Ian McEwan is having a tough time in New York. First he’s subjected to a horrific and pointlessly negative review of his intriguing new novel On Chesil Beach by Michiko Kakutani in the daily New York Times, and now the book is praised to death by the florid Jonathan Lethem on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review. I’m not sure which is worse, Kakutani’s blase dismissal or Jonathan Lethem’s loose gushes. Can anybody who’s not a blogger write a competent review of this book?
Jonathan Lethem has his pretentious dial cranked up to eleven with this overbaked exercise in profundity. Here’s how it starts:
The geographical distinction that marks Chesil Beach in England is the grading of the shingle — the pebbles, that is — that forms its 18 miles; the pebbles are arranged, by wind and rain, in a spectrum of sizes and features, so that the beach forms a spacial map of time. Each stone confesses a part of its relation to the whole.
Local fishermen brag of the ability to make a blind identification of the original placement, on Chesil beach, of a given stone.
Somehow, I doubt that local fishermen do any such thing. I’m betting that the local fishermen of Chesil Beach are busy fishing, and I’m also betting Lethem has never been anywhere near Chesil Beach and that he cribbed that factoid straight from Wikipedia, which says:
Fishermen familiar with the beach claim to be able to tell their location from pebble size alone.
Nice research there, Jonathan.
Lethem also fails to place McEwan’s book in any type of literary context. Later in today’s issue Liesl Schillinger turns in a vibrant review of Rick Moody’s collection Right Livelihoods, and when one of the stories involves a memory-jolting drug called “Albertine” Schillinger is correct to point out the reference to Proust. Lethem, on the other hand, doesn’t mention the fact that the theme of the disastrous fumbled sexual encounter — which he correctly places at the center of McEwan’s new book — was also a major theme in both the work and life of T. S. Eliot (Ian McEwan was aware of this, I’m sure). I think a reviewer should be required to be erudite; it’s not optional, not even if you’re Jonathan Lethem.
Today’s Book Review, the “Summer Reading” issue, is mostly very good, as when Sarah Towers recommends Helen Schulman’s A Day at the Beach, which I plan to read. I certainly can’t complain about a lack of interesting titles under consideration, though I don’t agree with anything Field Maloney says about Chuck Palahniuk’s new Rant (I suspect it’s ultimately a matter of taste).
I’d like to comment on the reviews Will Blythe, Lisa See and Anne Mendelsohn turn in of new books by Nathan Englander, Khaled Hosseini and Hilma Wolitzer, respectively, but honestly I’m too exhausted from BookExpo, too busy working long hours on a super-secret exciting new content site which will be revealed to the world soon, and then there was the chic BEA party in Gramercy Park last night where a few of my notable literary friends got kicked out for a matter involving some onstage dancing — a story which may bear telling someday but for now I better shut my mouth.
Okay, one more thing — there’s an excellent essay about an encounter with a literary-minded cab driver by Roxana Robinson in today’s Times City section. This is the kind of subtle piece I wish the Book Review would run on it’s back page, instead of yet another dull humor piece by Joe Queenan. Which is what we got today, so read Roxana’s piece instead.