
                                directness is at least superficially similar to that of romance
                                and adventure fiction, where characters usually appear in
                                plain aspect.
                                   The plots of McEwan’s literary fiction also have much in
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