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Thread: The Innocent by Ian McEwan

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    The Innocent by Ian McEwan

    The Innocent by Ian McEwan:
    A Review by Pompey Bum

    Years ago I read a piece by a forgotten satirist who was imagining titles for sequels to Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. The Dumbbell. The Nincompoop. The Big Dope. You get the idea. I hadn't thought about the article in years--probably not since reading it--but it recently returned full blown as I my exhausted my vocabulary excoriating Leonard Marnham, the protagonist of Ian McEwan's Cold War novel, The Innocent.

    McEwan, now a grey-haired scion of English letters, was once a literary bad boy notorious for stories about incest, sadomasochism, and bestiality among other over-the-top subjects. "Ian Macabre" he was dubbed, although his talents were not seriously doubted. McEwan became more acceptable with his later masterpiece Atonement and other less outré works. The Innocent is a middle period novel. It aspires to a mature sense of humanity but it is far from free of the machinations of Ian Macabre. This combination proves to be the novel's undoing. The Innocent is neither as shocking as it thinks it is nor as compassionate as it should be.

    One's first impression is that McEwan is trying to channel Joseph Conrad--not Conrad of the vast, uncaring sea but of the claustrophobic deck and distrustful crew. Leonard Marnahm, a 25-year-old electrical technician, unworldly and politely English, arrives in 1955 Berlin on a job for British military intelligence. But pushy American allies coopt Leonard's mission from the start, and he soon finds himself working for a blunt and rather uncouth American named Glass. Leonard is to function as a low-level technical assistant in a British-American project to tunnel under the Russian embassy and wiretap East German communications with Moscow. The Berlin Tunnel is an historical detail and at least two characters in the novel are also historical.

    One of the novel's strengths is the believability with which it reproduces the universe of military engineering. This is a kind of kind of alternate reality with its own rules. Men ignore or even snub one another unless they have a specific shared technical purpose. If they do, an impersonal sort of camaraderie is possible. The defeated Germans (now laborers and machine operators), though not peers, are treated with polite indifference toward any wartime activity. They are universally addressed as Fritz. Low-ranking American military sentries are unfailingly cheerful. They have no idea what they are guarding. Rules rules rules for men men men. The physicality and secrecy of the tunnel make it a world unto itself. Here men go about there business as men.

    But men love tribes and tribes don't always trust one another. Soon a high-level member of British intelligence, McNamee, pulls Leonard aside and tells him that the Americans are keeping the real intelligence to themselves. Leonard's compatriot is a rather disarming figure, perhaps a retired academic. He is not at all the energetic military type characteristic of American Intelligence. He should be comforting figure, but his teeth are strangely deformed, suggesting something repulsive beneath the homely weeds. Leonard is awkward with him. Without really knowing what he's doing, he agrees to keep an eye on Glass--effectively to spy on him.

    The Innocent would have been a better novel if McEwan had stuck with this premise and let issues of loyalty and paranoia play out against the backdrop of a smashed Berlin. Instead, Leonard takes a German lover, Maria, a divorcee with a scary ex-husband, and the rest of the story is effectively theirs. The ruined city is still there, and a restless sense of violence, but the novel's focus becomes intimate rather than political. McEwan doubtlessly intended the affair to be a microcosm of the times, but the change actually goes a way toward divesting the story of its historical context. Shocking violence can occur anywhere. So can fear and paranoia. So can love. There's nothing especially Cold War about it.

    One beneficiary of the new arrangement is Glass, who becomes less an anti-American stereotype and more a random factor in Leonard and Maria's love affair. He is more than a formulaic expression of British frustration over loss of power in the postwar world. Indeed, he becomes one of the novel's more memorable characters--his true nature not revealed until its final pages. A less subtle American spook must have been a political temptation, and it is to McEwan's credit that he resisted what many of his readers probably expected. It is not an author's job to tell readers what they think they already know--not an author as good as this one.

    Not that McEwan doesn't have an occasional awkward moment with the Yanks. His Americans talk about aerials on occasion, they say things like "in future" or drink from tea cups when they don't absolutely have to. The best is when a baseball-playing American guard hits a "long ball" into East Germany. McEwan knew what he wanted to say, but he seems not to have heard of a fly ball, so he borrowed a term from association football (soccer). He should fire his editor.

    As characters, Maria and Leonard do worse for their tryst. Maria has survived a Nazi youth, the allied bombings, and the brutal fall of Berlin to the Red Army. She lives in an unheated tenement that Raskolnikov would have abandoned. Though it makes for an icy love nest, Maria manages to introduce her shy Englishman to the delights of sex in one of the novel's sweeter sections (perhaps its only one). But bitterness follows soon enough, and its harbinger, in an unsettling wobble of character, is Leonard. During lovemaking, he begins to fantasize about dominating Maria as a defeated German enemy. This leads to increasingly rough sex and (unbeknownst to Maria) graphic rape fantasies. Eventually he convinces himself that Maria would welcome something like an unannounced rape in role play. But to his (overwhelmingly stupid) surprise, she throws him out of her flat and breaks off their relationship as soon as he gives it a try. Idiot.

    At this point, I almost stopped reading. Leonard had already shown himself to be a fool in his dealings with Glass and McNamee. Now he turned out to be a violent creeper as well. Who cared how the rest of his story went? The hell with him. Maria disappeared for a time so her story was not necessarily even continuing. The tunnel kept going, but I already knew how that ended from history. Did I really need to finish this book?

    So was this all a blunder on McEwans part? Well, not exactly. It seems more like a calculated risk. The (supposed) malignancy of innocence--its capacity to destroy the good--is one of McEwan's favorite themes. In Atonement, a creative little girl wrecks a promising life with a fanciful rape accusation; in The Cement Garden, a group of orphaned siblings regress to a perverse, incestuous version of childhod. That novel (his first) was praised for its unsparing realism but criticized because no character in it was likable. In The Innocent, McEwan is again gambling that shocking realism will trump reader sympathy. Ian Macabre was still skulking about.

    But this time McEwan loses his bet. How is it realistic is it that a shy virgin like Leonard harbors an inner rapist? On the surface, it seems an unforgivable lapse in characterization. Leonard? Perhaps he was succumbing to a pernicious (and toxic) masculine culture emanating from the Berlin Tunnel--which was, after all, an illicit penetration of sovereign territory. For all Leonard's meekness, he was never repelled by what he found there. For him, the tunnel "was a toytown, packed with boyish invention." It brought back forts he had made as a child and his miniature train set with its passages through false hills. After his break with Maria, it was only the tunnel that brought him solace. There his desires were not abhorrent.

    This might have succeeded, although it requires an unusually dark view of male camaraderie. But Leonard has not merely signed onto the manly crew. He is accessing something ugly deep inside himself, a kind of inner beast that is calling the shots with Maria. Leonard's pleasure at seeing the defeated Germans began as soon as he had arrived in Berlin--before he had even heard of the tunnel. Those memories return to him during intercourse as he experiences his domination fantasies. His aggression "was an element of mind creeping in, of bits of himself, bits he did not really like". They were "thoughts that he was powerless to send away when he was making love. They soon grew inseparable from his desire...and he knew he could not resist them." Like a masturbating child, perhaps, he emerges from each encounter with a sense of embarrassed guilt, "But next time around the thoughts returned. They were irresistibly exciting, and he was helpless before their elaborations."

    This is not culture but biology. Leonard's rape fantasies are so out of character that they can only be explained by the physical fact of his maleness--an idea I regard as repugnant. That said, McEwan is not inventing from whole cloth. The high prevalence of combat rape (it turns out to be extremely common) is something of a psychological mystery. Rape is an act of violence, of course, but doesn't a would-be rapist have more urgent priorities during combat? Harvard and Oxford professor Niall Furguson has suggested that combat rape may have an evolutionary basis--that hominid bands ensured the spread of their/our genes not just by killing males in rival bands but by forcibly impregnating their females. There is, of course, no way to know this for sure (and Furguson is an economic historian not an evolutionary biologist or a criminal psychologist). Still it is a troubling thing to consider.

    But in Leonard's case, biological determinism is unconvincing. He was not a Bolshevik soldier storming Berlin but a socially awkward former virgin flush with his first sexual love affair. He would have been more tempted to boast to the boys (as he did, a little belatedly, to Glass) than to want to rape his willing instructor. Leonard as a violent creep is not just a bridge to far: it is an irreparable flaw in his characterization. This is a major failing of The Innocent and grows worse as the novel progresses.

    Maria does not fare much better in the orgy of collective/biological identity. She seeks out Leonard and resumes their sexual relationship once she feels he has sufficiently abased himself. Later, she says that what she really wants is for Leonard and her ex-husband to physically battle over her. That this is inconsistent with Maria's intelligent and humane character does not bother McEwan. Once more, his priority seems to be the supposed realism of collective identity (here, what women are really like). The result is just as bogus with Maria as it was with Leonard.

    The Innocent now devolves into a Dawn of the Dead level of gruesomeness. To give McEwan his due (perhaps), the goriest sequence, which involves the mutilation of a corpse, may have a symbolic significance (since the defeated Berlin is being carved up by the armies that brought it down). But the episode is too long and more of a big gross out than actually horrific. It is like a sex scene with too much information. Yes, yes, I found myself saying, I know what that part of a body looks like. Can we move on, please? But no, we can't. It was a late, puerile tantrum of Ian Macabre. The Innocent would have been a better novel if McEwan had left him home with a sitter.

    The rest of the novel is like one of those Alfred Hitchcock films in which a desperate protagonist makes a series of stupid decisions that only worsen things. Dumbbell. Nincompoop. I will not address these out of concern for spoilers except to observe that the correct course of action was obvious and available from the start. Leonard's failure to follow it was hardly believable. The big dope.

    The final chapter of the novel is a kind of epilogue centered on a letter Maria writes Leonard in 1989. Several secrets are revealed and a modicum of compassion is introduced into this ugly story, although Maria repeats her assertion men should fight over women (albeit in a less violent context than before). This postscript is moving in its own way, but it lacks some impact due to a nagging suspicion (for me anyway) that Maria and Leonard never actually loved one another. The novel's resolution (which I will not reveal) is therefore less than convincing.

    I recommend The Innocent to adults who already like McEwan's early stories and novels. Those interested in psychology, military engineering, or the history of the Berlin Tunnel project may also want to give it a chance (assuming they have strong stomachs). I would not recommend it to those looking for John LeCarre-type espionage fiction, stylish Cold War noir (trench coats, attaché cases, that sort of thing) or anything else from the traditional spy genre. The Innocent is a different sort of animal.

    For all its flaws, The Innocent is not without its haunting moments. It was written in the final days of the Iron Curtain when the dead seemed at last to be burying the dead. Leonard reads Maria's letter by the abandoned ruins of the Berlin Tunnel. In 1989, even the lethal folly of men seemed to have found its grave.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 07-13-2018 at 01:10 PM.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    TheFairyDogMother kiz_paws's Avatar
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    Wow... what an excellent review.
    I had thoroughly enjoyed his Atonement. Think I will give this novel a go.
    Thanks for writing this up, PB!
    Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty
    ~Albert Einstein

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    I read that one a long time ago. I am quite impressed with McEwan's ability to write about engineering, although that's a red herring in this book.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kiz_paws View Post
    Wow... what an excellent review.
    I had thoroughly enjoyed his Atonement. Think I will give this novel a go.
    Thanks for writing this up, PB!
    Thanks, Kiz. I'd like to change some of it, but the edit function has stubbornly refused to cooperate since I posted it. In any case, if you want to read this one, go in with your eyes open. Parts of it are really gory, so just be sure that's what you want.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I read that one a long time ago. I am quite impressed with McEwan's ability to write about engineering, although that's a red herring in this book.
    Yes, I found McEwan's intricate and apparently authentic descriptions of military engineering fascinating. There seemed to be a self-contained worldview in it--a little like Melville's descriptions of blubber rendering. They are things I wouldn't have otherwise known about in any case.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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