Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Banality of Morality Well-Crafted Sentences Aren't Enough to Save Ian Mcewan's Novel

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Banality of Morality Well-Crafted Sentences Aren't Enough to Save Ian Mcewan's Novel

Article excerpt

"THE CHILDREN ACT" by Ian McEwan

By Ian McEwan.

Nan A. Talese ($25).

Why did Ian McEwan write "The Children Act"? An odd question, maybe. Why does anyone write anything, especially fiction? And yet, unlike the great books, or even just the very entertaining ones, this novel has a certain quality of the school essay or the magazine assignment. It seems as if it were written in response to a prompt, and that makes it very bizarre.

Mr. McEwan is widely considered one of the finest writers of postwar English fiction. I've never been in the camp of his admirers; his work is polished too smoothly, even when it is at its grimmest. It's too imperturbable for my taste.

Nevertheless, no writer can deny that at the level of the sentence and the paragraph, there are few better. Mr. McEwan rarely misplaces a word.

His prose, whether describing a setting or paraphrasing a character's interior state, has that seemingly impossible combination of balance and momentum. It combines quietude and motion, like a perfect vinaigrette in which the oil and vinegar are beat into a smooth emulsion.

Odd, then, that the first writer who came to mind as I read his latest was not some other novelist of exquisite sentences - Andr Aciman in "Call Me By Your Name" or Zadie Smith in "On Beauty" - but rather David Brooks. Yes, the newspaper columnist. Mr. Brooks, a milquetoast conservative opinion writer for The New York Times, is hardly graceful, and he has an undue fondness for pop science, especially pop neuroscience.

In 2011, Mr. Brooks wrote a clunky, semi-novelistic, sort-of nonfiction book called "The Social Animal," in which a pair of fictional characters named Harold and Erica proceeded through a series of life scenarios that bore a remarkable similarity to those of people much like David Brooks - that is to say: rich, successful, and Washingtonian. The book is stuffed with the latest bits of neuro-biology, the sort of thing you'd hear in an interesting three-minute interview on NPR.

Why then did "The Children Act" remind me so much of this seemingly unrelated and unsuccessful experiment in nonfiction fiction? …

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