British authors mentally masturbate about physics, stories suffer

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Thinking about Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, I cannot help but relate it to Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen.

When I saw Copenhagen in 2002, at the Kennedy Center, it was much-buzzed as the play to see.  I remember leaving the theater befuddled at the buzz: "boring" was the word I would've applied, followed by "repetitive." 

The play three times enacts the famous walk that Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg took in 1941, during which they had a conversation -- the substance of which remains unknown -- which fundamentally altered their relations for the rest of their lives.  At the time, I recognized fully that the repetitive enactment of the walk-and-conversation was a dramatization of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which is colloquially (though controversially, from a physicist's point of view) understood to mean that our understanding of any situation is always limited by our perspective; shift the perspective, and the content changes.

However boring Uncertainty might be to learn in the classroom, Copenhagen didn't make the case that dramatizing it improved the learning experience.  On the contrary, I found the physics lesson to get in the way of Frayn's proper task: storytelling. 

The number one priority in telling a story, so far as I'm concerned, is maintaining interest, entertaining the audience.  This imperative is among the most difficult of the novelist's tasks.  "Most novels incredibly boring. It's amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge."  That's McEwan talking, quoted in a recent New Yorker piece (at p. 48).

But McEwan appears as vulnerable as the rest of us to recognizing principles that we don't apply in our own lives.  The Child in Time makes the same blunder as Copenhagen (although, seeing that Copenhagen post-dates The Child in Time by a decade, perhaps it should be the other way around.)  The entire plot line involving Thelma and Charles Darke, Thelma's long physics lectures, Charles' regression into childhood, as well as the lorry accident and Stephen's near-miss driving around it -- these some hundred pages or so are all peripheral to the story of Kate's disappearance, and Stephen's reuniting with Julia.

These irrelevancies are not in the book to advance plot.  They're in the book to illustrate physics principles about the nature of time.  McEwan is elaborating in prose on his intellectual love affair with physics.  These passages are all cerebral masturbation.  And, while admittedly they're more masterfully done than Frayn's tiresome redundancies, these diversions are as disruptive to McEwan's storytelling in The Child in Time as Uncertainty was to Frayn's in Copenhagen.

The irony, of course, is that nothing illustrates the importance of perspective to determining content, or the elasticity of time, better than a well-told story.  With a page-turner in hand, the content of the world of the page is determined wholly by the author's perspective, and time flies.  

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on March 19, 2009 11:33 PM.

Sex and the single girl's world view was the previous entry in this blog.

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