Black is black
The darker side of human nature continues to preoccupy Ian McEwan in his latest opus. as he told Douglas MeCabe.
Ian McEwan is an author who knows how to have '
it both ways. His heavily-touted new novel is by turns stylish and haunting. yet by his his own admission it is ‘vcry literary. a novel of ideas‘. Currently topping the fiction bestseller chart. Black Dogs is a meandering. schematic tale written solely ‘to please myself“. with no concessions to a mass readership. It is his mellowest book to date. but also his most ambitious.
The story is simple enough. A young publisher is preparing a biography of his mother-in-law who. honeymooning in France in 1946. encountered two black dogs. and with them a vision of God and evil. Her interpretation ofthe incident differed radically from that of her husband — he. a young communist who later becomes a leading political
9/ ﬂ' -. 1
figure. taking a rationalist line. she turning the physical event into a symbolic one. a mystical view which alters her mind forever. The strain ofthis conflict led to their eventual separation.
McEwan acknowledges the true nature of his exercise. however. when he remarks that ‘the ideas are larger than the characters discussing them‘. and makes a grandiose case for the story‘s ‘cautionary moral point. which is that with the collapse ofthe utopian project in Europe and the last of the 20th century big ideas. the opportunity to be extremely bad' is too great. Thus the dogs. trained by the Gestapo. which the woman meets in 1946. reappear in the novel's present. ready to
‘haunt us in another time.‘
Sure of his symbol. McEwan claims to be able to demonstrate it in the real world: ‘the civil war and ethnic cleansing going on in Yugoslavia is. for me. another black dog.’ He recognises. however. that such a precise indictment has no place in fiction. and declines to explain the meaning of black dogs in the novel. The real story of the novel is ‘a pursuit. an investigation into irreconcilable truths‘. undertaken for us by the narrator. who repeatedly turns over in his head the arguments for the mystical and the pragmatic. With his brilliant descriptive powers. McEwan tries gamely to bring the debate to life. but the technique is more impressive then the result. Thus. when we meet the dogs they are both intensely frightening creatures and ‘mystical beasts’ which ‘emanate meaning'; they are real. but not only real — ‘behind it is an idea that they stand for something‘. McEwan describes this shift of emphasis as ‘the way we turn common events into symbols‘. but if we look closely there is no symbol to speak of: what it is they stand for remains deliberately
The novel‘s evasive manner. so unlike McEwan in conversation. fails to connect action with idea and transform it into fiction; rather. it creates an impression of hollowness. of forced significance. Nevertheless, McEwan remains a skilled professional. a natural storyteller in the enviable position ofbeing able to ‘please himself‘. and for all its ﬂaws. Black Dogs is one of the most seamlessly entertaining books of the year so far. Black Dogs is published by Jonathan Cape at
According to Julie Burchill, Edinburgh-born novelist Shena Mackay is ‘probably the best writer in the world today’, which may or may not be a recommendation, but there is no doubt that Mackay is one of the most original and distinctive voices currently at work in British fiction. She is best known for hersharp-eyed, glittering, Spark-esque depictions of the unglamorous and the grotesque; The Observer described her as ‘the votaress of Bibena, Meals on Wheels, spaghetti rings and bygone “Archers” episodes, the tenth muse oi suburbia.’ Critical preoccupation with her caustic descriptive style, however, hastended to overshadow the subtler complexities of her work, which is perhaps why she chose to venture beyond her normal urban-backyard terrain for her latest book, Dunedin, and set it partly on the otherside of the world.
The novel opens in 1909, as minister Jack Mackenzie and his family arrive in New Zealand from Glasgow. The omens are mixed from the start- though a rainbow appears as they sail into port, their ship is accompanied by
' an escort of albatrosses. The albatrosses win out, as the decidedly unholy Jack's lascivious eye is drawn by the charms of the voluptuous local laundress, the mixed-race forbidden fruit who brings about his eventual downfall and disgraced departure from the Antipodean Promised Land. The Biblical echoes are deliberate ‘in a way', Mackay says, pointing also to the pun in the title, but the main thrust of the novel is to explore how individual lives are shaped by the interplay between upbringing, a cruelly unpredictable universe and the seeds of salvation or corruption they carry within themselves. The book’s long middle section, set in London in 1989, centres on Jack Mackenzie’s grandchildren — his son’s offspring Olive and William, and their half-brotherJay, the second
generation resulting from Jack's illicit liaison.
William and Olive are a fairly sad pair on the whole: he a traumatised ex-headmaster, having quit his job following the horrific death of a child in his care; she an embittered divorcee, soured and frightened by loneliness and the prospect of growing old. Both maintain a somewhat precarious, mistrustful relationship with the world, thanks in part to their peripatetic childhood, moving constantly from one seedy lodging to another as the demands of their con-man father’s shady dealings dictated. ‘l wanted to show how the past acts on the present, how the lives of earlier generations affect those who come after,’ says Mackay. ‘You could say it’s about the sins of the fathers, though perhaps that's getting too Biblical, because it's not just the sins, it's everything we inherit from our parents and grandparents. But i also wanted to show the random nature of things — the fact that Olive and Jay don’t recognise each other when they meet, that their paths don't cross again.’
Thematic considerations aside, the novel succeeds in painting a wonderfully, wickedly vivid and detailed portrait of Britain - specifically London- in the late BOs. Cardboard City, car boot sales, health
and education cuts, street violence, cycling shorts, traffic jams, environmental degeneration, house repossessions, the unkindness of strangers-you can virtually smell the city sweltering unhappily in the greenhouse-effect summer heat, the muggy atmosphere of greed and desperation as the cracks appear, the bust following the boom. ‘l always write from what i observe around me day to day, and I did feel that London was going through a particularly nasty patch at that time,’ Mackay explains. ‘There was a spirit abroad of . . . not exactly anarchy, but a real selfishness, a sense of decadence, and I found myself wondering if cities could ever again achieve any kind of positive identify, he places people could take pride in.’ Balanced against this are Mackay’s lush, loving descriptions of London’s parks and gardens, a qualified note of pastoral optimism amidst the urban blight. ‘The bits about the parks are important, too,’ she agrees. ‘There are some beautiful, lyrical little patches in London, as well as all the squalor, and they can be redemptive for people in a way.‘ (Sue Wilson)
Dunedin is published by Helnemann at £14.99. Virago have just reissued an earlier novel, Old Crow, priced £5.99.
The List 17—30July 1992 61