Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

August 2020

I went through a phase when we first moved to England of reading every Ian McEwan book I could get my hands on. And then, after a while, I just kind of…stopped. In hindsight, maybe I was drawn to his books in part because they reflected something of the sensibility of my new country of residence, and I wanted to immerse myself in that as much as possible in the early days. In any case, this is the first McEwan book I’ve read in years, and I basically read it because of the pandemic: Jeremy checked it out of the library before lockdown, and then the libraries closed and the book return date was extended until September, so it was sitting around the house for months after Jeremy finished it. He recommended it to me, so I finally picked it up. I liked it but didn’t love it. To be honest, I’m not even sure how much I liked it, but it kept me reading. None of the characters are particularly likeable—which certainly isn’t a deal-breaker—but most aren’t particularly knowable either. I also found the book quite claustrophobic. Though there are various settings and a number of different characters make an appearance, the bulk of the action (such as it is) takes place between three individuals in a flat (much like No Exit, come to think of it). I could easily imagine the story as a play; it has the contained, stripped-down feeling of a work for the stage. The story is told through the perspective of a man named Charlie, who is in love with a woman named Miranda and who has purchased an “android” named Adam. Charlie comes across as a fairly shallow, self-involved type who is mostly concerned with winning and keeping Miranda’s affections and with making money. Because of this perspective, Miranda and Adam are almost totally opaque as characters. I never really felt their motivations, and I never entirely trusted the motivations that were inferred by Charlie. There was a lot I didn’t entirely trust—I think for some reason I kept expecting twists that didn’t come. That said, unexpected things certainly do happen, but they’re not so much twists as kind of karmic inevitabilities. In the end, the most human-seeming character, if also the most difficult to comprehend, was Adam the robot. I was left wanting to know much more about him, more about the inner life of the unknowable machine—and maybe that was the whole point.

Further reading…