‘Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people’s parents.’
Such a confession of monocularity, and in the opening sentence of Black Dogs! One always suspected male novelists besides Nicholson Baker breathed in hot, thick pants while writing, but it is gratifying to find a member of the Famous Four admitting to two-dimensional vision as well.
Not that fans of Ian McEwan are likely to notice this howler. One of the glummest features of modern culture is that women hardly bother to read novels by men any more, or vice versa. For over a decade, perfectly intelligent readers have been blinkered to the Weldon-Winterson-Brookner axis or the Amis-Boyd-McEwan one, each sex contemptuous of and deliberately ignorant about the fiction of the other. Lacking cross-fertilisation, each is now monotonously predictable. Women’s novels are low on intellectual playfulness or formal invention but score highly on detail, psychology and dialogue. Men’s are bad at plot and emotional complexity but have been sufficiently influenced by the blessed Nabokov to despise the notion that protagonists must be sympathetic, or that style and big ideas are less important than empathy. The sad thing is that McEwan is unique in the fortysomething brigade in writing about exactly the kind of things women find interesting: revenge, isolation, sexual passion and families.
Black Dogs is about evil. Jeremy, the narrator, pieces together the mysterious story of his parents-in-law, Bernard and June Tremaine, whose marriage fails during their honeymoon in 1946. Both were communists, but as a result of an encounter with two black dogs, June converts to religion, and the couple becomes estranged. As their surname suggests, the story is a three-hander, trifurcating between Jeremy and his wife’s parents, or between rationalism, mysticism and the narrator’s argument that ‘it’s not in the business of the spirit to measure the world’. The novel is evidently intended to tip the reader backwards and forwards between these two irreconcilable credos. It doesn’t.
Part of the problem is that Black Dogs is so short and sketchy – a mere 176 pages. Shuttling between 1946 and 1990, we are shown June and Bernard when young, and when ravaged by time. It must be tempting to do this kind of thing when forty, and Janus-faced towards both youth and age, but it is very irritating if you don’t, like Mary Wesley, actually get it right. Neither character here is allowed space to breathe and come alive for us, before dissolving into another incarnation. They don’t have nearly enough sex, which, unlike politics, is one of the things McEwan is particularly good at describing. What could have been made into a pleasing essay on the ambiguous nature of memory and desire, or the real and the ideal, gets lost in portentous Ploughman’s Lunch-style polemic.
June, dying in a nursing home, condemns Bernard as ‘invisible to himself. He’s never known a single moment’s awe for the beauty of creation.’ Bernard, travelling with Jeremy to watch the Berlin Wall come down, dismisses his wife’s deism as ‘magical thinking’. He collects insects – a displeasing hobby which leaves June dangerously isolated during the crucial point of their honeymoon.
McEwan has always been good at conjuring the external malignancy which lovers fear; and by far the best writing comes, as in The Comfort of Strangers, at the end. Walking in Languedoc, that antique bastion of Manichaeism, they become separated. While Bernard stops to draw a hairy caterpillar, a pair of gigantic mastiffs, black to their very gums, advance silently on June. Not since The Hound of the Baskervilles has the canine been seen as so supernatural a threat. Here is the pure McEwan: detached, observant, admirably surreal as in his best novel, The Innocent.
Alone, or possibly aided by God, June fights the dogs and beats them off with her trusty penknife. I thoroughly approved of this: ever since his debut McEwan has been virtually unique in the Boys’ Own Brigade in depicting women as strong and resourceful. Sadly, drama then descends into farce. June’s hellhounds were trained by Nazis, and not just as guard dogs. Oh, no! THEY WERE TRAINED TO RAPE WOMEN! Live evil, you see, or, as Thurber put is, ‘He goddam mad dog, eh?’ Chesterton observed there is nothing like a palindrome to make a literary atheist think a dog is the antithesis to God, but even his dogs didn’t ravish young women.
Of course, men will probably take this terribly seriously. But then, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed is a gink.*
*gink: a fellow.