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Ian McEwan claimed in 1978 that the ‘artifice of fiction can be taken for granted’, implying that the avant-garde experimentalism of the postwar era had run its course and that, going forward, writers ought not to fall into the trap of producing ‘self-enclosed “fictions”’ about the nature of fictionality. This chapter examines the ways in which this early stance changed quite considerably over time, as McEwan evolved into a socially engaged novelist of ideas who also uses fiction to deliberate in explicitly self-conscious terms on the history and ethical valences of literary form. Realism and innovation have never been opposed in his work, just as his fiction has inhabited only to refurbish numerous genre models – among them, espionage, the psychological thriller, period romance and topical satire. Lodestones for this chapter will include The Child in Time, Atonement, Saturday and Nutshell.
This chapter offers a detailed reading of McEwan’s 2012 novel Sweet Tooth as a highly self-conscious and allusive literary spy thriller of the Cold War era, one which invites a renewed attention to the Cold War themes, ideas and literary strategies which have been important in his work since the late 1970s in which the novel is set. These flourished especially in the two novels written around the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Innocent and Black Dogs which also receive extended treatment here. In McEwan’s reworking of the Cold War spy thriller as postmodern literary fiction we find, it is argued, a recurrent fascination with misunderstandings and readjustments in emotional and political relations between the sexes as an analogy for Cold War politics and vice versa. Added to this McEwan increasingly packs his fictions with informed literary debate that constitute a profound exploration of literary genres and of the complex relationship between author and reader.
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