We love Ian McEwan. We also love when esteemed literary publications surprise us with criticism of a writer so adored. Indeed, whatever one thinks of Solar, the new McEwan novel, it is precisely those readers who have anticipated its arrival who most likely have read yesterday’s Times Book Review. And the cover piece is a barbecue—a beautiful, unabashedly literary barbecue, complete with a graphic somewhat unsubtly suggestive of a child’s tool for target practice.
Walter Kirn’s analysis of why the book fails it itself McEwan-esque: it is elegant; it is literary; it forms an arc starting with the lure of language and ending with a description of, literally, shit. Or rather, a critique of McEwan’s description of his character—Nobel-prize-winning physicist Michael Beard—’s, shit. Kirn’s choice is to hate the book for its perfection, and to hate the fact that perfect writing can cover up a true bore. Or worse: it can cover up a plot which does not work at all, or even a narrator or hero who is himself uniquely eminent in being predictable.
For Kirn, the book is “so good—so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off—that it’s actually quite bad.” He continues:
Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.
“Virtuous pain” is echoed in “exquisite bore” near the end of the review. Kirn considers the art of the book:
The performance is an exquisite bore, with all the over-choreographed dullness of a touring ice-ballet, with off-Season Olympic skaters. Sexual moments abound, but their bravado blend of lyricism and clinical detail is queasy-making. So too, and in a similar way, is this description of a toilet bowl over which a nauseated [main character] Beard leans in the hope of relieving his discomfort. To help himself vomit, he looks down and imagines “the chocolate arabesque of another man’s excrement.” This fine flourish of scatology is not only verbally overripe but also, if one pictures its real-life referent, verbally inaccurate. “Arabesque,” which denotes the sinuous, interlaced forms of Islamic design, may be a gourmet literary word that’s wryly incongruous in this filthy setting, but it doesn’t describe a smear of fecal matter.
So let’s throw out the Magic Realists with the bathwater, too; either way, this call for adherence to what feels like a literary rule is misplaced in what is otherwise a brilliant—and uniquely so—contrarian critique of McEwan. With this piece, Kirn has Gladwelled his English colleague. Gladwelled: the process by which someone almost universally acknowledged as possessing an unparalleled mind (analytic, literary, scientific or otherwise) has his or her intellectual bag of tricks checked once more for security purposes and discovers they contain—at least on this flight—nothing truly dangerous.
It has begun.