In considering serious novels, can size be a defining test?

December 13, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Five week ago on these pages, I wrote about Tom Wolfe's immense new novel, "A Man in Full," which chronicles the excruciating decline and fall of the central character, Charlie Croker - brought down by gargantuan hubris. Since then, I have read "Amsterdam," by Ian McEwan (Doubleday, 193 pages, $21), a novel almost tiny in size. It is driven by that same ancient dramatic truth - that great pride, however virtuous its intent, inevitably leads to tragic downfall.

The parallel falls far short of equating the aspirations of the two books. But both are serious explorations of that most profound ++ of all humbling principles: Self-assuredness, as it rises toward certainty, naturally triggers retributive justice: Watch out! If you're really sure of yourself, something's going to bring you down.

Seeing both novels through that prism raised a bedeviling question in my head: Does weight or word count have much to do with seriousness?

"Amsterdam's" 193 small pages contain about 45,000 words. "A Man in Full" fills 742 large, type-dense pages with more than 700,000 words.

Are such books - one 16 times the length of the other - to be examined in the same frame? Can two works of such vastly different size be held to the same standards?

Wolfe's 10th book is his finest work, a very major novel. It is about a great deal more than the consequences of fatal flaws.

But McEwan's is also dead serious, though it is like the works of a watch, in contrast to Wolfe's railroad train. Should McEwan's book be taken, at best, to have managed one-sixteenth of Wolfe's achievement?

Though 18 years younger than Wolfe, who is 68, McEwan has published seven previous novels and two volumes of short stories. The best known novels are probably "The Innocent," "Enduring Love" and "The Comfort of Strangers."

"Amsterdam" is briefer, and could be seen as less ambitious, than most of his others. The most pompous reviewers have already dismissed it as "entertainment" - that ultimate sneer of the obscurantist clique who exult in prideful righteousness. Many of the same critics similarly dismissed Wolfe's "A Man in Full" as more or less trivia.

At its core, McEwan's novel - as Wolfe's - is deeply moral. It is

devoted to tracing the often fatally consequential results of apparently inconsequential individual decisions. This could be ridiculously preachy, of course. It never is. Such is McEwan's ethical sophistication - as is Wolfe's.

In "Amsterdam," Clive Linley, a distinguished composer, has been commissioned by the British government, at the cabinet level, to write the Millennial Symphony for the nation. Inevitably, it will have to be his masterwork. As the book begins, he has missed two deadlines. And then there is Vernon Halliday, Linley's closest friend, recently appointed editor of a major national daily newspaper that is in deep trouble with declining circulation and demanding directors.

Both were fond friends and onetime lovers of the brilliantly quirky Molly Lane, whose funeral launches the tale. She had died of an unspecified and awful brain disease.

Each man senses some worrying symptoms suggesting Molly's malady. Cleanly, very early, the book confronts the crisis of creation - the challenge of life-definingly serious work and mortality, as Linley experiences it, as it is suggested in the lives of others as well.

And it is within those lives that McEwan pursues the ancient dramatic mechanism of hubris. If there is a deeper immortal irony than that principle, I have no clue of what it might be. As a celebration of that irony, "Amsterdam" is a tour de force. It is an act of homage to irony itself, which either underlies or definingly ornaments all - or anyway most - major truths.

A third of the way through, I began to feel that despite its ambition, the book threatened to be thin. McEwan is extraordinarily deft at the anecdote, at the touching, even moving, almost invariably convincing snapshot of life that suggests the fullness of an individual human existence in all its dimensions. But the text was so swift, so concise, I felt I was being tugged into lives and deaths - to consider the depths of mortality, the meaning of serious, complex people - by threads.

Another third of the way along, I was sure those threads had been plaited into rope - growing into mighty cables.

Things unwind, fall apart, deteriorate, reform in a sort of doom. The slide is slippery and swift. Each man confronts a career-defining conflict between private ethic and professional imperative. They act oppositely. Both men have done much to blame themselves for but have not earned their fates, not morally, not really. They are imperfect, but not bad; flawed but not evil.

The book is charming. It is deft. It is intelligent. It is morally driven. It is consequential. It is also entertaining and gripping and artful in its texture, tone, usages.

Just like "A Man in Full"? Of course not. Its effect cannot be compared to Wolfe's. Wrong! Of course it can be compared - but to what effect? Maybe a stiletto, in contrast to the naked-saber cavalry troop of the larger, richer novel.

Endings deserve not to be given away. But the consummation of McEwan's book is obversely akin to that of Wolfe's. McEwan's ends in what might be called crucifixion; Wolfe's finishes with resurrection.

It takes a lot more metaphysical muscle - and a lot more words - to achieve convincing resurrection than to bring off sacrificial death. So size does matter.

But size does not determine consequence, it is not a defining value - or lots of long entertainments might rumble with greatness. Can a string quartet be greater than a full-length opera?

Often, of course, it is. But the answer depends on the soul of the work.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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