Why I’m Cross with Ian McEwan

I’ve read all of Ian McEwan’s novels from The Cement Garden (1978),  but I am frustrated and annoyed by The Children’s Act, his latest.

Briefly, the novel is about a period of crisis in the life of a high court judge, Fiona Mayes, who is emotionally exhausted from her collapsing marriage and the stress of making life and death decisions in family court. Then she receives the case of Adam Henry, a 17-year-old suffering from leukemia whose parents have refused to grant permission for him to receive blood transfusions, and to complicate matters, the patient himself has said that he will not go against the dictates of his Jehovah’s Witness church.

To prepare the reader for this central episode, McEwan develops Mayes’ character by reviewing her thoughts on several other judgments she has found difficult. These cases, used to develop a fictional character, are based on actual rulings evoking the Children’s Act of 1989, which orders that in any court action pertaining to a child, “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.”

McEwan has discussed the factual rulings for his novel’s cases regarding conjoined twins, a mother falsely accused of murder in her infant’ crib deaths, conflicts between ex-spouses over the religious upbringing of their children, and even a case of a teenage Jehovah’s Witness who needed and wished to refuse a blood transfusion. The first two chapters are what I’ll call factional — at least as much fact as fiction.

I have no problem with this. But in the third of the novel’s six chapters, McEwan abandons factual fiction for fantasy, and the departure is abrupt, bizarre, and structurally and thematically unjustifiable.

After hearing testimony in the matter of Adam Henry, Judge Mayes decides to stop proceedings while she goes to his hospital room to visit with the boy.

The problems begin as soon as Fiona and the social worker after taking cabs through London enter Adam’s ICU room. Do they first scrub their hands? Put on protective masks? Gowns and booties? I’d think they would, not of course to protect themselves from his cancer, but out of concern for his steadily weakening immune system. That morning in court his doctor testified he had a white blood count of 1.7 (the normal range is 5 -9).

Adam looks pale and wan, and is short of breath. Otherwise, he hardly seems like the person described in court who was diagnosed  with leukemia after two days of “unbearable” sharp stomach pains, which began in mid-May (this scene is set in mid-June). There is no sense that he is still in any pain. The leukemia is not being adequately treated, so why is the pain gone? He certainly does not reason and act like a person on painkillers would, especially not on those that would alleviate “unbearaable” pain.

What impresses Fiona first is that Adam is surrounded by “life support and monitoring equipment” as well as “books, pamphlets, a violin bow, a laptop, headphones, orange peel, sweet wrappers, a box of tissues, a sock, a notebook, and many lined pages covered in writing. Ordinary teenage squalor, familiar to her from family visits.”

Ordinary teenage squalor? In the ICU? Really?

What else do we know of Adam’s medical history? Early that afternoon, his doctor reported that when Adam was admitted to the hospital, his hemoglobin was 8.3. Three days prior to the court hearing, it was 6.4, and that morning it was 4.5. The doctor added that if it dropped to 3, “the situation would be extremely dangerous.”

What’s normal for a 17 yr old boy? Between 13.8 and 17.2 g/dL, according to the World Health Organization. So if his hemoglobin had dropped another half point over the course of the day, his organs are receiving one-third of the oxygen they should. That is what hemoglobin does; it carries oxygen.  I think it safe to say he passed into the extremely dangerous category some time ago. Usually a transfusion is ordered when the hg drops into the 8’s, and while a gradual loss of hg might be easier for the body to adjust to than a sudden bleed from an accident, remember that not only is Adam extremely anemic, he has cancer.

Now, I find it very hard to believe that someone with an hg below 8 or 7 or 6 is going to be composing poetry and suffering no more problems than occasional shortness of breath.

But it’s the final moments of Fiona’s visit with Adam that had me banging my head. Since he became ill and as the anemia began to steadily worsen, Adam has been teaching himself to play the violin.

So this boy with less than a 4.5 hg plays his guest a piece, and Fiona starts singing along to “The Salley Cardens.” But wait, there’s more. They do a second take, and on Fiona’s instruction, Adam flawlessly changes key, now playing C sharps.

When the body is starved of oxygen, the brain is starved of oxygen. Confusion is a big problem for as long as the patient retains consciousness. The oxygen afforded the brain is going to be used for the most critical funtions of survival. Getting the C#s right in a violin piece is not a critical neurological function.

It’s an absurd and ridiculous scene, and it is the central one of the novel. If all leading up to it hadn’t been so fact-based, maybe it wouldn’t have been so jarring. If McEwan had waffled about the bloodwork, calling Adam simply seriously anemic rather than including specific real-world based numbers, it wouldn’t have seemed as preposterous a scene.

Why then? Why go through all the medical testimony regarding Adam’s labs and then present him in a way that does not reflect the implications of the facts presentd? I can see no thematic reason for this sudden departure into fantasy.

A failure of fact, a failure of faction, a failure of fiction.

The Guardian called A Children’s Act “a masterly balance between research and imagination.”

I call it inane.

66 Reasons to be Grateful Philip Pullman was Born This Day

  1. dæmons
  2. Lyra
  3. Pantalaimon
  4. integrity
  5. Will
  6. witches
  7. New Cut Gang
  8. armored bears
  9. kindness
  10. Svalbard
  11. balloons
  12. compassion
  13. Cittàgazze
  14. Serafina Pekkala
  15. brilliance
  16. Farder Coram
  17. sky iron
  18. Sarch Lockhart
  19. windows
  20. lantern slides
  21. Chulak and Hamlet
  22. the alethiometer
  23. Sebastian Makepeace
  24. Jordan College
  25. Frederick Garland
  26. Clockwork
  27. Lee Scoresby
  28. Iorek Byrnison
  29. trepanning
  30. Spring-Heeled Jack
  31. Roger
  32. zepplins
  33. Mary Malone
  34. the subtle knife
  35. courage
  36. Stanislaus Grumman/John Parry
  37. harpies
  38. Lord Asriel
  39. gyptians
  40. Scarecrow & Jack
  41. woodcuts
  42. angels
  43. Jim
  44. mulefa
  45. Dust
  46. Count Karlstein
  47. Marisa Coulter
  48. aurora borealis
  49. Ruta Skadi
  50. Mossycoat
  51. Oxford
  52. Daniel Goldberg
  53. the Gallivespians
  54. Hester
  55. Glockenheim
  56. Balthamos
  57. experimental theology
  58. Lord Boreal/Sir Charles Latrom
  59. righteousness
  60. Lila
  61. I Was a Rat!
  62. many worlds/Barnard-Stokes theory
  63. Botanic Garden
  64. Xaphania
  65. John Faa
  66. stories

What the Blog Intends

“The intentions of a tool are what it does. A hammer intends to strike, a vise intends to hold fast, a lever intends to lift. They are what it is made for. But sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don’t know. Sometimes in doing what you intend, you also do what the knife intends, without knowing it.”

— Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass

I’m reminded of this passage when I think of this blog, surprisingly enough. Havealittletalk, I’ve discovered, has its own intentions.

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A Near Death Experience in Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia

I’m more interested in Nearing Death Awareness (NDA) than Near Death Experiences (NDE), but I was intrigued by how Icelandic novelist Arnaldur Indridason used NDEs in his latest novel, Hypothermia. As you probably know, some people who have been determined to be briefly clinically dead report strikingly similar experiences when they are revived, and Near Death Experience is the term used in discussing these.

In Hypothermia, things are fairly quiet for  Reykjavík police detective Erlendur. He is reviewing a couple of decades-old missing persons cases, always situations of personal interest to him since as a child he and his brother were lost in a sudden blizzard and his brother was never found, dead or alive. Erlandur himself suffers hypothermia but has no permanent physical damage. Psychologically, he never recovers.

When a woman finds her friend hanging from the rafters of a lakeside vacation home, Erlandur is called to the scene, but the coroner declares the death to be a suicide and there are no indications of foul play. However, the friend insists to Erlandur that Maria would not have killed herself, and Erlandur, with little to go on and no official sanction, begins to look into the dead woman’s life.

[Possible spoiler alert: I don’t think what follows gives too much away, but I could be wrong.]

Erlandur learns that Maria, along with her mother, witnessed her father drown while staying at the same lake house. After his death, Maria and her mother closed themselves off from friends and family, and when Maria married, her physician husband came to live in their home. Two years previously, the mother had died, following a long illness through which her daughter nursed her. As she lay dying, the women agreed that she would try to send her daughter a message from the afterlife.  Months passed, Maria became increasingly depressed, believed she had seen ghosts, and visited psychics.

Although he has no reason to suspect him of any crime, Erlandur investigates Maria’s husband’s background since the spouse is always the first person to eliminate in a suspicious death. He had studied theatre before switching to medicine. From one of his old college friends, Erlandur learned that the man had been involved in a dodgy amateur experiment along with some other med students.

At this time, NDEs were first gaining some publicity. The students persuaded a theology major to allow them to stop his heart and then, after a minute or two, to shock him back to life using a defibrillator. The way that they devised to do this involved lowering his body temperature until his heart stopped, in other words, mimicking death by hypothermia. The subject would then report back to them what he had experienced while dead.

Erlandur tracks down this erstwhile theologian whose life was derailed by this experiment. A once promising student, he has for years been a homeless derelict. When he was returned to life, the man brought with him no memories of peace and no visions of light at the end of the tunnel. His experience was that he had had none.

I don’t know if Indridason based this tale on any real-life incidence, that is, if any group of people has tried and failed to force an NDE. It seems to me only a failed effort — one that failed in bringing the subject back from clinically dead to alive unharmed — would be discovered since the legality, not to mention the ethics, of such a pursuit would be messy, to say the least, and even with a positive result, no one would want to admit their involvement.

But it raises a few interesting questions. The fictional theology student expected something, and so was devastated to have experienced nothing. Surely not everyone who has been clinically dead for a minute or two has the classic NDE that suggests there is an afterlife. Those who don’t have an NDE: what is their experience? Does their relief at being able to continue with this life mitigate unease about what being dead may be like? Do they figure that being temporarily clinically dead isn’t the same as being truly dead and so not being granted a view of the afterlife isn’t surprising? Intriguing.

In Praise of Ted Mooney, Part 4: The Same River Twice

“A lot of times things were really normal, as if you were in a movie.” Easy Travel to Other Planets

“What is it people in America say, Paul, when they feel their lives are. . . lifted out of the ordinary into   something …momentarily grander?”   “They say, ‘It’s like a movie’.” Traffic and Laughter

In Ted Mooney’s most recent work, The Same River Twice, director Max Colby is at loose ends. He knows that in his next film he wants to use only natural lighting, but the star he was to use objects. So he starts filming his friends, Rachel and deGroot, as they restore a houseboat, turning them and others, including his wife and himself, into characters. He has no script, but he keeps filming, trusting his intuition, and what gradually emerges is a story that he’d  “kill to make” (112). He works intuitively, believing that  “his own receptivity, properly cultivated, would eventually reveal what he’d come to record” (326). The story of Max’s moviemaking ends with a night’s shooting when the full moon and fog come together as “the light of rapture and unforeseeable consequences” (321).

Those not involved in the film business as actors, directors, or editors may as well be. When Turner, an art dealer, tucks a gun into his belt, “He knew he was behaving like a character in a movie but so now was everyone else – all over the world, every waking hour, without even thinking about it” (323), except, perhaps, when they are playing the role of audience.

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There Really was an Amorous Dolphin Peter: More on Easy Travel to Other Planets

I feel like I didn’t do my homework before I wrote In Praise of Ted Mooney, Part 1: Easy Travel to Other Planets. In his Acknowledgments, Mooney mentions that the explanation of sonar that Melissa, the novel’s dolphin researcher, provides,  is based on a passage in John Lilly’s Lilly on Dolphins (1975). Had I looked at Lilly’s writings then, I would have known that there was a real world researcher who lived in a flooded house in St. Thomas with a dolphin named Peter for ten weeks trying to teach him to communicate in English.

John C. Lilly, MD (1915-2001) was a fascinating character. A neuroscientist by training, he invented isolation tanks that shut out as much as possible all sensory input to see what how the mind would react, and then began experimenting with LSD as he floated in the tanks. Following these experiences, he began studies of interspecies communication with dolphins. This led in the 1970s to the JANUS (Joint Analog Numerical Understanding System) project, which used computers to facilitate communication, but at the time the technologies were not adequate for the purpose, and, moreover, Lilly became uncomfortable treating dolphins as captive experimental subjects. His interests in the last decade of his life were oriented towards the intersection of neurobiology and theology.

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In Praise of Ted Mooney, Part 3: Traffic and Laughter

You’re well into Ted Mooney’s second novel, Traffic and Laughter (1988), before you realize that its world, which feels so familiar, isn’t ours. The time is the mid 1980s; the post-WWII babies are in their 30s. But only now has the atom been split and the A-bomb invented. Diplomats from Germany, the US, and the unrecognized state of Azania in Southern Africa are brokering a deal about when and where to test this weapon. Meanwhile, the daughters of the US and Azanian diplomats, Sylvia and Nomanzi, meet and form their own alliance in Los Angeles. Various mysteries and muddles featuring a jilted fiancé, green sedan, car wash shoot-out, samurai sword, immobility artist, single diamond earring, arms trafficking and an interrupted wedding culminate in the production of a movie based on the Great Infatuation, a bizarre event in the history of the African Xhosa people.

“To trust and not to know, to know and not to trust –”(222)

In Easy Travel to Other Planets, when Nicole deceives Diego, Jeffery considers that her “well-placed lie” “could cause multiple fractures in the bones of everyone who happened to be standing around it” (87). In Traffic and Laughter, lies compound betrayals and deceptions multiply. Its epigraph, “If it were not true, I would have told you,” an allusion to John 14:2, is recalled by a narrative voice that insists the story being told is true (4, 143, 261, 388).

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In Praise of Ted Mooney, Part 2: A World Like Our Own, But Not Quite

In my previous post, I mentioned a few of the ways in which the world depicted in Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets differs from ours. One of these, a new illness called “information sickness,” has captured more critical attention than any other facet of the novel, including Melissa’s romance with the dolphin Peter. In fact, if you search for articles about the book, allusions to information sickness as prophetic for its time (1981) is nearly all you’ll find.

While information sickness and the colonization of Antarctica are details in Easy Travel, in Mooney’s second novel, Traffic and Laughter (1988), the most striking difference is central to the story: the United States did not detonate an atomic bomb at the end of World War II. We know the war was fought because one of the lead characters, Michael, is designing the special effects for a movie set in the Pacific theatre. trinity

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In Praise of Ted Mooney, Part 1: Easy Travel to Other Planets

This summer Knopf published Ted Mooney’s fourth novel, The Same River Twice. It’s the best novel I’ve read this year, and it sent me back for another look at his three previous works: Singing Into the Piano (1998), Traffic and Laughter (1990), and Easy Travel to Other Planets (1981), a novel I fell in love with the first time I read it, nearly thirty years ago.

I couldn’t connect with the characters of Singing Into the Piano. The other three are exceptional but under-rated, and in my next several posts, I’m going to tell you why they are so good. They are suspenseful, well paced, stylistically original, well-plotted novels about intriguing characters and provocative ideas.

Easy Travel to Other Planets

Mooney’s first, Easy Travel to Other Planets, is on several levels his most experimental (not in this case a euphemism for unreadable, by any means). Melissa has been living in a “flooded house” in the Caribbean and teaching Peter, a dolphin, how to talk. On the morning of her departure for home to visit her terminally ill mother, Melissa and Peter become lovers, in every sense of the word.

Easy Travel takes place in a slightly different world than our own, or perhaps a few years into the future (beyond 1980). The world is about to go to war over control of natural resources in Antarctica, including the “last set of relatively quiet airwaves on earth” (77), and a new illness is feared: “information sickness.” Its symptoms include “deliriously disconnected speech,” the “desire to touch everything,” and an inability to “tell where one thing left off and the next began” (34). But pay phones are still used, and while reports claim that “seventy-two billion new pieces of information were created yearly” (80), no one has a personal computer. And there’s not yet travel — easy or otherwise — to other planets. So why this title?

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In which I Have a Little Talk with Myself and Tour Two Libraries

Here I am, just a week into blogging, and I need to have a little talk with myself. I should know better by now than to leave anything to chance. Check and double check. Just because it is a blog and an informal mode of writing doesn’t mean mistakes are acceptable. And I made mistakes in a previous post.

I’m fortunate that Kirsten of  Into the Stacks commented about  “For Just $29.95 You Can Have Access to Your Own Article for 24 Hours!!!”. She began, “First off, as an academic librarian it worries me that your local state university doesn’t let local patrons have access to its resources” [see]. This started me thinking: I know I haven’t been able to access catalogs at both the University of Alabama’s main Tuscaloosa and its Huntsville campuses, but was I doing something wrong? Time to check.

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