How much control do artists have over their work? Are they like, Yen Sid, conjuring miracles with a master’s hand? Or are they like Mickey Mouse, magic erupting haphazardly from their wands, praying everything goes right?
Basically, when this book goes off the rails, was it an accident or was it Ian McEwan’s plan from the start?
The beginning is compelling. It’s the 1950s, and a British electrical engineer is flown out to help a covert American spy operation in West Berlin. Russian communications all pass through the city before being routed back out to the Kremlin. It’s thought that by digging a tunnel into East Berlin and installing monitoring equipment there, US and British intelligence can obtain an electronic peephole through the Iron Curtain.
He’s young and naive. The Americans don’t trust him. McEwan weaves fictional and nonfictional elements together, and soon he has the makings of a promising spy novel. But soon, he meets a German woman, and some “horizontal collaboration” occurs. She’s already married, to a semi-vagrant all-alcoholic who beats her. Probably par for the course when a woman burns a steak in the 1950s, of course, but since Maria doesn’t cook steak I guess the beatings are on the house. One day, this husband discovers the affair, and all hell breaks loose.
I don’t know what to say about the book’s romance elements. Midway through it almost forgets about the compelling spy background and just focuses on Maria and Leonard’s assignations full time. They’re long, not super interesting next to the spying, and it’s disheartening to see the book’s remaining pages get relentlessly pared away by this stuff.
I’ve never liked an overemphasis on romance in art. People find it fascinating for some reason, maybe because they’ve had more experience at it than me, and they’re able to color the fictional descriptions with their own memories. To me, the coloring book remains closed. The experience of love is essentially an emotional common cold: you have it, then eventually you don’t. It’s a mundane thing that happens to thousands of people every day. Who cares? Digging underneath the Berlin Wall to intercept Kremlin communiques – now that’s what I want to hear about.
The book eventually shows its colours as a meditation on innocence. Even this comes off as unsatisfying, as the story’s backdrop is too huge and interesting for a low-key bildungsroman to work. The war is growing colder. Stormclouds gather. Friends sharpen knives for each other. Against all this, you’ve got a guy learning to have sex? That’s the sort of thing that gets made fun of on the @GuyInYourMFA twitter account. “My protagonist is only referred to as ‘the boy.’ On the final page? ‘The man.'”
But everything except the foreground elements are really well done. Why couldn’t McEwan have focused more on the things that were working, instead of forcing in something that fundamentally doesn’t?
I guess the romance actually was the main point of the book, and the spy context is just a backdrop. That makes The Innocent the most disappointing kind of presents: the one where the packaging is more interesting than the contents.