Reviewing the Review: April 18 2010

Walter Kirn is back. Owner of the strongest voice among the regular New York Times Book Review fiction critics, he’s returned from his Hollywood sojourn to review the latest novel by another confident writer, Ian McEwan (who, for what it’s worth, also wrote a book that became a hit movie that didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Picture).

But while Walter Kirn seems to be hitting his stride as a novelist, the superb Ian McEwan (whose best books, like Atonement, The Innocent and On Chesil Beach, are worth cherishing) seems to be in that familiar dreaded late phase of literary success, the phase in which an author stops giving his readers what they like best about his work but challenges them to love him anyway. What we love best about McEwan is his gift for excruciating psychological plots in quaint or dramatic historical settings (a grand English mansion in the 1930s, a seedy Berlin apartment in the late 1940s, a disconcerting British beach in the early 1960s). His new Solar deals with climate science and takes place in the unromantic present, and not one of the several reviews I’ve read has been remotely positive.

Kirn doesn’t like the book either, and he spends much of the review trying to understand exactly must be going wrong when Ian McEwan writes a bad book. His analysis is convincing enough:

What makes “Solar” such a noble nullity is that it answers these challenges so easily, with such a quotient of stress-free mastery that they feel less like challenges than like problems in a literary exam the author has devised as a means of proving his own prowess. This may be Beard’s story, but it’s McEwan’s vehicle, constructed to let him pull all the showy turns of the major contemporary novelist and ambitious public intellectual: personalizing the political, politicizing the personal and poeticizing everything else.

It’s a killing review from start to finish, but there’s a grain of hope here; we all wish Ian McEwan would start pleasing us again. If the bad reviews of Solar haven’t bruised him too much, perhaps he will. On Chesil Beach, after all, was the novel just before this one. But something about the look and tone of Solar gives me a feeling that the days of Chesil Beach are forever gone.

Contrast Walter Kirn’s capable handling of this novel with this Book Review’s most surprising weak spot: Sophie Gee on Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. I just finished this book, enjoyed it thoroughly and wrote about it in my response to this quiz question. So it’s a surprise to find that Sophie Gee can barely conceal her boredom with the book, because it “doesn’t contain much about Austen that hasn’t been covered elsewhere”, amounting only to “a series of tidy chapters offering an accessible guide”. Gee apparently considers it a felony to write a book about a 200-year-old author without conducting original research into the author’s life (what, I wonder, does Gee think there is left to find?) and sides with other Jane Austen experts who have publicly taken exception to Harman’s popular treatment. Here’s the review’s closing paragraph:

“Jane’s Fame” isn’t aimed at specialists, but its repackaging of existing academic research attracted controversy in Britain when the Oxford scholar Kathryn Sutherland told The Observer that Harman had used her work without attribution, remarking that it felt “a bit like identity theft.” Harman registered a defense through the Press Complaints Commission, which advised the newspaper to publish her reply. Their exchange, a reminder of how overwrought Austen skirmishes can be, recalls once again her prophetic quip: much labor, little effect.

Must the book be aimed at specialists to be worth something? Don’t many bestselling works of non-fiction repackage the research of others, with or without attribution? If Sophie Gee (a professor at Princeton, according to her reviewer bio) is so academically-minded that she can’t abide a lively synthesis aimed at a general audience, then she was certainly the wrong choice to review this book.

Peter Carey’s new Parrot and Olivier in America gets another disappointed review today (that’s three up, three down) by Thomas Mallon. The novel has something to do with incidents in the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, but I can’t quite penetrate Mallon’s convoluted plot summary and don’t feel motivated to try. Considering Peter Carey and Ian McEwan together, I realize that my feelings about Carey and McEwan with regard to historical fiction are the exact opposite of each other. My favorite Carey work, by far, is Theft, one of his few novels with a modern-day setting. I always want Ian McEwan to write about the past, and I seem to only want Peter Carey to write about the present.

David Shields likes Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point but I think I’ve already exceeded my quota for writing about David Shields this year, so I’ll just mention that this piece exists. Joe Queenan’s essay about baseball in fiction is a dumb jokey mess, and I won’t even give him points for hating the Yankees.

One Response

  1. Contrary to many reviewers, I
    Contrary to many reviewers, I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s a larky, funny book, plumbing no depths, just entertaining as hell. It stands in McEwan’s work as Inherent Vice does in Pynchon’s — both are enjoyable, funny books that can’t be compared to their authors’ superior works such as Atonement or Gravity’s Rainbow, but, taken for what they are, are excellent reads.

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