[8 September 2009]
Ian McEwan came to mind tonight while watching the Dodgers-Padres game on TV. God knows how baseball and a British novelist intersect but such are the wanderings of the human mind.
I have had a troubled relationship with the dark and sometimes macabre novels of Ian McEwan. I first read his Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam (1998) while recuperating from my first bout of severe psoriasis in 2000. In those days I was bed-ridden with punishing lesions afflicting eighty percent of my body and seeping into my bones and piles of library books was my only refuge from the pain.
I read some good ones back then: James Houston’s fictional chronicle of the Donner Party’s ordeal, Continental Divide; Ron Hansen’s stirring stigmata drama, Mariette in Ecstasy; the riveting biography, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer, and Bruce Wagner’s devastating L.A. satire, Still Holding.
But nothing in my worst sleepless psoriatic nightmares could prepare me for Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. There is little doubt as to the outcome of the plot by the title of the slim book but I kept holding on to hope that I was second-guessing the author and he would surprise me in the third act with a fast one but … no surprise.
In 2006 I tried to read McEwan’s latest lit-fic offering, Saturday, a day-in-the-life tale of a successful London neurosurgeon and post-9/11 paranoiac. Money for such luxuries as books was scarce back then so I reserved the book at the library.
I couldn’t make it past the first twenty pages: McEwan’s attention to minute detail was spellbinding but I had enough minute detail in my life in 2006.
At the time I first attempted to read Saturday, I was living in a residential hotel in Glendale, California, a quiet bedroom community of Los Angeles, and I was in emotional entanglements to one degree or another with three women: a married-but-somewhat-wayward-housewife-and novelist, a school teacher (also married), and the woman I am with to this day, a friend and colleague I met at an online writer’s forum who rescued me from a doomed relationship with a woman who believed that her on-the-job injury from repetitive strain as a courthouse file clerk was a potent sign from the universe that she should cast aside the 9-to-5 workaday world and devote herself to becoming a lampwork bead artist. That didn’t work out so well.
This was where my head was at when I first tried to read McEwan’s Saturday and I knew that I didn’t give the book a fair shake and would try again someday.
We progress now to the summer of 2007 when the ineluctable forces of economic law found me living in the bohemian enclave of North Beach in San Francisco, where I spent most of my quality time romancing a bar stool at Vesuvio, across the alley from famed City Lights Books.
I was in City Lights one afternoon in search of a copy of McEwan’s Saturday (I swore to the literary gods to finish the book at some point) when I discovered that the author had a new release, a novella called On Chesil Beach. I purchased the book immediately, dove into it, and, as I noted in my journal at 10:58 PM on 10 June 2007, here’s how that experience went:
“Have you read anything else by McEwan?” Her speech was slurred and full of alcohol-laced syrup. She perched unsteadily on her bar stool.
“I read Saturday,” I lied.
Her one steady eye gazed across the dust jacket of the book on the bar in front of me, for the tenth time that night. I was reading McEwan’s latest novel, On Chesil Beach, a compelling tale of, from what I’ve read so far, sexual mores in 1962. The dipsomaniacal blonde on my left had clearly been trying to use the book as an entry point to a dialogue for hours but only now, after two shots of Jack Daniels, did she summon the courage.
“McEwan sucks!” she declared. “I hated Saturday. I got through it but I hated it. What’s that other book? A — A– A –”
“Atonement?” I offered.
“That’s it!” she said with a finger crooked before her swaying line of vision. “Goddamn Atonement.”
“Lousy ending. Totally telegraphed third act.”
At that moment a tall young man appeared over my shoulder.
“What’re you guys talking about?”
“This is my brother,” she explained. “He’s into opera and low brow culture.”
I answered his question because it was more of a challenge than an innocent interrogatory and he was large enough to make my limbs suddenly sprout in contorted positions until I resembled a subject in a Picasso painting. “We were talking about Ian McEwan but about books specifically.”
“Oh?” He arched his eyebrows. “Have you ever read Jackie Collins?”
I finished On Chesil Beach; in fact, I enjoyed it immensely. But my relationship with Ian McEwan still remains a troubled one. And I still don’t know what the hell this has to do with baseball.