Review: Solar, by Ian McEwan

Solar, by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 2010
283 pages
From 2007 to 2011 I was in a bit of a McEwan whirlwind. The film treatment of Atonement spun me one way, and the novel itself threw me off my feet and into a corner where I wept for about three days. So naturally I picked up everything I could easily find by McEwan, trying to piece together my sanity (which, if you know McEwan's writing) isn't really a smart thing to do. His protagonists are flawed, often unlikeable, quite often undeserving of the lives they lead. It's a reality that few would be eager to confront (and, yet, here I am)

I first heard of Solar via Walter Kirn (author, Up in the Air) when he reviewed it for The New York Times in March of 2010. The review was all-but scathing. To put it much simpler than he did: it's too high-concept, too scienc-y, and too contrived. When I read that review, I was disturbed somewhat. I don't think I believed that a McEwan novel could truly be any of those things. Naturally, I immediately sought the book out.

Not wanting to spend money on a hardcover, I thought I would get it from the library. But of course, all of the copies were already checked out, and there was a backlog of reservations. I was not going to be stopped. For the first (and, markedly, only) time, I downloaded Adobe Digital Editions and was able to borrow a digital copy of the novel from NYPL that way. This was before I had an iPad, so I started reading it on my computer.

Now if you know me, or you know my blog, you're aware that I dislike the concept of an e-reader. I won't go into it here, but just know that I am very solidly on the side of actual books - unfortunately for Solar. I tried - I truly tried. I got through a third of the novel when I had to stop - not because my borrowing was expired, but because I could not take reading those words on a screen any longer. I moved on immediately to another novel. As a result, I did not finish the book until this September - over four years later.

It was stumbling upon another Times review - this one by acclaimed critic Michiko Kakutani - that made me think to find the book again. I'm not easily swayed by the critical opinions of other writers, but had Kakutani clearly disliked it as much as Kirn had, I might not have given it a second glance. But Kakutani saw in the book what I eventually did as I read it - just how funny it is.

Yes, we've got another protagonist who is not just unlikeable but nasty and unctuous and - worst of all perhaps - forgetful. He has a memory like swiss cheese and is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. But, unlike some of McEwan's other creations, the author seems to want the reader to be in on his little joke at his character's expense. And yes, it's a lot of high-concept science that is inevitable above most readers' heads - but perhaps that's the point. The math and science are meant to buzz about like static while the characters play on, letting the reader focus more on their personal deficiencies than on their intellectual ones.

At least, that's how Act I plays out. Kakutani and I hold the same opinion that Acts II and III are mostly gratuitous and unnecessary. I hesitate to use the word contrived, but the structure of those later parts is as predictable as any Greek tragedy, and the ending is somewhat nebulously contrite - but one gets the feeling that even the author cannot stand the character any longer and so, as I did four years ago, he gave up.


Review: Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck
The Viking Press, 1945
This edition - The Centennial Edition
Penguin Books, 2002
181 pages
John Steinbeck's work really needs no introduction. As the writer of the most renowned examples of the rise and fall of the American Dream, his stories are both well-known and (often) very carefully ignored by many. He's the kind of writer one gets forced to read in high school and then abandon because the learning is finished.

The beauty and irony of that idea is that Steinbeck didn't stop learning. He worked up an interest in marine biology after The Grapes of Wrath was published, and he sought out ways to learn a great deal. Many modern writers get so focused on the writing deadlines and the press junkets, that they never find time to learn anything new. And if they do it's because they brought in a specialist to tell them why the science works the way the story needs it to work, etc. But it's very rare to find a modern author who writes what they know, or what they themselves have experienced. That type of writing seems limited to the ghostwriters of memoirs on the sale table at Barnes and Noble. No one goes on adventures anymore.

Steinbeck's desire to learn brought him into the path of Ed Ricketts (on whom Doc is based) who taught and adventured and collaborated with Steinbeck, and whose character is the heart of Cannery Row. The book is almost less like a novel and more like a magnifying glass on a real place in a real time. On the outside, the novel is about a rusty little fishing town. But inside, as Steinbeck put it, it's "a tide pool teeming with life after the ocean of commerce recedes."Unlike The Grapes of WrathCannery Row takes place in one petri dish, one tide pool, bleached by the sun and stinking like the sea. It's the kind of place you might pity someone for living in. But if Steinbeck's writing has ever proved anything, it's that those whom we pity most often have the richest and most colorful lives.

This novel is about innocence where it crosses paths with ignorance, and the danger at that intersection. It's ecofiction on a scope that boggles the mind. You don't need a plot to make a good story - not when you have characters like these. You don't need a clear beginning and a clear end, you just need beautifully-detailed people whose habits and mannerisms will stick with you beyond the novel - as if you're recalling a memory of a person you actually know rather than someone who may or may not have been dreamt up.

And maybe that's what has always drawn me to Steinbeck - the way the characters sort of float along with you like grimy fairytales, until you stop believing in that sort of thing, and then you're left with the grit that calls on the American spirit to keep adventuring and, more importantly, keep living - even when, maybe, all you have to call your own is a set of curtains on the rusted out boiler tank you call home.