Savage, Insightful Black Dogs

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan Doubleday, $19.50

In these times I don't, in a manner of speaking, know what I want; perhaps I don't want what I know and want what I don't know.

So runs the opening quotation of Ian McEwan's new book, Black Dogs, and so, in turn, the book affects the reader. It challenges our beliefs and evokes a longing for an unfathomable, mystic philosophy. McEwan describes a man trying to overcome spiritual confusion by writing a psychological portrait of his parents-in-law. Yet there is no trite summary, no kernel of meaning to be extracted, because the book poses questions, rather than answering them.

The narrator's mother and father died in a car crash when he was young. Left without either of his own, he was always attracted to other people's parents, insinuating himself upon those of his schoolfriends. In time he befriends his in-laws. The moment that this rootless orphan achieves stability in marriage, he is introduced to a couple which epitomizes his dilemma. His wife's parents are two opposites: the father, Bernard, is a rational humanist; the mother, June, a fervent, unquestioning Christian. In their youth, both had been dedicated communists, eager to change the world with their backpacks full of good intentions. Then God revealed himself to June, and she stopped wanting to change or even question the world. June's conversion fascinates her son-in-law. He begins to compose a memoir of her life, hinging on June's encounter with the two black dogs who rode roughshod over her idealism, tearing forth visions of good and evil, overshadowing her past secular convictions. While he composes his account of these events, the narrator is confronted by his own fears in witnessing the passions aroused by the unification of Germany.

Atrocities dominate the larger scale of events in the book. The Nazis originally trained the dogs that attacked June; their presence evokes all the horrors of World War II. Neo-fascist skinheads savage Bernard when he visits Berlin to see the Wall come down. The novel addresses the depths of hatred and spite to which the world often descends. On a personal scale, the narrator himself is both protected by a benign intuition, which saves him from a scorpion's bite, and seized by loathing so intense that he quietly breaks a stranger's nose. In just such an unassuming manner, McEwan questions the forces that govern our lives. Can we really explain the twisted landscape of human history with the neat, scientific principles we have devised? Dare we do otherwise?

Contemporary English fiction is becoming incestuous. The intricate, clever construction of Black Dogs calls to mind works like Martin Amis' Time's Arrow, which is written backwards. The form of the novel clearly betrays the influence of Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot, in which a literary scholar hides from the failure of his marriage in his obsession with Flaubert. Amis, Barnes and McEwan are close friends. The three friends inspire and rival one another. The form of Black Dogs echoes the smart, complex, but often self-conscious tone of McEwan's literary circle.


Although McEwan has drawn on his peers for the structure of Black Dogs, he owes much to Conrad in tone. Black Dogs conjures forth the same malign essence as Heart of Darkness. The two novels generate the same suspense, as the readers churn through the pages to reveal the secret of the one incisive encounter. The black dogs of the title fulfill the function of Kurtz, revealing for an instant the black heart of mankind, the seed of savagery we all contain. Most of all, McEwan's work reflects the powerful, emotive, and yet strangely rambling, subdued prose of Heart of Darkness.

So McEwan does not let the cerebral construction of the book dominate the intuitive emotional content. The dilemma of the characters infects the style of writing: Black Dogs wavers between Bernard's meticulous, scientific analysis and June's visceral, ethereal visions, between McEwan's contemporary influences and overtones of Conrad.

McEwan goes beyond Conrad in his exploration of human psychology. He notes that bestial hatred and spiritual ecstasy are flip sides of the same coin: one begets the other. Sex best illustrates this paradox--in the tender, familiar love-making of the two couples and the vile bestial encounter with the dogs we are presented with the two ends of the scale. Even more frightening than the darkness is the idea that all good is dependent upon it.

The reader feels empathy for the narrator, and is struck by McEwan's psychological insight. But McEwan is incisive because he addresses the issue which lurks at the back of every mind. Black Dogs challenges us to confront the tension we all feel in the meeting of science and religion, the rational and the irrational. McEwan crafts the work subtly, weaving the same uncertainty through prose and plot. But he does not resolve that uncertainty. In the end he has no answer to his own question.

McEwan closes with a description of June watching the black dogs, "receding from her, black stains in the gray of the dawn, fading as they move into the foothills of the mountains from where they will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time." And as McEwan's ideas recede on the final page, they will certainly return to haunt the reader.