Muddling through "Life after Life": A Reflection on Plot and Character in Kate Atkinson’s New Novel

            Every novelist wants to be the one who rewrites the rules of fiction. But it’s remarkable how for all the experimentations over the past couple of centuries most of the basic elements of storytelling have yet to be supplanted. To be sure, a few writers have won over relatively small and likely ephemeral audiences with their scofflaw writerly antics. But guys like D.F. Wallace and Don DeLillo (and even post-Portrait Joyce) only succeeded by appealing to readers’ desire to fit in with the reigning cohort of sophisticates. If telling stories can be thought of as akin to performing magic, with the chief sleight-of-hand being to make the audience forget for a moment that what they’re witnessing is, after all, just a story, then the meager success of experimental fiction over the past few decades can be ascribed to the way it panders to a subset of readers who like to think of themselves as too cool to believe in magic. In the same way we momentarily marvel, not at a magician’s skillfulness at legerdemain, but at the real magic we’ve just borne witness to, the feat of story magic is accomplished by misdirecting attention away from the mechanics of narrative toward the more compelling verisimilitude of the characters and the concrete immediacy of the their dilemmas. The authors of experimental works pointedly eschew misdirection and instead go out of their way to call attention to the inner workings of narrative, making for some painfully, purposefully bad stories which may nonetheless garner a modicum of popularity because each nudge and wink to the reader serves as a sort of secret hipster handshake.

            That the citadel of realism has withstood  innumerable full-on assaults suggests that the greats who first codified the rules of story writing—the Homers, the Shakespeares, the Austens, the Flauberts, the pre-Ulysses Joyces—weren’t merely making them up whole-cloth and hoping they would catch on, but rather discovering them as entry points to universal facets of the human imagination. Accordingly, the value of any given attempt at fashioning a new narrative mode isn’t exclusively determined by its popularity or staying power. Negative results in fiction, just as in science, can be as fascinating and as fruitful as positive findings because designs with built-in flaws can foster appreciation for more finely tuned and fully functional works. Aspiring novelists might even view the myriad frustrations of experimental fiction as comprising a trail of clues to follow along the path to achievements more faithful to the natural aims of the art form. Such an approach may strike aficionados of the avant-garde as narrow-minded or overly constraining. But writing must operate within a limited set of parameters to be recognized and appreciated as belonging to the category of literary art. And within that category, both societies and individuals find the experience of reading some stories to be more fulfilling, more impactful, more valuable than others. Tastes, societal and individual, along with other factors extrinsic to the story, cannot be discounted. But, though the firmness with which gradations of quality can be established is disputable, the notion that no basis at all reliable could exist for distinguishing the best of stories from the worst resides in a rather remote region on the plausibility scale.

            As an attempt at innovation, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel is uniquely instructive because it relies on a combination of traditional and experimental storytelling techniques. Life after Life has two design flaws, one built-in deliberately, and the other, more damaging one borne either of a misconception or a miscalculation. The deliberate flaw is the central conceit of the plot. Ursula Todd, whose birth in an English house called Fox Corner on a day of heavy snow in February of 1910 we witness again and again, meets with as many untimely demises, only to be granted a new beginning in the next chapter according to the author’s whimsy. Ursula isn’t ever fully aware of what occurred in the previous iterations of her expanding personal multiverse, but she has glimmerings, akin to intense déjà vu, that are at several points vivid enough to influence her decisions. A few tragic occurrences even leave traces on what Ursula describes as the “palimpsest” (506) of time pronounced enough to goad her into drastic measures. One of these instances, when the child Ursula pushes a maid named Bridget down the stairs at Fox Corner to prevent her from attending an Armistice celebration where she’ll contract the influenza that dooms them both, ends up being the point where Ursula as a character comes closest to transcending the abortive contrivances of the plot. But another one, her trying to prevent World War II by killing Hitler before he comes to power, only brings the novel’s second design flaw into sharper focus. Wouldn’t keeping Hitler from playing his now historical role be the first revision that occurred to just about anyone?

But for all the authorial manipulations Life after Life is remarkably readable. Atkinson’s prose and her mastery of scene place her among the best novelists working today. The narration rolls along with a cool precision and a casual sophistication that effortlessly takes on perspective after perspective without ever straying too far from Ursula. And the construction of the scenes as overlapping vignettes, each with interleaved time-travels of its own, often has the effect of engrossing your attention enough to distract you from any concern that the current timeline will be unceremoniously abandoned while also obviating, for the most part, any tedium of repetition. Some of the most devastating scenes occur in the chapters devoted to the Blitz, during which Ursula finds herself in the basement of a collapsed apartment building, once as a resident, and later as a volunteer for a rescue service. The first time through, Ursula is knocked unconscious by the explosion that topples the building. What she sees as she comes to slides with disturbing ease from the mundane to the macabre.

Looking up through the fractured floorboards and the shattered beams she could see a dress hanging limply on a coat hanger, hooked to a picture rail. It was the picture rail in the Miller’s lounge on the ground floor, Ursula recognized the wallpaper of sallow, overblown roses. She had seen Lavinia Nesbit on the stairs wearing the dress only this evening, when it had been the color of pea soup (and equally limp). Now it was a gray bomb-dust shade and had migrated down a floor. A few yards from her head she could see her own kettle, a big brown thing, surplus to requirements in Fox Corner. She recognized it from the thick twine wound around the handle one day long ago by Mrs. Glover. Everything was in the wrong place now, including herself. (272)

The narration then moves backward in time to detail how she ended up amid the rubble of the building, including an encounter with Lavinia on the stairs, before returning to that one hitherto innocuous item. Her neighbor had been wearing a brooch in the shape of a cat with a rhinestone for an eye.

Her attention was caught again by Lavinia Nesbit’s dress hanging from the Miller’s picture rail. But it wasn’t Lavinia Nesbit’s dress. A dress didn’t have arms in it. Not sleeves, but arms. With hands. Something on the dress winked at Ursula, a little cat’s eye caught by the crescent moon. The headless, legless body of Lavinia Nesbit herself was hanging from the Miller’s picture rail. It was so absurd that a laugh began to boil up inside Ursula. It never broke because something shifted—a beam, or part of the wall—and she was sprinkled with a shower of talcum-like dust. Her heart thumped uncontrollably in her chest. It was sore, a time-delay bomb waiting to go off. (286)

It’s hard not to imagine yourself in that basement as you read, right down to the absurd laugh that never makes it into existence. This is Atkinson achieving with élan one of the goals of genre fiction—and where else would we expect to find a line about the heroine’s heart thumping uncontrollably in her chest? But in inviting readers to occupy Ursula’s perspective Atkinson has had to empty some space.

            The seamlessness of the narration and the vivid, often lurid episodes captured in the unfailingly well-crafted scenes of Ursula’s many lives effect a degree of immersion in the story that successfully counterbalances the ejective effects of Atkinson’s experimentations with the plot. The experience of these opposing forces—being simultaneously pulled into and cast out of the story—is what makes Life after Life both so intriguing and so instructive. One of the qualities that make stories good is that their various elements operate outside the audience’s awareness. Just as the best performances in cinema are the ones that embody a broad range of emotion while allowing viewers to forget, at least for the moment, that what they’re witnessing is in fact a performance—you’re not watching Daniel Day-Lewis, for instance, but Abraham Lincoln—the best stories immerse readers to the point where they’re no longer considering the story as a story but anxious to discover what lies in store for the characters. True virtuosos in both cinema and fiction, like magicians, want you to have a direct encounter with what never happens and only marvel afterward at the virtuosity that must’ve gone into arranging the illusion. The trick for an author who wants to risk calling attention to the authored nature of the story is to find a way to enfold her manipulations into the reader’s experiences with the characters. Ursula’s many lives must be accepted and understood as an element of the universe in which the plot of Life after Life unfolds and as part of the struggles we hope to see her through by the end of the novel. Unfortunately, the second design flaw, the weakness of Ursula as a character, sabotages the endeavor.

Phil Connors trapped by the snow
            The most obvious comparison to the repetitious plot of Life after Life is to the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a character, Phil Connors, who keeps waking up to re-live the same day. What makes audiences accept this blatantly unrealistic premise is that Phil responds to his circumstances in such a convincing way, co-opting our own disbelief. As the movie progresses, Phil adjusts to the new nature of reality by adopting a new set of goals, and by this point our attention is focused much more on his evolving values than on the potential distraction of the plot’s impossibility. Eventually, the liberties screenwriters Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis have taken with the plot become so intermingled with the character and his development that witnessing his transformations is as close to undergoing them ourselves as the medium can hope to bring us. While at first we might’ve resisted the contrivance, just as Phil does, by the end its implausibility couldn’t be any more perfectly beside the point. In other words, the character’s struggles and transformation are compelling enough to misdirect our attention away from the author’s manipulations. That’s the magic of the film.

            In calling attention to the authoredness of the story within the confines of the story itself, Life after Life is also similar to Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement. But McEwan doesn’t drop the veil until near the end of the story; only then do we discover that one of the characters, Briony Tallis, is actually the author of everything we’ve been reading and that she has altered the events to provide a happier and more hopeful ending for two other characters whose lives she had, in her youthful naiveté, set on a tragic course. Giving them the ending they deserve is the only way she knows of now to atone for the all the pain she caused them in the past. Just as Phil’s transformation misdirects our attention from the manipulations of the plot in Groundhog Day, the revelation of how terrible the tragedy was that occurred to the characters in Atonement covers McEwan’s tracks, as we overlook the fact that he’s tricked us as to the true purpose of the narrative because we’re too busy sympathizing with Briony’s futile urge to set things right. In both cases, the experimentation with plot is thoroughly integrated with the development of a strong, unforgettable character, and any expulsive distraction is subsumed by more engrossing revelations. In both cases, the result is pure magic.

            Ursula Todd on the other hand may have been deliberately conceived of as, if not an entirely empty vessel, then a sparsely furnished one. Atkinson may have intended for her to serve as a type of everywoman to make it easy for readers to take on her perspective as she experiences events like the bombing of her apartment building. While we come to know and sympathize with characters like Phil and Briony, we go some distance toward actually becoming Ursula, letting her serve as our avatar in the various historical moments the story allows us to inhabit. By not filling in the outline of Ursula’s character, Atkinson may have been attempting to make our experience of all the scenes more direct and immediate. But the actual effect is to make them less impactful. We have to care about someone in the scene, someone trying to deal with the dilemma it depicts, before we can invest any emotion in it. Atkinson’s description of Lavinia Nesbit’s body makes it easy to imagine, and dismembered bodies are always disturbing to encounter. But her relationship to Ursula is casual, and in the context of the mulligan-calling plot her death is without consequence.

Briony Tallis being watchful
            Another possible explanation for the weakness of Ursula as a character is that Atkinson created her based on the assumption arising out of folk psychology that personality is reducible to personal history, that what happens to you determines who you become. Many authors and screenwriters fall into this trap of thinking they’re exploring characters when all they’re really doing is recounting a series of tragedies that have befallen them. But things happen to everyone. Character is what you do. Ursula is provisioned with a temperament—introverted, agreeable, conscientious—and she has a couple of habits—she’s a stickler for literary quotation—but she’s apathetic about the myriad revisions her life undergoes, and curiously unconcerned about the plot of her own personal story. For all her references to her shifting past, she has no plans or schemes or ambitions for the future. She exists within an intricate network of relationships, but what loves she has are tepid or taken for granted. And throughout the novel what we take at first to be her private thoughts nearly invariably end up being interrupted by memories of how other characters responded when she voiced them. At many points, especially at the beginning of the novel, she’s little more than a bookish girl waiting around for the next really bad thing to happen to her.

After she pushes the maid Bridget down the stairs to prevent her from bringing home the contagion that killed them both in previous lives, Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, sends her to a psychiatrist named Dr. Kellet who introduces her to Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati, which he defines as, “A simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good.” He then traces the idea back Pindar, whose take he translates as, “become such as you are, having learned what that is” (164). What does Ursula become? After the incident with the maid, there are a couple more instances of her taking action to avoid the tragedies of earlier iterations, and as the novel progresses it does seem like she might be becoming a little less passively stoic, a little less inert and defeated. But as a character she seems to be responding to the serial do-overs of the plot by taking on the attitude that it doesn’t matter what she does or what she becomes. In one of the timelines she most proactively shapes for herself, she travels to the continent to study Modern Languages so she can be a teacher, but even in this life she does little but idly wait for something to happen. Before returning to England,

She had deferred for a year, saying she wanted an opportunity to see a little of the world before “settling down” to a lifetime at the blackboard. That was her rationale anyway, the one that she paraded for parental scrutiny, whereas her true hope was that something would happen in the course of her time abroad that would mean she need never take up the place. What that “something” was she had no idea (“Love perhaps,” Millie said wistfully). Anything really would mean she didn’t end up as an embittered spinster in a girls’ grammar school, spooling her way through the conjugation of foreign verbs, chalk dust falling from her clothes like dandruff. (She based this portrait on her own schoolmistresses.) It wasn’t a profession that had garnered much enthusiasm in her immediate circle either. (333-4)

Again, the scenes and the mindset are easy to imagine (or recall), but just as Ursula’s plan fails to garner much enthusiasm, her plight—her fate—fails to arouse much concern, nowhere near enough, at any rate, to misdirect our attention from the authoredness of the plot.

Phil beats the clock
            There’s a scene late in the novel that has Ursula’s father, Hugh, pondering his children’s personalities. “Ursula, of course, was different to all of them,” he thinks. “She was watchful, as if she were trying to drink in the whole world through those little green eyes that were both his and hers.” He can’t help adding, “She was rather unnerving” (486). But to be unnerving she would have to at least threaten to do something; she would have to be nosy or meddlesome, like Briony, instead of just watchful. What Hugh seems to be picking up on is that Ursula simply knows more than she should, a precocity borne of her wanderings on the palimpsest of time. But whereas a character like Phil quickly learns to exploit his foreknowledge it never occurs to Ursula to make any adjustments unless it’s to save her life or the life of a family member. Tellingly, however, there are a couple of characters in Life after Life for whom amor fati amounts to something other than an argument for impassivity.

Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realized their significance. The Führer was different, he was consciously making history for the future. Only a true narcissist could do that. And Speer was designing buildings for Berlin so that they would look good when they were ruins a thousand years from now, his gift to the Führer. (To think on such a scale! Ursula lived hour by hour, another consequence of motherhood, the future as much a mystery as the past.) (351)

Of course, we know Ursula’s living hour by hour isn’t just a consequence of her being a mother, since this is the only timeline on which she becomes one. The moral shading to the issue of whether one should actually participate in history is cast over Ursula’s Aunt Izzie as well. Both Ursula and the rest of her family express a vague—or for Sylvie not so vague—disapproval of Izzie, which is ironic because she’s the most—really the only memorable character in the novel. Aunt Izzie actually does things. She elopes to Paris with a married man. She writes a series of children’s books. She moves to California with a playwright. And she’s always there to help Ursula when she gets in trouble.

            Whatever the reason was behind Atkinson’s decision to make her protagonist a mere silent watcher, the consequences for the novel as a whole are to render it devoid of any sense of progression or momentum. Imagine Groundhog Day without a character whose incandescent sarcasm and unchanneled charisma gradually give way to profound fellow-feeling, replaced by one who re-lives the same day over and over without ever seeming to learn or adjust, who never even comes close to pulling off that one perfect day that proves she’s worthy to wake up to a real tomorrow. Imagine Atonement without Briony’s fierce interiority and simmering loneliness. Most stories are going to seem dull compared to these two, but they demonstrate that however fleeting a story’s impact on audiences may be, it begins and ends with the central character’s active engagement with the world and the transformations they undergo as a result of it. Maybe Atkinson wanted to give her readers an experience of life’s preciousness, the contingent nature of everything we hold dear, an antidote to all the rushing desperation to shape an ideal life for ourselves and the wistful worry that we’re at every moment falling short. Unfortunately, those themes make for a story that, as vivid as it can be at points, is as eminently forgettable as its dreamless protagonist. “You may as well have another tot of rum,” a bartender says to the midwife who is being kept from attending Ursula’s umpteenth birth by a snowstorm in the book’s closing line. “You won’t be going anywhere in a hurry tonight” (529). In other words, you’d better find a way to make the most of it.

Sweet Tooth is a Strange Loop: An Aid to Some of the Dimmer Reviewers of Ian McEwan's New Novel

(I've done my best to avoid spoilers.)
            Anytime a character in Ian McEwan’s new novel Sweet Tooth enthuses about a work of literature, another character can be counted on to come along and pronounce that same work dreadful. So there’s a delightful irony in the declaration at the end of a silly review in The Irish Independent, which begins by begrudging McEwan his “reputation as the pulse-taker of the social and political Zeitgeist,” that the book’s ending “might be enough to send McEwan acolytes scurrying back through the novel to see how he did it, but it made me want to throw the book out the window.” Citing McEwan’s renown among the reading public before gleefully launching into critiques that are as difficult to credit as they are withering seems to be the pattern. The notice in The Economist, for instance, begins,
At 64, with a Hollywood film, a Man Booker prize and a gong from the queen, Ian McEwan has become a grand old man of British letters. Publication of his latest novel, “Sweet Tooth”, was announced on the evening news. A reading at the Edinburgh book festival was introduced by none other than the first minister, Alex Salmond.
But, warns the unnamed reviewer, “For all the attendant publicity, ‘Sweet Tooth’ is not Mr. McEwan’s finest book.” My own personal take on the novel—after seeking out all the most negative reviews I could find (most of them are positive)—is that the only readers who won’t appreciate it, aside from the reviewers who can’t stand how much the reading public celebrates McEwan’s offerings, are the ones whose prior convictions about what literature is and what it should do blind them to even the possibility that a novel can successfully operate on as many levels as McEwan folds into his narrative. For these readers, the mere fact of an author’s moving from one level to the next somehow invalidates whatever gratification they got from the most straightforward delivery of the story.
              At the most basic level, Sweet Tooth is the first-person account of how Serena Frome is hired by MI5 and assigned to pose as a representative for an arts foundation offering the writer Thomas Haley a pension that will allow him to quit his teaching job so he can work on a novel. The book’s title refers to the name of a Cold War propaganda initiative to support authors whose themes Serena’s agency superiors expect will bolster the cause of the Non-Communist Left. Though Sweet Tooth is fictional, there actually were programs like it that supported authors like George Orwell. Serena is an oldest-sibling type, with an appreciation for the warm security of established traditions and longstanding institutions, along with an attraction for and eagerness to please authority figures. These are exactly the traits that lead to her getting involved in the project of approaching Tom under false pretenses, an arrangement which becomes a serious dilemma for her as the two begin a relationship and she falls deeper and deeper in love with him. Looking back on the affair at the peak of the tension, she admits,
For all the mess I was in, I didn’t know how I could have done things differently. If I hadn’t joined MI5, I wouldn’t have met Tom. If I’d told him who I worked for at our very first meeting—and why would I tell a stranger that?—he would’ve shown me the door. At every point along the way, as I grew fonder of him, then loved him, it became harder, riskier to tell him the truth even as it became more important to do so. (266)
This plot has many of the markings of genre fiction, the secret-burdened romance, the spy thriller. But even on this basic level there’s a crucial element separating the novel from its pulpier cousins; the stakes are actually quite low. The nation isn’t under threat. No one’s life is in danger. The risks are only to jobs and relationships.
            James Lasdun, in an otherwise favorable review for The Guardian, laments these low stakes, suggesting that the novel’s early references to big political issues of the 1970s lead readers to the thwarted expectation of more momentous themes. He writes,
I couldn't help feeling like Echo in the myth when Narcissus catches sight of himself in the pool. “What about the IRA?” I heard myself bleating inwardly as the book began fixating on its own reflection. What about the PLO? The cold war? Civilisation and barbarity? You promised!
But McEwan really doesn’t make any such promise in the book’s opening. Lasdun simply makes the mistake of anticipating Sweet Tooth will be more like McEwan’s earlier novel Saturday. In fact, the very first lines of the book reveal what the main focus of the story will be:
My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing. (1)
That “I didn’t return safely” sets the tone—overly dramatic, mock-heroic, but with a smidgen of self-awareness that suggests she’s having some fun at her own expense. Indeed, all the book’s promotional material referring to her as a spy notwithstanding, Serena is more of a secretary or a clerk than a secret agent. Her only field mission is to offer funds to a struggling writer, not exactly worthy of Ian Fleming.
            When Lasdun finally begins to pick up on the lighthearted irony and the over all impish tone of the novel, his disappointment has him admitting that all the playfulness is enjoyable but longing nonetheless for it to serve some greater end. Such longing betrays a remarkable degree of obliviousness to the fact that the final revelation of the plot actually does serve an end, a quite obvious one. Lasdun misses it, apparently because the point is moral as opposed to political. A large portion of the novel’s charm stems from the realization, which I’m confident most readers will come to early on, that Sweet Tooth, for all the big talk about global crises and intrigue, is an intimately personal story about a moral dilemma and its outcomes—at least at the most basic level. The novel’s scope expands beyond this little drama by taking on themes that present various riddles and paradoxes. But whereas countless novels in the postmodern tradition have us taking for granted that literary riddles won’t have answers and plot paradoxes won’t have points, McEwan is going for an effect that’s much more profound.
            The most serious criticism I came across was at the end of the Economist review. The unnamed critic doesn’t appreciate the surprise revelation that comes near the end of the book, insisting that afterward, “it is hard to feel much of anything for these heroes, who are all notions and no depth.” What’s interesting is that the author presents this not as an observation but as a logical conclusion. I’m aware of how idiosyncratic responses to fictional characters are, and I accept that my own writing here won’t settle the issue, but I suspect most readers will find the assertion that Sweet Tooth’s characters are “all notion” absurd. I even have a feeling that the critic him or herself sympathized with Serena right up until the final chapter—as the critic from The Irish Independent must have. Why else would they be so frustrated as to want to throw the book out of the window? Several instances of Serena jumping into life from the page suggest themselves for citation, but here’s one I found particularly endearing. It comes as she’s returning to her parents’ house for Christmas after a long absence and is greeted by her father, an Anglican Bishop, at the door: 
“Serena!” He said my name with a kindly, falling tone, with just a hint of mock surprise, and put his arms about me. I dropped my bag at my feet and let myself be enfolded, and as I pressed my face into his shirt and caught the familiar scent of Imperial Leather soap, and of church—of lavender wax—I started to cry. I don’t know why, it just came from nowhere and I turned to water. I don’t cry easily and I was as surprised as he was. But there was nothing I could do about it. This was the copious hopeless sort of crying you might hear from a tired child. I think it was his voice, the way he said my name, that set me off. (217)
This scene reminds me of when I heard my dad had suffered a heart attack several years ago: even though at the time I was so pissed off at the man I’d been telling myself I’d be better off never seeing him again, I barely managed two steps after hanging up the phone before my knees buckled and I broke down sobbing—so deep are these bonds we carry on into adulthood even when we barely see our parents, so shocking when their strength is made suddenly apparent. (Fortunately, my dad recovered after a quintuple bypass.)
Douglas Hofstadter
            But, if the critic for the Economist concluded that McEwan’s characters must logically be mere notions despite having encountered them as real people until the end of the novel, what led to that clearly mistaken deduction? I would be willing to wager that McEwan shares with me a fondness for the writing of the computational neuroscientist Douglas Hofstadter, in particular Gödel, Escher, Bach and I am a Strange Loop, both of which set about arriving at an intuitive understanding of the mystery of how consciousness arises from the electrochemical mechanisms of our brains, offering as analogies several varieties of paradoxical, self-referencing feedback loops, like cameras pointing at the TV screens they feed into. What McEwan has engineered—there’s no better for word for it—with his novel is a multilevel, self-referential structure that transforms and transcends its own processes and premises as it folds back on itself.
            One of the strange loops Hofstadter explores, M.C. Escher’s 1960 lithograph Ascending and Descending, can give us some helpful guidance in understanding what McEwan has done. If you look at the square staircase in Escher’s lithograph a section at a time, you see that each step continues either ascending or descending, depending on the point of view you take. And, according to Hofstadter in Strange Loop,
A person is a point of view—not only a physical point of view (looking out of certain eyes in a certain physical space in the universe), but more importantly a psyche’s point of view: a set of hair-trigger associations rooted in a huge bank of memories. (234)
Importantly, many of those associations are made salient with emotions, so that certain thoughts affect us in powerful ways we might not be able to anticipate, as when Serena cries at the sound of her father’s voice, or when I collapsed at the news of my father’s heart attack. These emotionally tagged thoughts form a strange loop when they turn back on the object, now a subject, doing the thinking. The neuron forms the brain that produces the mind that imagines the neuron, in much the same way as each stair in the picture takes a figure both up and down the staircase. What happened for the negative reviewers of Sweet Tooth is that they completed a circuit of the stairs and realized they couldn’t possibly have been going up (or down), even though at each step along the way they were probably convinced.
            McEwan, interviewed by Daniel Zalewski for the New Yorker in 2009, said, “When I’m writing I don’t really think about themes,” admitting that instead he follows Nabokov’s dictum to “Fondle details.”
Writing is a bottom-up process, to borrow a term from the cognitive world. One thing that’s missing from the discussion of literature in the academy is the pleasure principle. Not only the pleasure of the reader but also of the writer. Writing is a self-pleasuring act.
The immediate source of pleasure then for McEwan, and he probably assumes for his readers as well, comes at the level of the observations and experiences he renders through prose. Sweet Tooth is full of great lines like, “Late October brought the annual rite of putting back the clocks, tightening the lid of darkness over our afternoons, lowering the nation’s mood further” (179). But McEwan would know quite well that writing is also a top-down process; at some point themes and larger conceptual patterns come into play. In his novel Saturday, the protagonist, a neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne, is listening to Angela Hewitt’s performance of Bach’s strangely loopy “Goldberg” Variations. He writes,
Well over an hour has passed, and Hewitt is already at the final Variation, the Quodlibet—uproarious and jokey, raunchy even, with its echoes of peasant songs of food and sex. The last exultant chords fade away, a few seconds’ silence, then the Aria returns, identical on the page, but changed by all the variations that have come before. (261-2)
Just as an identical Aria or the direction of ascent or descent in an image of stairs can be transformed  by a shift in perspective, details about a character, though they may be identical on the page, can have radically different meanings, serve radically different purposes depending on your point of view.
            Though in the novel Serena is genuinely enthusiastic about Tom’s fiction, the two express their disagreements about what constitutes good literature at several points. “I thought his lot were too dry,” Serena writes, “he thought mine were wet” (183). She likes sentimental endings and sympathetic characters; he admires technical élan. Even when they agree that a particular work is good, it’s for different reasons: “He thought it was beautifully formed,” she says of a book they both love, “I thought it was wise and sad” (183). Responding to one of Tom’s stories that features a talking ape who turns out never to have been real, Serena says,
I instinctively distrusted this kind of fictional trick. I wanted to feel the ground beneath my feet. There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust. (183)
A couple of the reviewers suggested that the last chapter of Sweet Tooth revealed that Serena had been made to inhabit precisely the kind of story that she’d been saying all along she hated. But a moment’s careful reflection would have made them realize this isn’t true at all. What’s brilliant about McEwan’s narrative engineering is that it would satisfy the tastes of both Tom and Serena. Despite the surprise revelation at the end—the trick—not one of the terms of Serena’s contract is broken. The plot works as a trick, but it also works as an intimate story about real people in a real relationship. To get a taste of how this can work, consider the following passage:
Tom promised to read me a Kingsley Amis poem, “A Bookshop Idyll,” about men’s and women’s divergent tastes. It went a bit soppy at the end, he said, but it was funny and true. I said I’d probably hate it, except for the end. (175)
The self-referentiality of the idea makes of it a strange loop, so it can be thought of at several levels, each of which is consistent and solid, but none of which captures the whole meaning.
            Sweet Tooth is a fun novel to read, engrossing and thought-provoking, combining the pleasures of genre fiction with some of the mind-expanding thought experiments of some of the best science writing. The plot centers on a troubling but compelling moral dilemma, and, astonishingly, the surprise revelation at the end actually represents a solution to this dilemma. I do have to admit, however, that I agree with the Economist that it’s not McEwan’s best novel. The conceptual plot devices bear several similarities with those in his earlier novel Atonement, and that novel is much more serious, its stakes much higher. Sweet Tooth is nowhere near as haunting as Atonement. But it doesn’t need to be.

Also read: Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game.

And: Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction. 

Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction

            No one is a better reader of literary language than James Wood. In his reviews, he conveys with grace and precision his uncanny feel for what authors set out to say, what they actually end up saying, and what any discrepancy might mean for their larger literary endeavor. He effortlessly and convincingly infers from the lurch of faulty lines the confusions and pretentions and lacuna in understanding of struggling writers. Some take steady aim at starkly circumscribed targets, his analysis suggests, while others, desperate to achieve some greater, more devastating impact, shoot wistfully into the clouds. He can even listen to the likes of republican presidential nominee Rick Santorum and explain, with his seemingly eidetic knowledge of biblical history, what is really meant when the supposed Catholic uses the word steward.

            As a critic, Wood’s ability to see character in narration and to find the author, with all his conceits and difficulties, in the character is often downright unsettling. For him there exists no divide between language and psychology—literature is the struggle of conflicted minds to capture the essence of experiences, their own and others’.

When Robert Browning describes the sound of a bird singing its song twice over, in order to ‘recapture/ The first fine careless rapture,’ he is being a poet, trying to find the best poetic image; but when Chekhov, in his story ‘Peasants,’ says that a bird’s cry sounded as if a cow had been locked up in a shed all night, he is being a fiction writer: he is thinking like one of his peasants. (24)

This is from Wood’s How Fiction Works. In the midst of a long paean to the power of free indirect style, the technique that allows the language of the narrator to bend toward and blend with the thoughts and linguistic style of characters—moving in and out of their minds—he deigns to mention, in a footnote, an actual literary theory, or rather Literary Theory. Wood likes Nabokov’s scene in the novel Pnin that has the eponymous professor trying to grasp a nutcracker in a sink full of dishes. The narrator awkwardly calls it a “leggy thing” as it slips through his grasp. “Leggy” conveys the image. “But ‘thing’ is even better, precisely because it is vague: Pnin is lunging at the implement, and what word in English better conveys a messy lunge, a swipe at verbal meaning, than ‘thing’?” (25) The vagueness makes of the psychological drama a contagion. There could be no symbol more immediately felt.

            The Russian Formalists come into Wood’s discussion here. Their theory focused on metaphors that bring about an “estranging” or “defamiliarizing” effect. Wood would press them to acknowledge that this making strange of familiar objects and experiences works in the service of connecting the minds of the reader with the mind of the character—it’s anything but random:

But whereas the Russian Formalists see this metaphorical habit as emblematic of the way that fiction does not refer to reality, is a self-enclosed machine (such metaphors are the jewels of the author’s freakish, solipsistic art), I prefer the way that such metaphors, as in Pnin’s “leggy thing,” refer deeply to reality: because they emanate from the characters themselves, and are fruits of free indirect style. (26)

Language and words and metaphors, Wood points out, by their nature carry us toward something that is diametrically opposed to collapsing in ourselves. Indeed, there is something perverse about the insistence of so many professional scholars devoted to the study of literature that the main thrust of language is toward some unacknowledged agenda of preserving an unjust status quo—with the implication that the only way to change the world is to torture our modes of expression, beginning with literature (even though only a tiny portion of most first world populations bother to read any).

I'm not a Rick Moody fan, so here's a pic of Hank Moody,
who famously said, "Literary theory? None for me thanks."
            For Wood, fiction is communion. This view has implications about what constitutes the best literature—all the elements from description to dialogue should work to further the dramatic development of the connection between reader and character. Wood even believes that the emphasis on “round” characters is overstated, pointing out that many of the most memorable—Jean Brodie, Mr. Biswas—are one-dimensional and unchanging. Nowhere in the table of contents of How Fiction Works, or even in the index, does the word plot appear. He does, however, discuss plot in his response to postmodernists’ complaints about realism. Wood quotes author Rick Moody:

It’s quaint to say so, but the realistic novel still needs a kick in the ass. The genre, with its epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement, its conventional humanisms, can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it’s politically and philosophically dubious and often dull. Therefore, it needs a kick in the ass.

Moody is known for a type of fiction that intentionally sabotages the sacred communion Wood sees as essential to the experience of reading fiction. He begins his response by unpacking some of the claims in Moody’s fussy pronouncement:

Moody’s three sentences efficiently compact the reigning assumptions. Realism is a “genre” (rather than, say, a central impulse in fiction-making); it is taken to be mere dead convention, and to be related to a certain kind of traditional plot, with predictable beginnings and endings; it deals in “round” characters, but softly and piously (“conventional humanisms”); it assumes that the world can be described, with a naively stable link between word and referent (“philosophically dubious”); and all this will tend toward a conservative or even oppressive politics (“politically… dubious”).

Wood begins the section following this analysis with a one-sentence paragraph: “This is all more or less nonsense” (224-5) (thus winning my devoted readership).
Ben Lerner
            That “more or less” refers to Wood’s own frustrations with modern fiction. Conventions, he concedes, tend toward ossification, though a trope’s status as a trope, he maintains, doesn’t make it untrue. “I love you,” is the most clichéd sentence in English. That doesn’t nullify the experience of falling in love (236). Wood does believe, however, that realistic fiction is too eventful to live up to the label. Reviewing Ben Lerner’s exquisite short novel Leaving the Atocha Station, Wood lavishes praise on the postmodernist poet’s first work of fiction. He writes of the author and his main character Adam Gordon,

Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and "conflict," fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life. Several times in the book, he describes this as "that other thing, the sound-absorbent screen, life’s white machine, shadows massing in the middle distance… the texture of et cetera itself." Reading Tolstoy, Adam reflects that even that great master of the texture of et cetera itself was too dramatic, too tidy, too momentous: "Not the little miracles and luminous branching injuries, but the other thing, whatever it was, was life, and was falsified by any way of talking or writing or thinking that emphasized sharply localized occurrences in time." (98)

Wood is suspicious of plot, and even of those epiphanies whereby characters are rendered dynamic or three-dimensional or “round,” because he seeks in fiction new ways of seeing the world he inhabits according to how it might be seen by lyrically gifted fellow inhabitants. Those “cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and ‘conflict’" tend to be implausible distractions,
forcing the communion into narrow confessionals, breaking the spell.

            As a critic who has garnered wide acclaim from august corners conferring a modicum of actual authority, and one who's achieved something quite rare for public intellectuals, a popular following, Wood is (too) often criticized for his narrow aestheticism. Once he closes the door on goofy postmodern gimcrack, it remains closed to other potentially relevant, potentially illuminating cultural considerations—or so his detractors maintain. That popular following of his is, however, comprised of a small subset of fiction readers. And the disconnect between consumers of popular fiction and the more literary New Yorker subscribers speaks not just to the cultural issue of declining literacy or growing apathy toward fictional writing but to the more fundamental question of why people seek out narratives, along with the question Wood proposes to address in the title of his book, how does fiction work?  

            While Wood communes with synesthetic flaneurs, many readers are looking to have their curiosity piqued, their questing childhood adventurousness revived, their romantic and nightmare imaginings played out before them. “If you look at the best of literary fiction," Benjamin Percy said in an interview with Joe Fassler,

you see three-dimensional characters, you see exquisite sentences, you see glowing metaphors. But if you look at the worst of literary fiction, you see that nothing happens. Somebody takes a sip of tea, looks out the window at a bank of roiling clouds and has an epiphany.

The scene Percy describes is even more eventful than what Lerner describes as “life’s white machine”—it features one of those damn epiphanies. But Percy is frustrated with heavy-handed plots too.

In the worst of genre fiction, you see hollow characters, you see transparent prose, you see the same themes and archetypes occurring from book to book. If you look at the best of genre fiction, you see this incredible desire to discover what happens next.
Benjamin Percy
The interview is part of Fessler’s post on the Atlantic website, “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction.” Percy is explaining the appeal of a new class of novel.

So what I'm trying to do is get back in touch with that time of my life when I was reading genre, and turning the pages so quickly they made a breeze on my face. I'm trying to take the best of what I've learned from literary fiction and apply it to the best of genre fiction, to make a kind of hybridized animal.

Is it possible to balance the two impulses: the urge to represent and defamiliarize, to commune, on the one hand, and the urge to create and experience suspense on the other? Obviously, if the theme you’re taking on is the struggle with boredom or the meaningless wash of time—white machine reminds me of a washer—then an incident-rich plot can only be ironic.
Ian McEwan
            The solution to the conundrum is that no life is without incident. Fiction’s subject has always been births, deaths, comings-of-age, marriages, battles. I’d imagine Wood himself is often in the mood for something other than idle reflection. Ian McEwan, whose Atonement provides Wood an illustrative example of how narration brilliantly captures character, is often taken to task for overplotting his novels. Citing Henry James in a New Yorker interview with Daniel Zalewski to the effect that novels have an obligation to “be interesting,” McEwan admits finding “most novels incredibly boring. It’s amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge.” And if he thinks most novels are boring he should definitely stay away from the short fiction that gets published in the New Yorker nowadays.
Scene from Atonement that never took place

A further implication of Wood’s observation about narration’s capacity for connecting reader to character is that characters who live eventful lives should inhabit eventful narratives. This shifts the issue of plot back to the issue of character, so the question is not what types of things should or shouldn’t happen in fiction but rather what type of characters do we want to read about? And there’s no question that literary fiction over the last century has been dominated by a bunch of passive losers, men and women flailing desperately about before succumbing to societal or biological forces. In commercial fiction, the protagonists beat the odds; in literature, the odds beat the protagonists.

There’s a philosophy at play in this dynamic. Heroes are thought to lend themselves to a certain view of the world, where overcoming sickness and poverty and cultural impoverishment is more of a rite of passage than a real gauge of how intractable those impediments are for nearly everyone who faces them. If audiences are exposed to too many tales of heroism, then hardship becomes a prop in personal development. Characters overcoming difficulties trivializes those difficulties. Winston Smith can’t escape O’Brien and Room 101 or readers won’t appreciate the true threat posed by Big Brother. The problem is that the ascent of the passive loser and the fiction of acquiescence don’t exactly inspire reform-minded action either.

Adam Gordon, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, is definitely a loser. He worries all day that he’s some kind of impostor. He’s whiny and wracked with self-doubt. But even he doesn’t sit around doing nothing. The novel is about his trip to Spain. He pursues women with mixed success. He does readings of his poetry. He witnesses a terrorist attack. And these activities and events are interesting, as James insisted they must be. Capturing the feel of uneventful passages of time may be a worthy literary ambition, but most people seek out fiction to break up periods of nothingness. It’s never the case in real life that nothing is happening anyway—we’re at every instance getting older. I for one don’t find the prospect of spending time with people or characters who just sit passively by as that happens all that appealing.
In a remarkably lame failure of a lampoon in Harper's Colson Whitehead targets Wood's enthusiasm for Saul Bellow. And Bellow was indeed one of those impossibly good writers who could describe eating Corn Flakes and make it profound and amusing. Still, I'm a little suspicious of anyone who claims to enjoy (though enjoyment shouldn't be the only measure of literary merit) reading about the Bellow characters who wander around Chicago as much as reading about Henderson wandering around Africa. 

  Henderson: I'm actually looking forward to the next opportunity I get to hang out with that crazy bastard.

Read "Can't Win for Losing: Why there are so many Losers in Literature and Why it has to Change"

Secret Dancers

For about 3 years, I was a bit obsessed with C.K. Williams's poems. They usually tell stories, and rather than worrying over whether his words impose some burden of meaning on his subjects, Williams uses words to discover the meanings that exist independent of them. The result is a stripping away of tired, habituated ways of seeing to make way for new revelation.
This poem was also inspired by Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, which focuses on a day in the life of a neurosurgeon. Anyway, I really love how this poem turned out, but it's so derivative I feel I have to cite my inspirations.

                                       Secret Dancers
The woman on the right side of the booth as I approach—“Can I get you something to
            drink?”—I noticed had something wrong with her,
the way she walked, the way she moved, when I led her with her friend, much older,
her mother perhaps, from the door—“Hello, will it be
just the two of you today?”—to where they sit, in my section, scanning the menu for that
one item.

“I’d just like water with lemon,” the one on the left says, the older one, the mother.
I nod, repeating, “water with lemon,” as I turn to the other,
like I always turn from one to the next, but this time with an added eagerness, with a
curiosity I know may offend, and I see my diagnosis was correct,
for the woman cannot, does not, sit still, cannot be still, but jerks and sways, as if unable
to establish equilibrium, find a balanced middle.

I’m glad, hurrying to the fountains, as I always do, the woman said, in essence,
“For me too,” because I’ve already lost her words in the deluge
of the disturbance, the rarity, the tragedy of the sight of her involuntary dance—chorea—
which is, aside from the movement, nothing at all like a dance,
more an antidance, signaling things opposite to what real dancers do with their

I watch my hands do by habit the filling of plastic cups with ice and water, reach for
straws and lemons, still seeing her, slipping though sitting,
and doing my own semantic antidance in my mind: “How could anyone go on
believing… after seeing… dopamine… substantia nigra…
choreographed by nucleotides—no one ever said the vestibular structure, the loop
under the ear with the tiny floating bone that gives us, that is
our sense of balance, was implicated… so important to see.”

In the kitchen, sorting dishes by shape on the stainless steal table on their way to being
washed, I call to the pretty young cook I sort of love,
who sort of loves but sort of hates me for the sorts of things I say (noticing and
questioning), and say, “There’s a woman with Parkinson’s
at table three—you should come look,” and feel chastised by an invisible authority
(somewhere in my frontal lobe I suspect) before the suggestion
can even be acknowledged. Look? Are we to examine her, make her a specimen, or
gawk, like at a freak? But it—she is so important to see,
I set to formulating a new category of looking.

I begin with the varieties of suffering so proudly and annoyingly on display: abuse, or
“abuse”, survived, poverty escaped, gangsta rappers shot or imprisoned
to earn their street cred, chains of slights and abandonments by ex-lovers, all heard so
frequently, boasted of as markers of authenticity. Is there a way,
I wonder, to look that would serve as tribute to the woman’s much more literal, much
more real perseverance and courage, a registering and appreciation
of identity, that precious plumage that renders each of us findable in the endless welter
and noise of faces and the dubious stories of heroism attached to them?

Returning to the booth to take the women’s orders, so awkward, so wrong, the looking,
I discover, cannot be condoned under my new rubric because
the sufferer’s antidance is leading her in the wrong direction. Those stories of abuse,
penury, assaults or arrests, and recurrent dealings with
unfaithful lovers all go from bad, the worse the better, to better but never too good. This
story, like nearly all real and authentic stories, is about deterioration.
So I type their orders on the touch screen computer, defeated, chastened, as if curiosity—
noticing and questioning—leads irredeemably to taboo
(but how lucky to be born with this affliction instead of one more incapacitating!)

I’m left sulking a little, and thinking about dancing and movement that goes by the name
but isn’t. “Dance Champ!” they exhorted Ali from ringside in Zaire,
when he’d decided, strategically, and it turned out successfully, not to. Ali, The Greatest,
the star and subject of movies, King of Classic Sports on ESPN,
his not quite dancing featured so prominently, so inescapably—look all you want, look
and be awed—but all in the past. You forget the man is still alive.
The secrecy makes me wonder: is it economic, is it political?

The visibility, the stark advertisement of achievers of the formerly impossible, the
heroically, the monstrously successful, coupled with the tabooed
hiding away of the vastly more numerous unfortunate, fallen, and afflicted—the
lifeblood, the dangling American Dream, insufficient,
the market for better lives necessitates the beating heart of  belief, “You can do
anything...,” be your heroes, be heroes for others, by working,
spending, studying, being industrious, acquisitive, but never, never questioning and only
curious to a degree, “…anything you put your” (antidancing) “mind to.”

As I carry the plates, one in the crook between palm and thumb in my left hand, the other
balanced over it on my wrist so I have a free hand to grab the ketchup
on my way to the booth, I recall uneasily watching Ali, his arm outstretched, antidancing
as he lit the Olympic Torch.

First Impression of Ian McEwan's Solar

Ian McEwan may have been living out a fantasy in Solar, one that had him playing the part of a very different type of man, a natural. Michael Beard, though intelligent, is not at all self-conscious, and nothing resembling guilt exists in his mind. The glaring detail is not that Beard, as the novel opens, has cheated on his fifth wife eleven times, but that such an overweight, slovenly, and inconsiderate man could find eleven women to cheat with in the span of just a few years. McEwan, I imagine, is more like Saturday's Henry Perowne, so monogamously tied to his wife that he worries about the implications for his manhood.

Ah, but Beard isn’t the typical simple-minded lout. He’s a Nobel Laureate. To me this was difficult to square—wouldn’t such a smart man have better impulse control, not eat to excess, drink to excess, fornicate to excess. But of course intelligence isn’t such a straight-forward issue, and we’re to take Beard as more than a little narcissistic, i.e. entitled. Plus, he usually manages to evade the severest of the consequences he has rightly coming to him. It’s the consequences he doesn’t deserve that plague him the most.

There’s a touch of Coetzee’s Disgrace to Solar: the academic who does and says the wrong things but continues to say, "What of it? Take me as I am." He’s put upon in all the ways well-to-do white men from privileged countries tend to be. I can’t help but sympathize. And since the narration is so close to him, and his own malfeasances and deceptions have such little importance to his mind, I’m never sure how much weight I should be giving them. I see trouble brewing for him but I take no joy in anticipating it. I even wonder if maybe he’ll weasel out of it all somehow—wouldn’t that be something?

On the surface this is a story about comeuppance—which never fully occurs—but really it’s about the tricky nature of sympathy. Beard is all too human, prideful, vengeful, at times almost loving, but not quite. You want to hate him. But you recognize at least of little of him in you.