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RICHARD EDER

The Dark at the End of the Tunnel : THE INNOCENT by Ian McEwan (Doubleday: $18.95; 270 pp.)

June 24, 1990|RICHARD EDER

McEwan's account of the building and installation of the communications tap is taut and exciting. Much more remarkable is his skill in using the tunnels--real and metaphorical--as instruments of both moral suspense and black humor. His tunnels, in fact, are like the doors in French farce; they switch us comically between revelation and mystification.

Other things are less successful. The story of Leonard and Maria, darkening steadily, gets out of hand when her husband appears. There is a brutal fight, a killing, and 12 unsparingly detailed pages about the dismemberment of a body. It is brilliantly done, in its own way, but it is all but unbearable to read.

More seriously, it is like a power surge that blows out the wiring. The morality farce takes over again, but we may be too jangled to appreciate it. Furthermore, after so much tension, the ending seems lackadaisical and routine. An epilogue, set years later, turns this routine ending into a "happy" ending that is utterly banal. It is as if McEwan, having set up his complex and powerful device, had lost both control and interest.

"The Innocent" provides a series of strong and often subtle sensations. But there is something about them that resembles not so much the experience of a story as the kind of pseudo-experience administered by electrodes attached to nerve receptors. The taste is indistinguishable from the real thing, but the aftertaste is flat. "The Innocent" evokes a dark moral world in a highly entertaining fashion. Unlike Greene's entertainments, however, McEwan's leaves not even the trace of a feeling behind it.

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