Reviewing the Review: June 3 2007

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.

6 Responses

  1. Lethem’s reviewI think you
    Lethem’s review

    I think you might be letting your strong dislike of Lethem blind you a little. I agree that the first part of his review is really overblown and bad, but the rest is pretty good. And he certainly does put the novel into a literary perspective…or at least tries too, unlike Kakutani. Bottom line Lethem’s review does more than enough to inspire interest in McEwan’s book, and I think that deserves a little respect.

    I hope this doesn’t seem overly critical…I really respect your opinion of Lethem’s work, which has caused me to re-evaluate my own. Thank you for your review!

  2. I’ll BiteI’ll Bite: So what’s
    I’ll Bite

    I’ll Bite: So what’s the Eliot poem you would have discussed in relation to this book?

    I thought Lethem made an interesting point about McEwan’s departure from modernism, putting his writing nicely in context. And yes, like the previous commenter, I thought Lethem’s review started a bit over the top, but he did use that to make a point.

    Lethem did a great job in writing interestingly about a book instead of the usual regurtative dribble or opinionated (without really explaining why) crap like Kakutani’s review that usually passes for a review.

  3. Hi Bud — well, I’d have gone
    Hi Bud — well, I’d have gone right for the big two, “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land”.

    According to a biography I read, T. S. Eliot and Vivian Haigh-Wood had a disastrous and sexually unsuccessful honeymoon very much like the one described in “On Chesil Beach”. According to the sources, this haunted their marriage (though of course it was doomed by Vivian’s mental illness as well) and informed Eliot’s poetry by giving him his greatest symbol — the modern man’s struggle for sexual potency amidst the degradation of modern life, as a metaphor for the human yearning for spiritual rebirth.

    How’s that sound, Bud?

  4. prufrockWell, good. I see

    Well, good. I see what you’re saying, but not sure how that manifested itself in those poems vis-a-vis McEwen’s book. That is, for instance, Prufrock being middle aged and OCB being set in youth. But anyway, you answered my question.

    Oh, and I forgot to say one more thing in Lethem’s defense: You know the adage, “correlation is not causation”? That’s a sloppy way for me to say I don’t think that just because wikipedia says something that Lethem says that he got if from there. Not that it’s impossible, but you can’t just assume it.

    p.s. that other review at social affairs unit you mentioned was interesting too.

  5. Bud, thanks for your
    Bud, thanks for your comments.

    Okay, this is a stretch, but I have always had trouble believing that Prufrock is old. What’s the evidence — that he says “I am old”? It’s possible to feel old at 13, if the world is weighing on your head. Eliot wrote the poem as a young man — I believe it was his first poem — and I have always taken it to be the narrative of a person in, say, his early 20’s.

    And, point taken about causation. I was really just having a bit of fun there …

  6. I agree that Prufrock is a
    I agree that Prufrock is a young man. “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled” is not about being old, but about feeling old. To me, anyway.

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