Monday, May 08, 2006

What I'm reading

Chickywang wants me to explain my early dislike of Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, so I'm folding it into a list of book recommendations.

Ian McEwan--Saturday
I liked Atonement but found it a little overrated, so I was resistant to Saturday to begin with. Let me say this: McEwan writes incredible scenes. When Henry Perowne, the narrator, interacts with other characters, McEwan manages the interior and exterior life of our main character brilliantly, constantly ratcheting up the tension through Perowne's ethical ambiguity and the background of larger events. He also handles intimate gestures well; Perowne has an eye that allows McEwan to focus on minute human actions that resonate by demonstrating our larger concerns.

That said, McEwan can also be a tremendously redundant writer. He often deals with ideas too explicitly, announcing thematics rather than giving the reader space to explore. James Wood, in a positive review of the novel, points out how McEwan saturates the reader with the fact of Perowne's life as a doctor. Perowne's perspective is artificially limited and limiting. Also, McEwan deals overtly with September 11 and the Iraq War, neither of which seems to serve him well. The passages that deal with arguments about both seem stale, unsurprising to me. I prefer Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to Atonement and, instead of Saturday:

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
I disliked Woolf for a long time, eventually acknowledging a grudging respect for To the Lighthouse after I read it the third time. Same with Mrs. Dalloway. On the first reading, I found myself impatient, a little confused. By the second time I read it, a year later, I luxuriated in Woolf's handling of the interior life, the bizarre narrative choices that seem risky even today. Go read it. Feel humbled. And after you're done, read

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Every time I read an Austen novel, I love it, vow to read more, then forget her for two years until circumstances require me to read another, which I love. I'm like a bad boyfriend. (Speaking of which, T.C. Boyle has a story called "I Dated Jane Austen." I'm not a huge Boyle fan, and the joke of the story is in the title--dated, in both senses--but it's a clever story. Smarter people than me recommend it.) Austen's first novel, but published posthumously, Northanger Abbey has gotten short shrift from critics, apparently, but it's a fun, hilarious novel. The comedy is broader and more obvious than in her other novels, but it's a nice palate cleanser (and more complicated than I'm making it sound) after Woolf. Plus, there's this, courtesy of one of the characters: "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." Here, here. Plus, one of the characters is one of literature's great douchebags--in fact, Austen almost titled the novel The Douchebag. And not to keep up the feminist reading list, but next read

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
Disturbingly prescient, though Atwood would probably bonk me on the head and say, "No, you douchebag, it described America in the eighties. Things have only gotten worse." Such a smart novel.

I'll leave off there since I've got to go make headway in Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which I'm not enjoying at the moment.


Soggy Bear said...

Were you, or were you not just witness to an episode of When Petite Critical Theorists in Espadrilles Attack! I mean, Jameson actually said, "in the end, everything is a douchebag," but I'm thinking scholarship is a sinkhole anyway.

Also, thanks for the discussion of McEwan. I hear they're making a movie of that thing. Uh-huh. Can you say, "Contrived plotline?"

Wanda Ball said...

Well-put about Saturday! But I still lurve Atonement. I discuss 'em both over at my place.

PS Who plays Henry Perowne?