Response to Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan, Seek My Face, by John Updike, and Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.
My habit, for most of these responses, has been to bundle them together. I continue this, despite what may appear to be lack of similarity between the books. One reason to do this remains the instinct to compare techniques when they are fresh in my mind. The other is that by doing so I often find similarities that I would not have thought of if I did not force the issue.
There are a couple of techniques that I will mention, that really don’t need quotations to support them. First, McEwan uses the technique of a single event as the catalyst, or tipping point, for an entire series of events and the novel itself. In this case that event is the protagonist’s involvement in the failed attempt to control an air balloon with a child in it. This technique can be extremely effective as it captures the reader’s attention quickly and it implicitly asks the question “how is this going to effect the protagonist throughout the story?” However, the danger of this technique is when it seems artificial, or fails to realistically appear as a catalyst for the events that follow. McEwan does not fail in this, but the tying together often seems a bit forced.
Another technique McEwan uses is (the novel is in the first person) he has entire chapters that are letters from the religious, infatuated, stalker. These letters effectively give another POV the way they are written. The way they are written is as if the person were talking. Some people write this way, so the reader buys into this. For example, just starting one of the letters:
I feel happiness running through me like an electrical current. I close my eyes and see you as you were last night in the rain, across the road from me, with the unspoken love between us as strong as a steel cable. I close my eyes and thank God out loud for letting you exist, for letting me exist in the same time and place as you, and for letting this strange adventure between us begin. I thank Him for every little think about us. This morning I woke and on the wall beside my bed was a perfect disk of sunlight and I thanked Him for that same sunlight falling on you! (101)
This gives us both another POV but also by being so over the top, so high school style in love the proper level of creepiness since we know that the recipient has not even really spoken to this person and only to rebuff him. It also allows us to think about what Joe’s wife will think when reading it. There is a bit of a humorous undercurrent in that his wife specializes in poetry, in particular Keats. I do wonder why McEwan did not chose a gay poet to make the parallel deeper, but I digress.
The book is well written and McEwan drops into the infinite moment quite often—perhaps too often, but more on that later. What was interesting to me is that I was on the verge of throwing it into the corner a number of times out of frustration, but kept reading despite myself. I am not sure if that is part of its positive quality, or ultimately it fails. What was so frustrating about it?
First, is the subtle use of the “this may be an unreliable narrator, but you have to figure it out yourself.” McEwan spends half the book, or more, leading us down this path. The danger in having the ambiguous unreliable narrator, which takes forever to resolve, is that the reader is ungrounded. I don’t mind the unreliable narrator that I know is unreliable, but not knowing, for a very long time, is tiresome. It is a thin line, because this can work in the “twist” where suddenly the unreliable narrator becomes reliable and we were fooled into believing he was unreliable. That is fun, when done well, but McEwan doesn’t quite do the balancing well. I would approach this carefully, if I were to attempt it—or start with the obvious unreliable narrator.
What exacerbates this is that most of this novel is internal musings, tangents, thinking to oneself and asking silent questions. All of chapter four is without dialogue. Chapter five has two or three lines of dialogue. This gets frustrating. Yes, he folds the musings in and connects them, as when McEwan uses two pages to examine Joe’s thoughts on the Hubble Telescope and how they were able to fix the mistake and make it better than it was originally designed. He then ties it back with “There are certain mistakes that no quantity of astronauts can right. Like mine. Yesterday. But what had I done, or not done? If it was guilt, where exactly did it begin? At the ropes under the balloon, letting go, afterward by the body, on the phone last night? (42)” This is fine and works the first time, but it begins to wear on the reader the fifth or sixth time. I wanted to scream ‘Alright, I get it, you beating yourself up over this, you are full of angst. I get it! Move on!’
The truth is that McEwan “tells us” a lot of things and then shows us what he tells us. “Our former loving selves would never have understood us of forgiven us, and that was it, right there: the dominant, unacknowledged emotion around our household in those days was shame. (137)” Then a sentence or two later, “Now here we were, somewhere between half past one and two in the morning, lying in bed, staring at each other by the low light of one lamp, I naked, she in a cotton nightdress, our arms and hands touching, but neutrally, without commitment. All the questions were heaped around us, and for a while neither of us dared speak. (137)” Now, I really like this second quote from the page, but I didn’t need the three paragraphs before it, saying the same thing in different ways.
This dropping into internal dialogue and telling us things, over and over, is something Updike does in Seek My Face. If McEwan ultimately succeeds, albeit with frustration, Updike fails. I like some of Updike’s work, but this was one I ended up skimming to finish, it was too boring to spend real time on it. Updike uses another tried and true technique, the interview of the elderly protagonist to recount pieces of her, and her husband’s, life. The technique is an old one, used in novels and in film. It has some nice advantages, such as the interviewer asks a question and this leads to the thinking back, the flashback, the answer to the question and the insight as to what the question triggered. But, it can lead to the same problems noted with McEwan. The tone is too internal, it can seem to lead nowhere and take forever, and one can get stuck in the infinite moment, trapped. The infinite moment takes over and soon you have infinite moments within infinite moments, ad infinitum.
The interview technique gives us scenes that do not always hold together. Additionally, the scenes are not linear in the temporal sense. What Updike may have been striving for is realism. We are interested in these sorts of questions when it is about are real famous painter, but the jumping around, discussing of affairs and drunkenness when it is a fictitious character is less interesting. The warning might be that using a technique that might prove interesting in non-fiction creative writing, might fail in pure fiction.
The interview technique is further twisted by Updike by having the reporter acting almost like a psychologist. Thus we get a lot of:
“Did you see any contradiction between the love you say you felt for Zack and your refusal to bear his child?”
“Well of course. But I was very sure I was right. For his good as well as mine. He was the child, he wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. … (108-109).
The response goes on for some time. This technique is a bit overt. It blatantly steers the reader in certain directions with specific questions and answers. Like McEwan, we do vaguely wonder on the reliability of the protagonist as the narrator—albeit in third person—given the contradictions between the interviewer and the interviewee. The reason we wonder is while the narrative is third person, when the “camera” is turned on Hope it is intimate, while it is turned on Kathryn (the reporter) it is distant.
Updike does do some “telling” with his tags: “‘It might have made him more stable,’ Kathryn presumes to tell her. (107)” or “‘As I said, ‘pathetic,’ ‘ Hope says, her own tone pitiless. (114)” These end up making some of this feel almost like a two person stage production. In the end, I found this style of Updike’s hard to read and less enjoyable than some of his other work. Not terrible, but although there is a lot of reminiscing about other characters, there are only two “live” characters in the entire book. This technique wears think when reading, yet I could see making an interesting movie based on it, where the two live characters fade in and out and the remembrances are live. Updike chooses not to do this, making all of the past very much recollection narrative.
Charlotte’s Web may seem a strange bedfellow to Enduring Love and Seek My Face, but it provides a nice contrast in two ways: one, White’s sentences are deceivingly simple, yet convey so much and two, it works well despite never resorting to deep introspection, nor to infinite moments ad infinitum. Yes, it is a “children’s book.” But, I would argue that it is a sophisticated children’s book that is readable by adults to their children and that is one of the reasons it has withstood the test of time. Indeed, I never read Charlotte’s Web as a child myself—my mother never read to me, she encouraged me to read on my own quickly—and this reading to my daughter was the first time I had read it.
One of the amazing strengths of Charlotte’s Web and its sentence structure is that like poetry it does so well when read aloud. When describing Charlotte making the word “Terrific” you hear the voice whether you read it aloud or not, but you are almost compelled to read
“Now for the R! Up we go! Attach! Descend! Pay out the line! Whoa! Attach! Good! Up you go! Repeat! Attach! Descend! Pay out the line! Whoa, girl! Steady now! Attach! Clime! Attach! Over to the right! Pay out line! Attach! Now right and down and swing that loop around and around! Now in to the left! Attach! Climb Repeat! O.K.! Easy, keep those lines together! Now, then, out and down for the leg of the R! Pay out line Whoa! Attach! Ascend! Repeat! Good girl!” (94)
One is often taught not to use exclamation marks often, yet look at how the use of it for every breath works. It forces the cadence. It makes this sing-song and makes one feel the spider moving about. I don’t care if this a “children’s” book or not, I can only dream of capturing motion and rhythm this way.
Similarly, just a few pages later, you are forced to read aloud (even if you are not reading to your five year old) just to get the breathiness of the sentence, the meaning, the additive quality.
“Here, in small clearing hidden by young alders and wild raspberry bushes, was an astonishing pile of old bottles and empty tin cans and dirty rags and bits of metal and broken bottles and broken hinges and broken springs and dead batteries and last month’s magazines and old discarded dishmops and tattered overalls and rusty spikes and leaky pails and forgotten stoppers and useless junk of all kinds, including a wrong-size crank for a broken ice-cream freezer.(97)”
One sentence! Lots of ands with no commas…you have to say it in one breath, rushing to finish to the comma.
My point is really that good writing does not have to appear sophisticated. McEwan and Updike are good writers, but their sophistication is not subtle, nor is it always easily readable. One is not better than the other, but reading the three in a row, the sophisticated children’s book was a breath of fun, fresh air, and still had life and death and growing up and changing and friendship and struggle and rising stakes and plotting and moral dilemmas and consequences of actions and when you have read the thirtieth Rainbow Fairy book for twentieth time while your brain screams ‘have you had an original thought in your life’ you realize that good fiction starts for the youngest of readers.
McEwan, Ian. Enduring Love. New York: Anchor Books. 1997. Print
Updike, John. Seek My Face. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2002. Print
White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper Trophy. 1952. Print