Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Solar Second Opinion

Posted by Adam Roberts on 05/05/10 at 02:13 AM

[A pendant to Rohan’s review of McEwan’s latest novel, here’s mine, hoiked over from Punkadiddle]

Not at all a bad novel, this. I’d go so far as to call it really quite a good novel. Densely rendered in a way that builds its world and, above all, conjures its clunky central character into life—it is in essence a character study: onetime Nobel-prizewinner but now dried-up, weak-willed, venal, tubby Michael Beard: one quarter endearing to three quarters monstrous egotism, selfishness, sexist objectification of women and worse. The plot has to do with the latter stage of his double-crest career; having stolen a (dead) junior colleague’s research he makes a big splash with a new solar power technology to address global warming. The detail is well handled; the pages turned. But there’s a ‘but’ and the but is: but it’s not funny. It’s trying to be funny, but it is not funny. At no point is it funny. McEwan perhaps thinks his delineation of character is richly droll, but it is solidly, painfully, unavoidably not. He might even (this is harder to credit, but you never know) think his awful, groaning set-pieces are funny, but they are not funny, not in the least funny, totally lacking in Funny: Beard on the ice at the north pole takes a whizz, freezes his willy and, when his chapstick falls down his trouser leg, thinks his todger has dropped off. I guarantee you the sentence I have just typed, there, is eighty times funnier than McEwan’s treatment of that scene. And the sentence I have just typed isn’t in the least bit funny. There’s a scene on a train where Beard silently battles with a passenger who, he thinks, keeps eating his crisps, only to discover later that they’d been the stranger’s crisps all along. As John Crace, I think it was, pointed out in the Grauniad, this is one of the oldest and hoariest of anecdotes—McEwan has another character spiel a quantity of meta acknowledgment of this fact, but it still feels old.

The book it most reminded me of was Golding’s Paper Men: another amazingly ill-advised, profoundly unfunny late-career attempt to write a Hilarous Comic Novel that was, like this one, quite interesting in other ways. Solar shares with Paper Men a self-reflexivity (the real theme of McEwan’s novel is not global warming, but the sense of an unearned easy-ride in life predicated upon a celebrity the owner doesn’t really deserve: a famous writer’s lament), and some lovely chunks of prose. Paper Men ends well, though; where Solar‘s ending is very weak.

Two things, then, occur to me. One is an answer to the question: but why is McEwan’s novel so desperately unfunny? The answer, I think, is that his timing is shit. The McEwan Prose(TM) may be, and often is, an effective instrument; but it is a ponderous one, a slow-build and accumulatory one. It’s simply incapable of the necessary pace or nimbleness required to make a person laugh. Tant pis, you might say; and there are genuine satisfactions to be had from this book—you should read it; your time would not be wasted. Except that it leaves the reader wondering why McEwan thought he ought to write a comic novel, or why any people not previously having suffered serious brain damage might think it worthy of shortlisting for the Wodehouse prize. McEwan is an interesting and worthwhile, if overpraised, writer of novels; but he’s not fit to shine Wodehouse’s shoes when it comes to writing prose.

The other thing, though, has to do with the sort of ‘literary prose’ that is so dominant in writing today. To be more precise, I wonder the extent to which one of the satisfactions this sort of prose offers isn’t exactly the same thing, inflected slightly differently, offered by the observations of stand-up comedians. When a laugh-merchant makes an observation, we may laugh because we recognize the object. When Nabokov writes ‘the gas ring put out a sudden blue claw’ we experience a sort of delight of recognition: ‘yes! Yes! that’s exactly right! that’s just what it looks like when the gas ring is lit!’ Updike (say) is very good on that, and McEwan punches his weight. Except that a stand-up comedian is able to parlay that delighted recognition, that articulation of the familiar that makes it come new to us, into laughter. McEwan can’t do that.


Comments

Beard on the ice at the north pole takes a whizz, freezes his willy and, when his chapstick falls down his trouser leg, thinks his todger has dropped off. I guarantee you the sentence I have just typed, there, is eighty times funnier than McEwan’s treatment of that scene. And the sentence I have just typed isn’t in the least bit funny.

Ian McEwen, you just got pwned.

. . . he’s not fit to shine Wodehouse’s shoes when it comes to writing prose.

Game, set, match.

By Bill Benzon on 05/05/10 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Although Solar did leave me fairly unsatisfied in various ways, I’m not sure the humour is quite as hopeless as you suggest.
I did like the chapstick scene, although I accept that my enjoyment of it might have been along the lines you suggest - recognition without real laughter. And even though I had heard a version of the crisps scene before, it was well-written enough for me to enjoy it anew whilst reading it (though the subsequent acknowledgement of it being ‘borrowed’ was somewhat groan-inducing).
I have to say that while I accept your criticisms, I found those to be the best parts of the book (along with the well-written accident scene). Without them, I think it would have been a real mess.

By on 05/08/10 at 06:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ponderous slow-building comedy can be hilarious (W. C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, Jacques Tati) and can be approximated in prose, even in high-art prose (viz. parts of Flaubert, Joyce, Beckett). But I nevertheless agree with your diagnosis: it can’t be approximated in clever prose. Comedy’s stately rhythm is that of stoopidity. Pnin was a brave compromise: clever prose agape at stoopid spectacle.

By Ray Davis on 05/08/10 at 11:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It helps that Pnin is also very moving, in some portions intensely so.  Get the emotions flowing and some’ll wash over into your ‘laughter’ bucket.  Solar is an intellectual exercise, elaborately working-through a symbolic conceit, everything in the novel subordinated to that.  Not that I mind intellectual, you know.

By Adam Roberts on 05/09/10 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: