How much news, how much event glamour, can a novel absorb before it begins to capsize under the weight of its own timeliness? Over the past decade, but especially since the epochal events of 2016, a growing number of writers have been running a sort of stress test on the form, stuffing their books to the point of bursting with headlines, social media posts, and other such glittering ephemera. I am thinking, among others, of Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016), Olivia Laing’s Crudo (2018), Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020), Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (2021)—short, frenetic, highly praised books, from which, it can sometimes seem, almost all the standard novelistic furniture (scene, plot, character) has been removed in order to accommodate the surplus of up-to-the-minute information.
Like Twitter, whose influence is everywhere in these novels, the results can be engaging and often quite funny, at least for a time.1 Crudo, for instance, is set during the manic summer of 2017—the summer of Charlottesville and Grenfell Tower, of the Comey firing and “covfefe”—and it’s impossible to read it without a shock of appalled recognition. As Laing has said, the book was an attempt to capture that season’s feeling of “constant interruption, the sense that every piece of unsettling news was being abruptly overtaken by another, that there were no visible conclusions to the stories, only a proliferation of bad consequences.”
This, in one form or another, is the goal of all rapid-response novels (to give the genre a name). Many of them—Laing’s included—succeed admirably in capturing the contemporary berserk, though the cost, in artistic terms, can be steep. Consider the following passage from Crudo (whose title gestures at the rawness of its material). “She was walking down 1st Avenue when the Comey news broke,” Laing writes of her protagonist, Kathy.
9 May 2017, early evening. Carl texted, Twitter’s ABLAZE gurl. Everyone was saying it was a banana republic, at dinner Jim said what blows my mind is that we’ll be talking about this in years to come, what we were doing, but we’ll know how it panned out. They ate Chicken Zsa Zsa and salad, they ate foie gras, they drank beer and Riesling, they laughed all night, that was the night the President fired the Director of the FBI, they were scared and sick, Jim said he’s taking a giant shit on our nation.
A page of this writing—spare, kinetic, boisterously relentless—may be thrilling, but over the course of an entire novel, even quite a short one, the effect begins to pall, especially in the absence of an organizing principle beyond keeping pace with the headlines.
That is the problem with Laing and the other rapid responders. They seem content merely to replicate the chaos and confusion, the interminable shapelessness, of our news-crazed lives—something readers might reasonably expect a novel to deliver them from. This, of course, is not to say that fiction should be tidy and straightforward, or provide a means of escapism, or shy away from current events. It is simply to echo Henry James’s famous dictum: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.”
In most rapid-response novels, that circle is never drawn. There is simply a quick-fire accretion of harrowing data, together with the breathless, telegraphic commentary it inspires. For all its surface agitation, such fiction is actually founded on a complacent premise: that all that’s needed to achieve profundity is to write down what happens. How this material is shaped and ordered, by what geometry it is finessed into meaning, remains, at best, a secondary concern.
The English writer Ian McEwan has already made several contributions to the rapid-response genre. His last book, The Cockroach (2019), in which an insect awakes one morning to find itself transformed into the prime minister of Britain, was a Swiftian howl of rage against the well-born yahoos behind Brexit. Nutshell (2016), a modern reworking of Hamlet, is narrated by a sentient fetus who delivers precocious geopolitical soliloquies on everything from the Syrian civil war to the fragility of today’s undergraduates. Both books, while hardly formless, felt only incidentally artistic, like the work of an opinion writer (center-left, though increasingly impatient with the “identity” crowd) trapped inside a novelist.
Lessons, McEwan’s latest, may look at first like more of the same. Its protagonist, Roland Baines, is an unfulfilled but not unhappy man who once seemed destined to become a concert pianist but ends up playing standards at a London cocktail lounge. He follows the news obsessively, and much of the book is given over to his musings on world events. The novel’s final pages, which take in Trump’s failed coup and the third British lockdown (January to March 2021), appear to have been written more or less contemporaneously with the events they describe. “By what logic or motivation or helpless surrender did we all, hour by hour, transport ourselves within a generation from the thrill of optimism at Berlin’s falling Wall to the storming of the American Capitol?,” Roland wonders from the isolation of his Finsbury home. Like all of us, he is desperate to find out whether the assault will prove to be “a singular moment of shame to be discussed in wonder for years” or “a portal to a new kind of America, the present administration just an interregnum, a variant of Weimar,” but as a man in his early seventies it seems doubtful he will live to learn the answer. Though each day’s news brings fresh sorrow, the greater sorrow lies “in being removed from the story.”
But Lessons is more than a running commentary on our inflamed present. It is also the story of the postwar world as seen through the eyes of one of its citizens. Like McEwan, Roland is born in Hampshire in the late 1940s but spends much of his childhood in Libya, where his father, a major in the British army, is stationed. At the age of eleven, he returns to England to attend a progressive boarding school (modeled on Woolverstone Hall in Suffolk, McEwan’s alma mater), where he is groomed and sexually abused by his piano teacher, a woman in her mid-twenties named Miriam Cornell. This didn’t happen to McEwan, we’re told in the book’s acknowledgments, and henceforth Roland’s life begins to diverge from that of his creator in obvious ways.
Instead of becoming Britain’s most successful literary novelist, he leaves school at sixteen, neglects the piano, and drifts from one low-paying job to another: manual laborer, tennis instructor, freelance journalist. In his mid-thirties, he falls in love with a German woman, Alissa Eberhardt. They get married and have a baby, but just as it seems some stability has entered Roland’s life, Alissa runs off to pursue her artistic dreams, leaving him to raise the child alone.
Roland’s personal crises have a way of coinciding with crises in the world at large. The book opens in April 1986, in the days after Alissa’s disappearance. Beleaguered by the stress of solo parenting, Roland has been purposefully avoiding the news. “Manage the fatigue and care for the essentials: the baby, the house, the shopping,” he tells himself. But the news seeps in anyway. “The kitchen radio, which was on low all day, sometimes used a quiet voice of virile urgency to woo him back.” One morning, it carries word of an explosion in Soviet Ukraine. Roland tries to ignore it, but later that day, while running errands with Lawrence, his seven-month-old son, he inadvertently spots a newspaper headline: “Radiation cloud reaches Britain.”
What’s unfolding, of course, is the Chernobyl disaster, and it’s a testament to McEwan’s gifts that he can render Roland’s response to it with the same phenomenological precision he brings to the events of last year:
While he waited by the till for the flowers to be wrapped he wondered how it was possible to know something, if only in vaguest terms, and at the same time deny it, refuse it, steer round it, then experience the luxury of shock at the moment of revelation.
That word “luxury” is well chosen, suggesting, as it does, the way many of us are half in love with the reports of suffering and death that we consume each morning over breakfast.
Roland has trouble maintaining his detachment, however. Reading the paper in the park, while Lawrence naps beside him in his stroller, he is infected by the growing contagion of dread that surrounds him:
Across the broad asphalt path that cut through the park, on a bench like his, a woman was reading a more popular paper. Roland had a view of the headline. “Meltdown!” The entire story, the accumulated details, were beginning to nauseate him. Like eating too much cake. Radiation sickness. Two women, each pushing an old-fashioned well-sprung pram, walked past. He heard one of them use the word “emergency.” There was a general light-headed sensation that came from there being only one subject.
Such passages (and there are many of them throughout the book) provide something lacking in most rapid-response novels: a sense of perspective. The everything-all-of-the-time quality of today’s online news coverage (“Twitter’s ABLAZE gurl”) can lead us into thinking we live in unprecedentedly awful times. Without downplaying the nightmare that is our current political situation, McEwan exposes this attitude as a form of historical narcissism. Far from being exceptional, the sense of looming annihilation, of going about our daily business on the edge of an abyss, has been the norm for quite some time.
Even as he is borne ceaselessly into the future—from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the Twin Towers and beyond—Roland never stops looking back, mostly in anger. As you might expect, he is especially fixated on the years he spent under the domineering influence of Mrs. Cornell. Their encounter, told in a series of flashbacks, begins when Roland is eleven and newly arrived at boarding school. Mrs. Cornell, a real drill sergeant, thwacks him with a ruler for bungling a piece of Bach. When he perfects the same piece a week later, she responds by kissing him square on the lips. Then she instructs him to visit her at home during an upcoming school holiday. Roland, baffled by the request, doesn’t show up, but a seed has been planted in his mind.
It bears fruit three years later, in October 1962, when news of a nuclear standoff in the Caribbean has Roland anxiously contemplating his mortality. One thought haunts him above all: that the world may end before he’s had sex. On an impulse, he rides his bike to Mrs. Cornell’s cottage. When he shows up on her doorstep, she invites him in as if no time has passed. They play a duet together on the piano (Roland has been taking lessons with another teacher), then she leads him upstairs.
The scene that follows is an excruciating parody of eroticism, though for the adolescent Roland, who knows no better, it is also just what he’s here for. “Get undressed for me,” Mrs. Cornell tells him, and he duly obeys:
The old oak floorboards creaked under him when he stood on one leg to pull off his trousers. Tapered by his mother to keep him in fashion, they were tight over the heels. He was in good shape, he thought, and not afraid to stand exposed in front of Miriam Cornell.
But she said sharply, “All of it.”
So he pulled down his underpants and stepped out of them.
“That’s better. Lovely, Roland. And look at you.”
As well as the patent creepiness of Miriam’s pseudo-maternal commands, there is also a tender comedy to this writing (the tapered trousers, the creaking floorboard), which draws out Roland’s boyish innocence at the very moment it’s about to be lost.
True to form, McEwan gives us a blow-by-blow account of what follows, from some initial technical difficulties to the metaphysical swoon of consummation:
Suddenly she pushed the bed covers away and rolled on top of him, sat up—and it was complete, accomplished. So simple. Like some trick with a vanishing knot in a length of soft rope. He lay back in sensual wonder, reaching for her hands, unable to speak. Probably only minutes passed. It seemed as if he had been shown a hidden fold in space where there was a catch, a fastener, and that as he released it and peeled away the illusory everyday he saw what had always been there.
Is this sexual abuse? Wasn’t he the one who came calling for her? It’s a long time before Roland is able to think the matter through with any clarity. In the meantime, he’s all too happy to remain his teacher’s erotic pet, the occasional spell of cognitive dissonance notwithstanding. Under her stern tutelage, his musical gift is nurtured, his every carnal impulse gratified. She looks after him so well, in fact, that it takes Roland two whole years to understand the relationship is actually a hostage situation.
Sexual intercourse, we know, began in 1963—a bit late for Philip Larkin (1922–1985) as well as for the virginal couple at the center of McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach (2007), whose wedding night, the year before, goes about as well as the launch of the Challenger space shuttle. The scene in which the erotic disaster unfolds forms a sort of diptych with the deflowering scene in Lessons. (“Two Portraits of Sex,” it might be called, to borrow once again from Larkin, a presiding figure in McEwan’s work.) Both have life-altering consequences, though the way McEwan narrates these consequences in each book is strikingly different. In the novella, the rest of the groom’s life, from early adulthood to late middle age, is relayed in a few heartrendingly swift pages. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speed at which it all goes by underscores McEwan’s interpretation of his material—that all that came after (the second failed marriage, the underwhelming career, the abiding sense of waste and regret) was determined on that fateful wedding night.
In Lessons, by contrast, the lifelong aftermath of Roland’s sexual trauma is given room to breathe. We see the legacy of the Cornell affair in his later relationships with women, which tend to be thwarted by his unreasonable, if subconscious, expectations of round-the-clock attention and care. We see it in his passivity, his pursuit of instant gratification over long-term goals, his inability to commit to a single vocation. When we first meet him, Roland is trying to become a poet. A few chapters later, this ambition has been quietly dropped, though he has landed a lucrative job selecting poetic quotations for a greeting card company. That’s the kind of life he has, and the kind of bathos McEwan subjects him to. It’s Alissa, his first wife, who goes on to have the successful literary career. Roland’s oeuvre consists of a handful of published poems, a drawerful of freelance articles, and a meticulously kept diary, running to forty volumes, which he ends up burning for fear his son might read it after he’s gone.
Such a person, you feel, would be entitled to a degree of resentment—at the world in general and at his old piano teacher in particular. Certainly Roland is not without bitterness, but he also retains a considerable capacity for joy. Like Updike’s Rabbit novels or Bellow’s Herzog, for which McEwan has made no secret of his admiration, Lessons is a litany of suffering and grievance that secretly doubles as an ode to life. Seeing his adult son and daughter-in-law for the first time since the start of the pandemic, the elderly Roland is overcome by a sense of baffled euphoria:
The three spoke and listened easily, intimately. It often happened like this, Roland thought, the world was wobbling badly on its axis, ruled in too many places by shameless ignorant men, while freedom of expression was in retreat and digital spaces resounded with the shouts of delirious masses. Truth had no consensus…. Parts of the world were burning or drowning. Simultaneously, in the old-fashioned glow of close family, made more radiant by recent deprivation, he experienced happiness that could not be dispelled, even by rehearsing every looming disaster in the world. It made no sense.
The influence of Bellow and Updike is also palpable in the book’s formal design. At nearly 450 pages, Lessons is McEwan’s longest novel by some distance. It is also his loosest and baggiest. This is no bad thing. Formal control has been McEwan’s greatest strength as a writer as well as his greatest weakness. He works his effects—of suspense, disquiet, or out-and-out horror—with a precision few contemporary novelists can hope to emulate. At the same time, that precision can sometimes come to feel airless and oppressive. Reading his novels, we feel we are in safe hands—until the moment, usually around the two-thirds mark, when those hands begin to smother us. There are too many coincidences, too many twists, too many cute thematic callbacks.
This weakness has a lot to do with the way McEwan builds his books around dramatic turning points, like the supermarket abduction in The Child in Time (1987), the ballooning accident in Enduring Love (1998), or indeed the wedding night in On Chesil Beach. Thrilling in themselves, and rightly celebrated, these scenes are often loaded with a weight of significance they struggle to sustain. For real lives never turn so legibly or decisively on a single incident, as McEwan himself well knows. “Turning-points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by, a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth,” says the narrator of Black Dogs (1992), disclaimingly, of the existential fulcrum—an attack on a young woman by a pair of mastiffs—that nonetheless structures the book.
It’s only since Atonement (2001), and then only sporadically, that McEwan has done more than just acknowledge this artifice. Saturday (2005) and Solar (2010) were clearly attempts to slough off the constraints of well-made English fiction and channel what McEwan has called the “ambition and power and barely concealed craziness” of the mid-twentieth-century American novel. Both books put the moment-by-moment workings of consciousness (as opposed to the workings of plot) front and center, with some exquisite results, though both are marred by preposterous third-act set pieces.
Lessons is something different again. Though the Cornell affair is recognizably a trademark McEwan turning point, it plays out over hundreds of pages rather than in a single bravura sequence. The novel shows how Roland has been damaged, but it also persuasively suggests the damage may be more ambiguous, less decisive, than the traumas visited on earlier McEwan protagonists. “He was the stooge of current orthodoxies,” Roland thinks, self-accusingly, when he catches himself, in his mid-fifties, contemplating his past in terms of standard-issue victimhood rhetoric. “His life had been altered. Some would say ruined. But was it really? She had given him joy.” He has trouble working up the anger he feels he ought to harbor for Cornell. He can’t even say for sure he wishes the affair had never happened. Then again, perhaps this is “the nature of the harm”—to have robbed him of the ability to imagine himself otherwise.
To write a novel about a man who is serially victimized by women (Roland’s first significant relationship after Alissa disappears also ends with his girlfriend walking out on him, though they end up marrying years later) may seem like a curious choice, especially in 2022, five years after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein unleashed a torrent of news stories about women who’d been victimized by men. It’s also striking, in a book so filled with headlines, that none of these stories warrants a mention. Wouldn’t you expect a person with Roland’s past to have some fairly strong feelings on the subject? Given McEwan’s public comments—in 2018, he said that while Weinstein seemed like a “moral monster,” he would retain “a degree of skepticism” about the accusations until they were heard in court—it may be tempting to read Lessons as a veiled critique of Me Too orthodoxy. Roland grapples with the notion that there is something cowardly or dishonest about laying all his troubles at the door of Miriam Cornell. Are we supposed to infer that women who blame their failures entirely on an abuser, or on the patriarchy at large, are being similarly evasive? Or that identifying as a victim can be harmful and infantilizing?
It’s possible, though it seems unlike McEwan to encode this sort of button-pushing commentary when elsewhere he’s been more than happy delivering it straight up. (“If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black. And vice versa,” says Nutshell’s fetal narrator in a painfully unfunny riff on the excesses of campus identity politics. “Away with the real, with dull facts and hated pretence of objectivity. Feeling is queen. Unless she identifies as king.”) There is also the relevant context of McEwan’s previous work, which is hardly lacking in repulsive male abusers. In The Comfort of Strangers (1981), the author draws a direct connection between the villain’s strident misogyny (“These are women who cannot find a man,” he says of contemporary feminists. “They want to destroy everything that is good between men and women”) and the terrifying violence he inflicts on the central couple. Unlike some of his male peers, McEwan has also written several nuanced, sympathetic female leads: Briony and Cecilia Tallis in Atonement, Florence Ponting in On Chesil Beach, Serena Frome in Sweet Tooth (2012), Fiona Maye in The Children Act (2014). In this light, Roland’s relationship with Miriam looks less like a tendentious departure from social reality than an act of authorial self-revision. Like any late-career novelist, McEwan is shuffling the same old themes in a search for new configurations.
If McEwan’s characters have tended to be overdetermined in the primary sense of the word (i.e., excessively determined), Roland is so in the secondary sense: he’s determined by an abundance of factors, from his childhood in North Africa to his first marriage, to say nothing of the world-historical events that punctuate the novel like celebrity cameos. McEwan can sometimes belabor the connections between public and private drama, but he is more restrained when it comes to the connections between Roland’s past and present. To describe Roland as “free” might be going too far, since no fictional character is really free, but he never feels as though he’s trapped inside an Ian McEwan novel.
Because Roland is less at the mercy of his past than many of his predecessors, it follows that he bears a greater responsibility for who he has become. This is something he’s tortured by—when he can stand to think about it at all. Yes, he had the misfortune to have crossed paths with Miriam Cornell, but he also had the great “historical luck” to have been born after World War II, on the right side of the East–West conflict, at a time of rising prosperity and personal freedom. If he’s wasted his life, as he sometimes feels he has, can he really pin the blame on someone else?
Alissa doesn’t think so. When, late in the novel, Roland sees her for the first time in decades, she says that one of the reasons she went AWOL was his “oh-so-cultivated version” of what he might have been. “That refined sense of failure and self-pity for what life had stolen from you. The concert pianist, the poet, the Wimbledon champ. Those three heroes out of your reach took up a lot of room in a small house.” The novel’s verdict on Roland may be a touch more generous than this (Alissa also says he was the love of her life), but it judges him all the same.
McEwan’s rejection, or partial revision, of his deterministic view of human character comes with a political corollary. Roland is an avid consumer of the news, but what does he do about any of it? The answer is not nothing. In the 1970s he befriends a couple in East Berlin (his girlfriend at the time has a diplomatic pass) to whom he smuggles banned books and records through Checkpoint Charlie. When they are arrested for a subversive remark, he tries to intervene on their behalf, though to little effect. Back home, he does some pamphleting for Labour but is generally less engaged. Later on, when he looks around him at the world his grandchildren will inherit, he is haunted by a sense of squandered opportunity, though (as in his private life) he finds a measure of bleak consolation in the idea that there is nothing he can do about it: “Who cared what an obscure Mr. Baines of Lloyd Square thought about the future of the open society or the planet’s fate? He was powerless.”
How did we get from November 9, 1989, to January 6, 2021? McEwan never answers the question explicitly, but he seems to imply that a complacent liberal optimism (“the end of history,” etc.) didn’t help. Roland partakes of this mood in the early 1990s, a time when it was hard not to believe that “Europe had found a permanent peace” and formerly oppressed nations were “tumbling into a condition of openness and future prosperity.”
The feeling of political impotence that overtakes him years later is the natural consequence of this blind faith in historical progress. Both attitudes absolve the ordinary citizen of responsibility. It’s almost as though the end of the cold war was taken by many as a sort of McEwanesque turning point on a global scale, a moment that would determine all subsequent events. Now, at last, people like Roland are waking up to the reality that Western triumphalism was as blinkered and wrongheaded as the Communist teleology it derided with such glee.2
Because of its formal fragmentation and ultra-contemporary subject matter, the rapid-response novel carries an aura of modernist innovation. Life itself has grown more manic and fractured (the implicit argument of these books seems to run), and novels ought to reflect this. Looked at another way, however, the genre could be seen as a capitulation. Working from the premise that readers today, conditioned by social media, have trouble focusing on anything for longer than thirty seconds at a time, the rapid-response novelist decides to cater to their ravaged attention spans by writing brief, topical books comprised of tweet-like fragments generously set off by quantities of white space.
In its commitment to deep characterization and long-haul noticing, Lessons makes an implicit argument of its own—that these are what the novel thrives on and cannot do without. To be sure, it is not a mold-breaking book. It doesn’t forge a new path for the novel or place significant demands on the reader. Nor is it without imperfections. For pages at a time, the prose is merely serviceable, apparently written in haste. It is also overlong and occasionally relies for its cohesion on some dubious plotting.
What makes it better than the other rapid-response novels it superficially resembles, in spite of these flaws, is that it is built to withstand the informational onslaught of the news. Roland’s inner life is as dense and vivid as the outer life bearing down on him. In contrast to the thinly drawn characters who populate the work of Laing et al., he isn’t buried beneath the weight of current events. Even if it’s clear that McEwan doesn’t disapprove of some of his opinions, he is no mouthpiece. He is a fully rendered human individual, and in the book’s final third his sense of how his life is “pouring away from him” into nothingness is evoked with a moving immediacy.
Near the end, as he approaches Alissa’s house for their final meeting, Roland feels their whole relationship welling up inside him, even as it remains painfully beyond words:
There was that essence everyone forgets when a love recedes into the past—how it was, how it felt and tasted to be together through seconds, minutes and days, before everything that was taken for granted was discarded then overwritten by the tale of how it all ended, and then by the shaming inadequacies of memory. Paradise or the inferno, no one remembers anything much. Affairs and marriages ended long ago come to resemble postcards from the past.
What is lost to Roland—the very sense of what his existence has been like—is lovingly captured and preserved by McEwan. Lessons gives us the “elusive self,” the seconds, minutes, and days of a life, as well as the weeks, months, and years, both the moment as it flies and the longue durée. That’s to say, it’s a novel, quite a good novel, and not just a postcard from the present.