Review: “Lessons,” by Ian McEwan

McEwan’s use of global events in his fiction tends to be judicious and revealing. Upon Roland he cropdusts excessive quantities of names and dates: Chernobyl, Hitler, Nasser, Khrushchev, the Cuban missile crisis, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, John Major, the Freedom of Information Act, 9/11, Enron, Karl Rove, Gordon Brown, Nigel Farage, Covid.

These all serve as reminders that history is occurring. And maybe some readers do, in fact, require that reminder. But Roland is so passive that one gets the sense he’d be exactly the same guy in any other century, only with a different haircut. In all dimensions he is a recipient and not a bestower — of checks, mail, phone calls, confidences, advice, instructions, orders. In the absence of much physical description it’s easy to picture Roland as a mythical hybrid of man and shopping cart: a wheeled receptacle shoved by unseen hands across the asphalt of life.

Critics have observed that McEwan likes to slice time into “before” and “after” segments by building his plots around a decisive event. Here he delicately transfers the task to Roland, who is ever scrambling to identify his own turning point. That passivity, for example — is it the outcome of Miriam’s early meddling? The eternal inability to thrive — could it originate in Alissa’s abandonment? Did one barbaric woman sketch a blueprint for the second? His attempt to reconcile causes with effects is a consummate failure.

One way to read “Lessons” is as a self-repudiation of the maneuver at which McEwan has become virtuosic. More authors should repudiate their virtuosity. The results are exciting.

Decades after Roland’s last sighting of Miriam, a police officer appears at his door. “A whole new culture” has arisen, the cop explains. Miriam could go to jail for her crimes. But Roland isn’t sure the proposed punishment fits the crime. His mind is a “tipping falling tumult” of contrary notions: The relationship provided joy and erotic purpose; it corrupted him; he was complicit; no, not complicit — complicity is shorthand for a victim’s customary self-blame. Did Miriam destroy him? Was it possible to be destroyed and not know it?

And, title in mind, what lessons has Roland learned? From women, perhaps not much. From the newspapers, that history’s unfurling exists independent of a novelist’s desire to plot and signify. Lucky, then, that Roland has McEwan on his side.