To coincide with Ian McEwan’s 70th birthday, we have My Purple Scented Novel – not a novel, but a nicely bound short story – his first, if we’re not mistaken (which we may be don’t take our word for it) since his second collection, In Between the Sheets, all the way back in 1978. But be on your guard – if you’re one of those people who love McEwan’s short stories (we know you’re out there in your legions), don’t come here expecting more of the punky spikiness on show in those first two collections – this is a short story in the vein of Amsterdam, or Martin Amis’ The Information, which is itself referenced (we get the sense Amis got his idea for that book from a chat he had with McEwan – and was McEwan justly acknowledged? Possibly not. It would seem, rather, like My Purple Scented Novel is McEwan’s gentle revenge – because, you know, a lot of time has gone by and McEwan is widely regarded as the better novelist).
This is the tale of a pair of novelists – Jocelyn Tarbot, “once celebrated”, and our narrator, Parker Sparrow, “once obscure” –
“To a knowing few, our names remain rigidly attached, like the two ends of a seesaw. His rise coincided with, though did not cause, my decline. Then his descent was my earthly triumph.”
Starting off, more or less together, Sparrow marries and has children, takes a job in academia, produces one novel for every two or three that the childless Tarbot cranks out to greater and greater acclaim. But there are no obvious signs of bitterness in their friendship beyond the fact that each no longer reads the other’s latest book. And then – there’s always an ‘and then’ – well, to say much more would let the proverbial cat out of the bag, but let’s admit subterfuge, perplexed betrayals, a reversal of fortune and an eventual bemused attempt to make sense of what happened.
You come away thinking if McEwan had tried to sustain it a moment longer, it’s possible Sparrows charm would have failed to outweigh what he did – but My Purple Scented Novel hangs around just long enough to do the job.
Any Cop?: It’s a neat amuse bouche of a book, a confection, 34 pages in and out, and for £1.99 the kind of book you could easily read over a cup of coffee. In other words, an hour very well spent.