The Hungarian philosopher György Lukács called the novel “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” Other forces played more obviously into the form’s rise to literary preeminence—the consolidation of a middle class; advances in printing technology—but the link between the emergence of the novel and the decline of religiosity is strong. Three hundred years ago, reading novels (as opposed to the classics, or Shakespeare) was widely seen as vulgar, indicative of a deficient mind. So was not believing in a divine creator. Today, at least among the sort of people who tend to read literary magazines, both these thing are more likely to be regarded as signs of intellectual and moral refinement. For the critic James Wood, this is no coincidence: the novel is “the slayer of religions,” a form that swept away Biblical certitudes and replaced them with fictional narratives that move “in the shadow of doubt,” asking readers for a belief that is fundamentally and irreligiously metaphorical.
One author who would agree wholeheartedly with Wood is England’s Ian McEwan, who asserted in 2013 that the novel is a product of the Enlightenment that “has always been a secular and skeptical form.” McEwan is a committed nonbeliever, so committed that he qualifies as a junior member of the intellectual movement-cum-publishing-ploy known as New Atheism, which emerged in the wake of 9/11. Christopher Hitchens dedicated his God Is Not Great to McEwan, and McEwan blurbed Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, calling it “lucid and wise, truly magisterial.” The critics Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate, in their 2010 study The New Atheist Novel, write of McEwan “it is tempting to say that—if his fiction did not exist—Dawkins and company would have had to invent it, so completely does it vindicate their worldview.” McEwan’s protagonists are universally, as Edward says in On Chesil Beach, “grateful to live in a time when religion has generally faded into insignificance.” Ostensibly, this view is never seriously challenged, the gratitude never corroded.
And yet, things aren’t so simple. McEwan aligns strongly with the New Atheism through his celebration and exaltation of capital-R Reason. In the New Atheist framing, post-Enlightenment science embodies the apogee of the human capacity for reason, while religion constitutes a troublesome soup of everything that is unreason. McEwan’s literary vocation coalesces with his scientific rationalism via the moral role he proclaims for the novel—a role he frames in explicitly neuroscientific terms. As he describes it, “we are innately moral beings, at the most basic, wired-in neurological level.” This morality stems from the fact that “our imagination permits us to understand what it is like to be someone else” (psychologists call this Theory of Mind). From this, McEwan says, it follows that fiction is “a deeply moral form, in that it is the perfect medium for entering the mind of another.”
Within the history of English letters, McEwan’s vision of the novel as a “deeply moral form” and force for social good recalls George Eliot and Iris Murdoch—with the special quality of its being underpinned and animated by all the things contemporary rationalists and atheists love: evolution, neuroscience and a morality rooted in our selfish genes, rather than in God. To listen to only McEwan’s interviews, it all seems very straightforward: novels make us nicer people. Good novels can ultimately achieve the same thing as antibiotics, vaccines, nitrogen fertilizer or any other other scientific success—they can aid the species.
A neat and altogether edifying thesis. However, examining the evolution of McEwan’s craft across the three novels which make up the central phase of his career—Enduring Love, Atonement and Saturday—we find his work telling a different story. McEwan certainly wants novels to be good for us. But a profound nervousness runs throughout his oeuvre, a suspicion that fiction-writing is infected with the original sin of fabulation. Albert Camus called fiction “the lie through which we tell the truth.” But to hard-headed rationalists like McEwan, lying is what priests do, and what the committed rationalist strives to avoid. All of reason is about excavating truth; the rest just gets in the way. Across the three novels constituting the central phase of his career—in probably his three best-known and most enduring works—there runs a deep worry: Do the imaginative capacities that give us literature in fact share more with the religious impulse than the faculty of reason? Is the novel quite the atheistic form he would like it to be?
McEwan wasn’t always the staid rationalist he is today. After graduating from university, he followed the hippie trail to Afghanistan, where he glimpsed “moments on tops of mountains with mescaline thinking the whole thing seems to be speaking to me.” In his early thirties he “dickered around the edge” of New Age thinking, something in evidence in the introduction to his 1982 oratorio Or Shall We Die?, where McEwan speaks of “that deep intuitive sense … that there is a spiritual dimension to our existence.” This seeker’s instinct pervades his early fiction, where we see a mystically tinged interpretation of quantum mechanics influence the magical-realist experiment of The Child in Time (1987). Similarly, with 1992’s Black Dogs, the validity of spirituality remains open for debate. The protagonist’s in-laws oppose each other as “rationalist and mystic,” and he sees them as “the twin poles along whose slippery axis my own unbelief slithers and never comes to rest.” This slithering unbelief was, at the time, also McEwan’s own. After publishing Black Dogs, he told an interviewer that even though his “spiritual dimension” was “out of focus,” a mere “ill-defined dissatisfaction,” he had “never been convinced that rational explanations are enough.”
Soon enough, McEwan was more than convinced. In the mid-Nineties, he began exchanging e-mails with Dawkins, and his conversion to card-carrying rationalist gathered pace. Around this time, he also begins to be explicit about his moral conception of the novel: Homo sapiens are primates that, over millennia, evolved deep-set pro-social features, including the capacity for empathy. Empathy is fundamentally an act of imagination (we imagine our way into the mind of another), and an act of imagination on the scale of a good novel can send a tsunami of it washing through the brain. Novel-reading (and writing) can be a form of moral education.
Enduring Love (1997) is the first of McEwan’s novels to be published in the wake of both his conversion to staunch atheism, and his arrival at this understanding of novel writing in explicitly neuromoral terms. The novel centers on the relationship between Joe, a popular-science writer, and Clarissa, a Keats scholar. In the schema of the novel, the couple embody the so-called “two cultures” debate: Joe embodies science, and Clarissa the arts. In turn, science is equated with reasoning—Joe, in Clarissa’s assessment, advocates a neo-Darwinism which is “rationalism gone berserk”—and the arts are equated with feeling: Clarissa, in Joe’s assessment, “thought that her emotions were the appropriate guide” to life. The plot of Enduring Love is fueled by a third character, Jed. Jed unwaveringly believes that Joe is madly in love with him, and that the two men are destined to be together. Joe and Clarissa’s differing assessments of the danger posed by Jed’s increasingly bold stalking—Joe thinks he is genuinely menacing; Clarissa thinks he is harmless and misunderstood—drive the novel.
The intriguing thing about Enduring Love is that, ultimately, Joe is right: Jed is a violent stalker, and Clarissa should have listened to him. The rationalist perceives it all clearly. And at the root of all the novel’s problems is a phenomenon whose very mention sees the rationalist’s “gut tighten”: narrative. Narrative gives Jed his deluded romantic vision, and narrative obscures the truth from Clarissa, who sympathizes with Jed instead of hard-headedly analyzing his behavior. Most significantly, even Joe himself can’t escape the intoxications of narrative. He tries his hardest. To read Enduring Love is to be privy to one man’s heroic effort to achieve perpetual cognitive control in the service of perfect rationality. But as his life becomes more fraught, the reader sees Joe becoming increasingly drawn towards the explanations and consolations of narrative, of speculation and conjecture. One way to summarize Enduring Love would be as the story of a man whose meticulous understanding of how the brain works can only partly save him from how the brain works. In trying to remain supremely rational, Joe develops a deep mistrust of his own phenomenological life, lamenting the way our basic irrationalism dooms the species to live “in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception.”
Put simply, in McEwan’s tale, fiction is on the wrong side of the argument. Our pervasive craving for the narrative substance that is the raw material of fiction makes us at best credulous, and at worst deluded and dangerous. If everyone in Enduring Love followed Joe in aspiring to perfect rationality, the real danger posed by Jed might have been spotted much earlier. However, a species-wide ascent to such perfect rationality would also be the end of fiction. Joe’s is an account of a man attempting to police his own phenomenology, but what he is battling— his brain’s appetite for the emotional titillation of the narrative imagination— is precisely the thing which, in readers, McEwan relies upon to sell books.
Meanwhile, hovering over the fraught role of narrative in Enduring Love is McEwan’s neuromoral vision for his fiction as a vehicle for empathy. Clarissa, the literature lover, is by her own admission “completely wrong” about Jed, and Joe is right—and not because he sat down and read a stack of novels. He doesn’t even like novels. Jed’s problem, meanwhile, does not seem to be that no one is drawing on our ancient primate capacities and imagining themselves into his mind. There is no sign of the imagination coming to the rescue and making everyone nice and empathic. The imagination nearly creates a tragedy, and it is cold, hard reason that (just about) rides to the rescue.
This dynamic reveals the even deeper worry animating the work of the proud atheist McEwan: if literature partakes of a basic irrationalism, does it not share more with the Bible than a biology textbook? Throughout the novel, the storytelling urge aligns closely with the religious urge. The “Jesus freak” Jed is the figure most intoxicated by his private narrative—a narrative that resembles the plot of a million tawdry romance novels (a shared glance blossoming into secret, transgressive desire). Clarissa, meanwhile, echoes Jed in criticizing Joe’s overreliance on reason. Her remark regarding a Keats anecdote—that “it isn’t true, but it tells the truth”—sounds, to Joe, like oxymoronic obfuscation. However, it is an effective summation of how we might describe poetry—and also how many modern-day believers regard their holy books. Joe’s blanket aversion to narrative is forced to loop in both the fictional and the religious story: he appears to be just as irked that the curators of London Library “really believe that literature was the greatest intellectual achievement of our civilization” as he does by the persistence of religious superstition. Everywhere it might have a say, narrative fiction is part of the problem.
The contradictions continue with McEwan’s next novel, Atonement (2001). In 1935, the precocious thirteen-year-old Briony, who is just beginning to experiment with fiction, realizes that “only in a story could you enter … different minds and show how they had an equal value”— a crucial psychic act, because, as Briony is coming to realize, “the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you” is the cause of most human suffering. Sound familiar? Shortly after describing her artistic manifesto, Briony commits the moral crime upon which the novel rests, when she wrongly identifies Robbie, the secret lover of her older sister Cecilia, as a rapist. Robbie goes to jail, and he and Cecilia are not reunited until after the Second World War. Except that in fact they are never reunited at all. In an audacious metafictional twist, the postscript reveals that the whole of the novel has been written by the elderly Briony. Both Robbie and Cecilia actually died in the carnage of the War, and the preceding account has been Briony’s attempt to atone for ruining their love, decades prior.