Friday, May 06, 2005

There is a delightfully negative review

of Ian McEwan's new novel by John Banville in The New York Review of Books. (NB: It is a scandal that a print subscription to the NYRB doesn't automatically give you electronic access. So no on-line version.) I am fully persuaded--I decided some time ago that I would give
Saturday a miss, I liked Enduring Love but Amsterdam was pretty weak and Atonement massively overrated. In sum, McEwan just isn't my kind of novelist. Not John Banville's, either:

It happens occasionally that a novelist will lose his sense of artistic proportion, especially when he has done a great deal of research and preparation. I have read all those books, he thinks, I have made all these notes, so how can I possibly go wrong? Or he devises a program, a manifesto, which he believes will carry him free above the demands of mere art--no deskbound scribbler he, no dabbler in dreams, but a man of action, a match for any scientist or soldier. He sets to work, and immediately matters start to go wrong--the thing will not flow, the characters are mulishly stubborn, even the names are not right--but yet he persists, mistaking the frustrations of an unworkable endeavor for the agonies attendant upon the fashioning of a masterpiece. But no immensity of labor will bring to successful birth a novel that was misconceived in the first place.

Something of the kind seems to have happened here. Saturday is a dismayingly bad book. The numerous set pieces---brain operations, squash game, the encounters with Baxter, etc.--are hinged together with the subtlety of a child's Erector Set. The characters too, for all the nuzzling and cuddling and punching and manhandling in which they are made to indulge, drift in their separate spheres, together but never touching, like the dim stars of a lost galaxy. The politics of the book is banal, of the sort that is to be heard at any middle-class Saturday-night dinner party, before the talk moves on to property prices and recipes for fish stew. There are good things here, for instance the scene when Perowne visits his senile mother in an old-folks' home, in which the writing is genuinely affecting in its simplicity and empathetic force. Overall, however, Saturday has the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair--who makes a fleeting personal appearance in the book, ozozing insincerity--were to appoint a committee to produce a 'novel for our time,' the result would surely be something like this.

7 comments:

  1. That's a beautifully written review. I did like Saturday (though that squash scene was tough to plow through), but I can understand --and even agree-- with Banville's criticisms. Ultimately, though, those issues didn't affect my enjoyment of the novel. I suppose that's part of the allure of books for me, how different readers can have such different reactions to the same texts.

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  2. Hey, Jenny -- could you e-mail me privately? I have something I would like to ask you, off-blog...
    Thanks! Margaret at Bookish Marginalia (margaretable at yahoo.com)

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  3. Beautifully written, but I would call it wholly unfair. "Dismayingly bad?" The ending to Atonement was 10x more contrived than anything in this book. This, the NY Mag piece and the Zoe Heller NYT review are, at times, as vicious and bitchslappy as anything Dale Peck ever wrote. I don't get it.

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  4. Oh dear, now I feel rather evil. But I get really tired of the bland reviewing culture--I think there's definitely a place for sharp and smart negative reviews of writers whose sales aren't going to be affected in any case. It's no fun to see someone beating up on an underdog, in other words, but Banville's piece attractively (to me) took a strong position and developed it in funny, intellectually focused prose.

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  5. You shouldn't feel evil. I actually enjoy Dale Peck in small doses. But what happens when you've read and enjoyed a book and then someone comes along with a list of reasons why it's shit? If I were not smitten with McEwan, I would've taken the Banville and Heller reviews as reasons not to read Saturday. Now I wonder if I'm an ignoramus for liking it.

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  6. I think the main point is that while reviews may or may not be interesting in themselves to read, they are virtually useless as a guide to whether you'll like the book or not--strange...

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