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This chapter provides an overview of the novel of ideas that contrasts the form with Henry James’s modernist conception of the art novel. Ian McEwan writes exemplary novels of ideas insofar as his works incorporate political, philosophical and above all scientific ideas even as they develop formal, stylistic and aesthetic complexity. After discussing Or Shall We Die? and The Ploughman’s Lunch, the chapter examines four novels: Black Dogs, Enduring Love, Saturday and particularly The Child in Time. McEwan’s novels of ideas consistently explore and demonstrate unexpected capabilities of the genre. They unfold the drama and texture of their ideational content, from the level of plot device and set piece down to that of lexical units. Ideas animate but never overwhelm aesthetics. McEwan’s novels of ideas explore the capacities and capabilities of scientific inquiry and literary representation even as they ultimately reveal the limits of both.
The interplay of the personal and the social is discussed with regard to McEwan’s output as a whole, but with particular reference to some of its more marginal texts, such as Amsterdam. Much of McEwan’s writing has rightly been seen as focused on public issues. For example, Amsterdam is a social satire; the oratorio text Or Shall We Die? aims to influence public debate about nuclear weapons. However, McEwan is also a chronicler of the personal and physical. For example, The Ploughman’s Lunch is about personal corruption as well as national mendacity. Indeed, throughout McEwan’s work, the personal and the public interweave. Interpersonal relations are also central to McEwan’s work. A typology of such relations is suggested based on closeness and disjunction, concealment and intrusion. Examples are drawn from a wide range of McEwan’s work. The motif of transvestism is given prominence.
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