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Sunday Read: Ian McEwan Describes His Lapses of Faith in Fiction

English author Ian McEwan, who won the Man Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam and has been shortlisted for a number of his other books, has written an article for the New Republic about the lapses in his faith in fiction. He describes how it starts with him losing faith in experimental fiction and then magical realism but “It’s when the icy waters of skepticism start to rise round the skirts of realism herself” that he knows the “god of fiction” has deserted him.

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Then McEwan finds himself turning to non-fiction: “the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauty of numbers to the numbskull” until “A detail, a phrase, or a sentence can initiate the beginning of a return to the fold”. Here he mentions two stories that recently dispelled his doubt, Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” and John Updike’s “Twin Beds in Rome”:

Like a late victorian clergyman sweating in the dark over his Doubts, I have moments when my faith in fiction falters and then comes to the edge of collapse. I find myself asking, “Am I really a believer?” And then, “Was I ever?” First to go are the disjointed, upended narratives of experimental fiction. Oh well … Next, the virgin birth miracle of magical realism. But I was always Low Church on that one. It’s when the icy waters of skepticism start to rise round the skirts of realism herself that I know my long night has begun. All meaning has drained from the enterprise. Novels? I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief. What imaginary Henry said or did to nonexistent Sue, and Henry’s lonely childhood, his war, his divorce, his ecstasy and struggle with the truth and how he’s a mirror to the age—I don’t believe a word: not the rusty device of pretending that the weather has something to do with Henry’s mood, not the rusty device of pretending.

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