Two worried British novels. Ian McEwan worries mainly about the cosmos, Margaret Drabble about society. Both books tell you something about Britain in the Eighties.
Drabble is not only topical but topographical. Her characters do a lot of their worrying as they drive across London or north on the M1 motorway. These cinéma vérité sequences are very well done, and particularly enjoyable if you can recognize places. I spotted the open air stall where we buy prawns after tennis on Sundays. It stands at the junction of Harrow Road and Ladbroke Grove, in a belt of dereliction between upwardly mobile residential areas. The Notting Hill race riots took place nearby, and the homicidal Notting Hill rapist roamed these streets and underpasses. Drabble disguises him as “the Horror of the Harrow Road.” Toward the end of her novel he turns out to live in the flat above one of the main characters, the unmarried Esther Breuer. He has already decapitated Jilly Fox, exinmate of the experimental women’s prison where Alix Bowen teaches English literature once a week; her main job is in the Whitehall office of a government research unit on female offenders.
The Radiant Way is a Group-type novel with a group of three. Esther, Liz, and Alix met at Cambridge University in the Fifties. Esther, of well-heeled Austrian-Jewish extraction, has become an art historian. Liz Headleand is the deprived child of a crazy lower-middle-class widow: a talented achiever, she won a scholarship, left behind her pinched northern background, and has become a successful psychiatrist with a posh house in Harley Street and a powerful TV executive for a husband. Charles Headleand began his career making radical, innovative programs on topics of social concern. His team was famous until the Union members in it began to insist on petty rights and rules and destroyed the camaraderie on which its work depended. Charles got fed up and switched from making programs to making money in program marketing.
The third member of the group, Alix Bowen, is the nicest, and the nearest thing to being the novel’s heroine. She also comes from the north, but from the educated middle class; her marriage, to a factory worker turned adult education lecturer, has been idealistic and downwardly mobile. She is soft-hearted, high-minded, and appallingly dressed. She is Mrs. Webber in the Posy Simmonds appealing cartoon strip about a progressive middle-class family. You could say The Radiant Way is Posy Simmonds without the jokes.
Posy Simmonds gave birth to the Webbers in the mid-Seventies. In the previous decade, the thinking person’s cartoon family had been the Stringalongs, drawn by Marc. Everyone loved to hate Simon and Joanna Stringalong, a media couple dedicated to the pursuit of radical chic. Nobody can hate the Webbers: they’re poorer, kinder, woollier, and into social concern not social climbing. Whereas the Stringalongs inhabited the pages of the Times, the Webbers live in the liberal Guardian, a paper sympathetic to the Social Democratic party from its foundation—which occurs in The Radiant Way, and attracts “the support of a good many characters in, and potential readers of, this novel who had been alienated by the New Right but perhaps even more by the New-Old Left.” This is Drabble intervening in her dashing “Reader, I married him” vein. So should one call her novel postmodern rather than just plain traditional? It even sports a dialogue between Alix, economizing on her foundation cream, and Thrift. The stylistic references to Brontë, Austen, and George Eliot seem, like postmodernism in general, symptoms of nostalgia for happier times in a novel that sinks from distaste to dismay, and finally into despair.
The Radiant Way begins on New Year’s Eve 1979, with some of the guests at the Headleands’ party apprehensive about the first signs of the Thatcher era: “Others had already leaped boldly in the expectation that others would follow, that it would prove wise to have been seen to take the plunge first.” Four hundred pages on we have got to June 1985 and Esther’s fiftieth birthday, celebrated by the three friends with a picnic. In the interim some very creepy skeletons have been coaxed out of cupboards, and a lot has happened to some of the characters as well as in the world. Charles Headleand has left Liz to marry a socialite and left the socialite to return to Liz (Lady Henrietta is the only one of Drabble’s characters to get no sympathy at all). Alix has been forced to leave London for the bleak north because cuts in the education budget have made her husband’s London job redundant; her lover, an academic economist, has emigrated to the US: he could not bear the new political climate in Britain. Esther has moved to the country, rattled by the arrest of a multiple murderer under her roof. Her lover has died (the affair was platonic; as was, in a different way, Alix’s with her economist), and so have a number of old fathers, mothers, and in-laws. Liz’s and Alix’s numerous children and stepchildren, on the other hand, have survived quite well. One was prepared for at least one death from drugs or AIDs, everything else being so gloomy.
The class divide gets wider, revealing a dangerous underclass of no-hopers like delinquent Jilly and the Horror who kills her. Traffic jams, inner-city squalor, race riots, a purchase tax (threatened even on sanitary napkins), threats to social security, crime, fear, reduced research funding and money for adult education and other desirable social measures—everything gets steadily worse. The hard left, including Alix’s husband, gets fiercer and less rational; the right more complacently heartless; and the three heroines more depressed.
The end, as they pack up their picnic, is ominous:
The sun is dull with a red radiance. It sinks. Esther, Liz and Alix are silent with attention. The sun hangs in the sky, burning. The earth deepens to a more profound red. The sun bleeds, the earth bleeds. The sun stands still.
But it’s unfair to quote the end, because this is not Drabble at her best. She’s not a visionary but a very good documentary maker who manages to combine sharpness with sympathy. In the end she believes—or at least forces reluctant Alix to believe—that “high art” is the only thing left in the world, because it’s out of the world. The world can’t be improved as Alix had hoped. So Drabble finds Alix a job sorting papers for an eccentric north-country poet. Eventually she might write his biography. “The poems live. Beaver’s poems are good…. Alix has found her corner in immortality, in Beaver’s attic.”
The Radiant Way certainly wasn’t written in an ivory attic, and it’s not high art. It’s a Zeitroman, a fictionalized state-of-the-nation piece by someone Drabble might have invented (her characters’ careers are often very closely modeled on real ones). This writer might be a cross between Tom Wolfe (though Drabble records rather than spots trends) and Peter Jenkins, the former Guardian columnist now with the Independent; his new book Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era ruefully covers much of the same ground.
But the remarkable thing about Drabble is how well she invents and tells her cautionary tales. Her novel is very complex, with a large cast whose lives interlock in sometimes unexpected but sufficiently plausible ways. It’s a big novel, and every corner is filled with something relevant. No randomness. She has always been a good social observer; now she has developed an unsuspected talent for frisson, horror, and shock. The lead up to Jilly’s decapitation is absolutely terrifying.
What is missing is spontaneity, or what Virginia Woolf in her lecture Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (which now seems unbearably cute in tone) called “life.” She complained that by comparison with the great Victorian novelists, Arnold Bennett and the other Edwardians overfurnished their characters with physical surroundings, social circumstances, and past histories, but failed to make them live. Drabble’s characters even have fully furnished minds: their thoughts give them feelings (mostly of sorrow), but they remain walking points of view. In spite of her salutes to the Victorians, Drabble is, by Woolf’s definition, an Edwardian. Still, there is a lot to be said for being as informative and readable as Arnold Bennett.
Compared with Drabble’s capacious old overcoat of a novel, McEwan’s is like a jumpsuit in a synthetic fabric with a pearlized surreal sheen. It is set in a bit of the Thatcher era we haven’t yet come to: a near future where licensed beggars wear regulation badges, carry regulation begging bowls, and die in the streets. The prime minister comes into the story; she pays a hilarious visit to the hero in his grotty flat, but is never named. McEwan manages to avoid ever using a personal pronoun in connection with this personage, a word game that must have been fun to play and leaves the reader officially ignorant of the PM’s sex. Still, it’s Mrs. Thatcher all right: “The familiar voice, pitched somewhere between a tenor’s and an alto’s” produces a fine flow of Thatcherspeak. McEwan is good at mimicry.
His hero, Stephen, is a writer of children’s books. Once a week he attends, without enthusiasm, a subcommittee of the Government’s Official Commission on Child Care. At this point McEwan’s and Drabble’s novels dovetail, and one speculates whether Stephen and his colleagues might not be occupying the very Whitehall office vacated by Alix Bowen’s research unit on female offenders: the unit was on the skids before Alix moved north, presumably because it worked on the kind of liberal principles that Stephen’s commission is meant to eradicate from child care. The new credo is that “child-care writers of the post-war era sentimentally ignored the fact that children are at heart selfish, and reasonably so, for they are programmed for survival.” The way to bring them up, therefore, is by slaps and bribes.
The commission’s recommendations are to be embodied in the Government’s Authorized Child Care Handbook. Extracts from this grim manual make spoof epigraphs for each chapter of the novel. But while the commission is still munching through evidence, the handbook has already been written on secret instructions from the prime minister. The author is Charles Darke, an ex-publisher turned junior minister, and the PM’s protégé and sexual fancy (the fact that the PM fancies him does not, of course, prove that the PM is a woman). A disaffected civil servant shows the premature handbook to Stephen, who leaks it to the press. The public scandal barely has time to break before the prime minister sweeps it under the carpet in a voice tremulous with self-righteousness.
The episode has overtones of the Ponting and Westland affairs, both involving leaks by civil servants to the press. Charles Darke, the charming, brilliant, kinky, whiz-kid publisher, bears a piquant resemblance to Geoffrey Archer, the businessman and best-selling mystery writer who had to resign as Conservative party vice-chairman after he was accused of having relations with a prostitute. All this is provocative stuff, but any resemblance one may think one sees between McEwan and Gore Vidal is as irrelevant as it is implausible. McEwan despises politics and brings them in only to trash them; his real concern is metaphysical.
A Child In Time packs several meanings and even puns in its title. Time is what it is about, a time-warp novel beginning with the disappearance of Stephen’s three-year-old daughter in a supermarket. She is never found. The misery and strain of loss break up Stephen’s marriage to Julie. He has a nervous breakdown and recovers. One day on his way to visit Julie, now holed up alone in a country cottage, Stephen passes a pub and feels he has been there before. Through the window he observes a young couple in earnest conversation. He “knows” the woman is his mother, feels “a bitter sense of exclusion and longing,” senses himself turning into an unborn child, wailing to be born.
Later in the novel his mother tells him how, in that pub, years ago, she told her fiancé (Stephen’s father) that she was pregnant. They were discussing abortion when she saw a child’s face outside the window: “It had a kind of pleading look.” She knew it was her own child—Stephen. She decided against abortion. The reader also feels he has been here before. He’s listening to an archetypal ghost story, pressed into the service of the anti-abortion lobby and supported by disquisitions on Einstein and the quantum theory.
These disquisitions are delivered from time to time by Charles Darke’s wife, Thelma, who conveniently happens to be a physicist. Charles has been Stephen’s publisher and friend: the Darkes looked after him during his breakdown. With Charles’s entry into politics they drift out of his orbit. Later on, Charles also has a breakdown, brought on by guilt about colluding with the PM. It takes the form of childish regression: he puts on schoolboy shorts and spends his days playing in a tree house. “He wanted,” Thelma explains, “to escape from time…. Childhood to him was timelessness.” Here it helps to refer to the title, and also to McEwan’s most appealing and successful novel, The Cement Garden, in which a family of orphaned children manage to escape from time for the length of a summer—until the police arrive to exhume their mother, whom they have buried in a pile of cement.
She died a natural death. Charles Darke commits suicide (his name is presumably another pun). Thelma does not mind too much, but concentrates on enlightening Stephen. She directs him to return to Julie. He sets off through the snow, passes the time-warp pub, and arrives just in time to deliver (the midwife hasn’t made it) the child he unknowingly fathered on his last visit. The birth is described as a moment of timeless ecstasy for both parents.
A Child in Time is rather a silly novel. It can take a while to notice this because its brilliance and extraordinary intensity have a hypnotic effect. Like Ernst and Magritte, McEwen has the Surrealist knack of making the world gleam with a light that never was on land or sea. He can also be extremely funny. He used to go in for being extremely disgusting, but here even the final delivery is fairly free from mess. What is hard to take this time is the corn: but that too can be read as an act of bravado, of aesthetic defiance.
February 4, 1988