Macabre is defined as disturbing andhorrifying because of involvement with or depiction of death and injury. Anadjective, of which, many believe to be rightfully associated with the Britishauthor Ian McEwan because of his rather dark themes and blunt social criticismthroughout his literary works, Atonementand Amsterdam, among many othertitles; earning him the nickname of “IanMacabre”.
After a career of writing spanning over thirty years, publishingshort stories, screenplays, operas, novels, and more, Ian McEwan is widelyknown as one of Britain’s most important and honored writers. Many of his worksthen have been adapted into feature films and have earned various prestigiousawards, making Ian McEwan one of the most consistently productive andcritically appreciated authors among his generation of novelists. Throughout Atonement and Amsterdam, two of his most recent works, Ian McEwan explores howtrauma and secrecy leads to a loss of innocence and corruption through hischaracter development, realistic and secretive writing style, and social commentaryas influenced by his life and the time period in which he was writing. Ian McEwan’s work as an author was greatlyinfluenced by his upbringing. He was born on June 21, 1948 in Aldershot,England, however, never established a stable home or community because ofconstantly traveling abroad from one military base to another. Growing up in amilitary family that had almost no books, McEwan recalls the lack of support hereceived when he found a love for learning, his books and supplies often beingseen as a disruption to the freshly polished tables of the rigid militaryfamily. Although neither of his parents had any literary interests afterdropping out of school when they were fourteen years old, McEwan credits thewriter in him to his mother who “was a great worrier, which requires animagination” (Zalewski). The imagination which soon would become the foundationfor his success as a short story writer (Szalai).
In 2001, Ian McEwan’s Mothersoon began to fall into dementia, prompting Ian McEwan’s attempt atunderstanding his mother’s life and unhappiness. Shortly thereafter, McEwandiscovered he had an older brother through a family tracing service, whichproved his father had committed adultery with another soldier’s wife (“Ian McEwan”). McEwan compared his lifeto a Shakespearean comedy; each discovery entailing a pained recalibration offamily history, tracing back to his parent’s life being tyrannized by a singleact (Wood). By choosing to live abroad, moving from one military base toanother, the McEwan’s, in a sense, were hiding from their past, theiraccidental children, affairs, and sins. Ian McEwan identifies these beginningdiscoveries of his family history to be major turning point in his life, justas many of the characters in his novels hinge on a single transformative event.When McEwan was eleven years old, his parents had decided to send him off to aboarding school in England, which McEwan believes follows his parent’s patternof giving away his older brother, sending away his half siblings, and nowsending him away.
Although leaving his family was difficult, this gave him theopportunity to reinvent himself and find a passion in reading and writing. IanMcEwan’s rather secretive and traumatizing upbringing had a great influence onhis writing style and the themes he focuses on in Amsterdam, Antonement, and many other early works earning him therenowned name of Ian Macabre. IanMcEwan first came to the public’s attention upon his first two publications: First Love, Last Rites, published in1975, and In Between the Sheets,published in 1978. First Love, Last Ritesand In Between the Sheets werepublished books of short stories that combined love, sex, and death instrikingly taboo ways. Many of the stories being identified as “grimlynaturalistic” creating a rather bleak tone (McEwan). In nearly all of hisnovels, short stories, plays, and screenplays, Ian McEwan creates disastersthat are relatable and relevant from ordinary life that often leads hischaracters into extraordinarily trying and difficult situations credited forlife changing trauma — in essence; a plausible horror story. In Atonement, the main character, Briony, isa precocious and naïve girl with a gift for writing who commits the crime ofwrongly implicating an innocent man of raping her cousin, a crime of which shedevotes her entire life repenting.
Similarly, in Amsterdam, the lives of Molly Lane’s lovers; Clive, Vernon, andGarmony, are changed forever after Molly’s death, as they increasingly growjealous and upset resulting in a double homicide. Trauma, in most of IanMcEwan’s works, leads to a loss of innocence, especially focusing on the lossof innocence as characters cross the fine line between childhood and adulthood,as Briony would say: “entering the arena of adult emotion” (Atonement 10). After such extensivetrauma, characters are often left feeling “infinitely diluted,” accustomed to”living with non existence” as though they “had already died” (Amsterdam 32-33). Being so desolate,their actions become corrupt and misguided to achieve fame and fortune ratherthan doing what is right. Rather than respect Garmony, Clive chose to publishMolly’s pictures that would ruin Garmony’s reputation and chance at are-election in attempt to make up for the pain and suffering he felt from losingMolly traumatically. An act of which, would be “betraying Molly” and the”private space between her and Garmony,” but was still justifiable in Clive’sjealous eyes (Amsterdam 81). Ian McEwan’s books seek to not onlycontain and control the traumatic happenings in his stories that often developthe plot and characters, but do so through a highly secretive writing style inan effort to build suspense. Briony, in Ian McEwan’s Atonement often lamented not having secrets of her own, because shebelieved that secrets were the key to having an interesting life, an opinionIan McEwan takes to heart in his writing by embodying a suspenseful tone andsecretive writing style (Atonement 5).
It is evident throughout Ian McEwan’s literary works that he is infatuated withbeing able to withhold narrative information, manipulate secrecy, preciselyreveal surprises, and defer revelations in order to build suspense and keep thereader attentively drawn in to the story. By doing so, the reader feels asthough they are slowly putting together a puzzle or solving a mystery with everyconfession or withheld piece of information being a clue that can lure thereader into believing one thing while secretly preparing another surprise.Vernon’s secret in Amsterdam, forinstance, holds him accountable for the rape and murder of a chain killerbecause of him claiming it was “none of his business,” and would have”destroyed a pivotal moment in his career” (Amsterdam95). Vernon’s secret of which was also responsible for losing his closestfriend, his failure as a composer, and eventually being murdered (Amsterdam 101).
Ian McEwan has admitted that he aims to”incite a naked hunger in readers” through tasteful narrative manipulation andsurprises, leaving his readers often feeling a little guilty by “being exiledfrom their own version of innocence” (Wood). Garmony’s secret in Amsterdamwas an image of “a man’s privacy and turmoil,” one that could cost him hiscareer and cause a political uproar, all because of his his necessity of “purefantasy” that would soon be exploited for Clive’s personal gain (Amsterdam 77).The secretive writing style and structure that Ian McEwan creates in many ofhis works, including Amsterdam and Atonement, often resembles apsychological experiment, testing if a reader can be invested in the drama tothe point of resenting the end revelation (Zalewski). Through his artfullycrafted suspense and secretive style Ian McEwan captivates his audience,expresses his social commentary, and portrays how trauma and secrecy leads to aloss of innocence.Ian McEwan’s carefully developedcharacters and meticulously detailed and realistic writing style is one of themain ways he expresses his idea that trauma and secrecy often leads to a lossof innocence and social criticism.
Critics and McEwan himself insist that hehad two distinct phases in his writing career. His first being more eeriefiction with traumatic themes and secrecy beginning with his collections ofshort stories, and the second being novels identified as his “mature” work,that are written with more intricate plots, realistic engagements, and in referenceto historical events (Szalai). His later works embody a completely differentwriting style where “he creates worlds in which ambiguity is banished; hedeclares rather than insinuates, explains rather than reveals,” in contrast tohis earlier works which relied on secrecy and suspense (Szalai). Ian McEwan’smost recent novels often reveal a greater humanity, introspection, and literaryrange as in the award winning Amsterdam,published in 1998, where Ian McEwan asks questions about revenge and moralresponsibility, often criticizing society and its ideals (Teisch). Although hestrays away from his taboo writing style found in his short stories and otherearly works, Ian McEwan continues to implore his talents as a short storywriter through vivid imagery and eloquent writing throughout his later worksespecially in developing of his characters. Some critics claim Ian McEwan’scharacters are over plotted and schematic, much like his own life was overplotted, admitting that he felt he was involved in a long term investigation ofhuman nature in which he has been attempting to not only locate thingsspecifically but merge the invented worlds from his novels, with the real world(Teisch).
Ian McEwan, in a sense, takes on a “novelist’s godlike powers ofinvention to heart” as he meticulously designs and orchestrates the affairs andcharacterization of his characters (Szalai). This is especially apparent in hisnovel Amsterdam where he extensivelycharacterizes each of Molly’s lovers. Ian McEwan, like all other novelists, arescholars of human behavior, however, he assumes the matter with more scientificrigor than expected by backing his choices in characterization and developmentwith psychological studies that not only prove their actions plausible, butlikely, and explainable (Zalewski). This style is especially importantthroughout Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam wherehe focuses on the life of the three main characters who were the lovers of thedeceased Molly.
Through the thorough development of Molly’s three former lovers;Clive, Vernon, and Garmony, Ian McEwan’s Amsterdamserves as a mordant satire on politics and British cultural life (McEwan).Because of this, Amsterdam is able toweave in a “subtle and keen awareness” regarding what is important abouthistory and how the “deepest relations of human beings, particularly those inlove, both illustrate that history and change under its pressures” (McEwan). As Ian McEwan continues his career inwriting as a novelist, many fans will wait anxiously for his next publicationand the thrill that goes along with reading one of his books or short stories.Despite shifting his writing style away from the dark themes and blatant socialcommentary he was known for in his early years to focusing on the realistic,scientifically explainable, and historically accurate, Ian McEwan remains asone of the most praised and criticized British authors of his time. Ian McEwancontinues to explore how trauma and secrecy can lead to a loss of innocence andcorruption in Atonement and Amsterdam through his carefullydeveloped characters, subliminal social commentary, and distinct writing styleas influenced by his life experiences and the time period in which he waswriting.