Monday, June 28, 2010


by Ian McEwan

A severe disapointment. I came to McEwan first through his most recent books, finding Saturday a gorgeously written and esquisitely paced pscyhological meditation, and On Chesil Beach even better in its use of time juxtaposition and sympathetic emotional disconnect. After that I was impressed enough to follow up on the author, making him one of the few contemporary novelists I’ve read all the work by. His earlier stuff ranged in quality, some of it quite good (Atonement) but pretty much all of it behind the first two I’ve read. So, I anticipated him as an improving author, and quite eagerly awaited his next book. And, on reading it, I’ve found it far from the great novel I expected, in fact I wouldn’t even pronounce it good. It’s not the weakest thing he’s written, but it’s heavily flawed and frequently frustrating.

On the sentence to sentence level of writing McEwan still shows himself to be a great writer, bringing in a vividness of experience and action that are quite engaging. He also shows himself skilled at characterization and establishing the multitude small details of a personality, unfortunately the personality in question is made so thorougly offputting and loathsome it’s difficult to celebrate the experience. The fundamental problem comes in with plotting, the whole structure of the book being highly disjointed and appearing to shift among different subgenres in following the character journey, through an array of ex-science, renewed science, marital drama, murder plotting and environmental intrigue that are in the end alienating when taken as a single plot. It seems clear that McEwan intends for a tone of tragicomedy at the key moments and perhaps the larger plot, but that works poorly because the comedy is rather awkward and unfulfilled and tragedy depends on one not rooting against the protagonist.

I was also profoundly irritated by the continual, ill-informed bashing of postmodernism, and much of the humanities in academia. It’s a broad, strawman satire of over the top theory driven irrationalism, it’s not very accurate or at all unique as a criticism, and it goes on for far too long. It was intrusive to the story and served as more attack against the academy in a shallowly thought out manner of which there is already more than enough.

Taken as a novel about environmentalism, the book points up to human foibles and shortsightedness involved with individuals on all sides of the equation, but particularly in the opposition to it. By the end of the story the attempt to reform the world through new solar power have failed, due to personal dysfunction coming back with force and, more broadly, a capitalist mentality with its head firmly buried in the sand. That’s worth saying as far as it goes, but isn’t in itself compelling enough to carry the story. In a rather bizarre reveiw, the Guardian praised Solar as the first novel putting environmental scientists as heroes and centering the effort to engage with the environment as central. Beyond the issue of undermining itself by having such a petty, shortsighted, sexist, self-righteous individual as the hero in question, that review shows a systematic ignorance of the rich sciene fiction that has taken this standpoint more centrally and more effectively--the writing of David Brin and Kim Stanley Robinson in particular come to mind. This particular book is not one which shows the cultural divsion between the literary and SF molds to the advantage of the former.

Better than: The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
Worse than: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

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