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Monthly Archives: June 2010

Nothing Like the Sun

Book #20 (June 9, 2010): Solar by Ian McEwan

Is Ian McEwan capable of writing a bad (or even an uninteresting) sentence? If he is, I haven’t caught him at it yet, but then there’s a lot by him that I haven’t read. As to whether he can write a bad (or even uninteresting) novel, that’s another question, but I’ll leave that one to those of you who have a more complete knowledge of his work. Maybe by the end of this year I’ll be able to answer it myself.

Solar certainly isn’t a bad novel and for much of its length it’s a fascinating one. It’s about a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, Michael Beard, who isn’t a particularly admirable human being and in many ways not even a particularly admirable scientist, his reputation being based almost entirely on one blindingly brilliant insight that managed to enter the 20th century canon of profound scientific discoveries alongside Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In practice, however, his more extraordinary achievement seems to be that, for a short, fat, aging, bald, ordinary-looking, grumpy and not particularly wealthy fellow, he manages to sleep with an extraordinary number of beautiful women and somehow makes more than a few of them fall in love with him. This leads to a series of failed marriages and relationships, about which he really doesn’t seem to give a damn, being more concerned about where his next meal is coming from and how he’s going to get revenge on the oafish fellow that his fifth wife is having an affair with in order to get even with him for all the women he’s had affairs with while married to her.

McEwan’s  major achievement here, other than some of the most elegant, witty and readable prose I’ve ever seen, is that for at least a third of this book he manages to make this fellow interesting and very nearly (but not quite) sympathetic. It doesn’t hurt that McEwan also pulls off a few nifty plot twists that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling (except to say that one of the minor ones has to do with the effect of extreme frostbite on a penis). Unfortunately, as the story proceeds into its second third (the novel is divided into three parts), Beard’s sheer self obsession begins to become annoying, even off-putting, and by the last third of the book I was really starting to hope that he was going to come to a bad end and that he would come to it sooner rather than later. Let’s just say that McEwan didn’t disappoint me.

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The Last First Draft of History

Book #19 (May 28, 2010): The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Christopher Buckley reviewed this on the front page of the New York Times Book Review a couple of weeks ago and by the time I finished the first paragraph or two I stopped reading the review because it was already clear to me that it was a book that I wanted to read and I didn’t want any of it spoiled for me. Buckley made it sound like it was a brilliant new novel by a brilliant new novelist and I think he was pretty much right on both accounts. The novel is about the operations of an international English-language newspaper published in Italy and each chapter is about someone involved in the operations of the paper, with interstitial segments about the paper’s history. The action of the book proper takes place around 2006 or 2007.

Rachman’s writing is sharp and his characterization is deft. At first what I thought he was up to here was comedy or perhaps a satirical poke at the death throes of the newspaper business in the oncoming age of Internet news, and this is certainly part of what the book is about, but in the end it’s clear that Rachman is up to a great deal more than that. Some of what’s here is funny, some of it’s sad, but in the end the book sort of tore my heart out, and I didn’t see that coming. I like the way Rachman draws his characters in gradually broadening strokes, making them at first seem fairly one-dimensional and then bringing out new elements in them that are almost always surprising. There’s an optimism to his view of humanity; most of these people turn out to be better, or at least more understandably human, than they seem at first. Of course, a few also turn out to be real shits. But with a few exceptions, they’re all people you’d like to know, even if on occasion you might prefer to know them from a safe distance.

There’s not much plot in the long run, but each major character is the protagonist of a single chapter, appearing thereafter as bit players in the stories of others. If the book as a whole has a protagonist, it’s the newspaper itself. This is a difficult technique to pull off and Rachman does it well. He’s one of those writers who writes beautifully without seeming to write beautifully; he just effortlessly seems to know the right words and the right details to bring out in order to paint rapid character portraits that never seem at all hurried. I wish I wrote this well. I wish every other writer I’ve read so far this year wrote this well. (And, in all fairness, a couple of them do.)