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A Book Review Review

Thursday, March 31, 2005
    The Girl Who Cried Woolf

    Well, for a variety of reasons, all of them related to my workload, I didn't actually get to see Ian McEwan in person the other night, but I can still live vicariously through the NYT profile and the Michiko Kakutani review from a few weeks back. (If I'd had the time at the time, I might have mentioned that to call Saturday "one of the most powerful pieces of post-9/11 fiction yet published" might be a bit like calling the Vermont-Syracuse game "one of the most powerful games in the NCAA tournament yet played." Which is to say, true, but possibly premature.)

    But this week, the big McEwan action seems to be at Slate, where Stephen Metcalf is saddled with a sub-headline that promises some book review reviewing ("How critics got Saturday wrong") which doesn't accurately describe what he sets out to do in an otherwise fine piece. The other Slate take on Saturday, however, is a classic example of why book review reviewing might be a useful thing to do. Katie Roiphe starts off with a false lead:

    "It seems strange that Ian McEwan's homage to Virginia Woolf in his new novel, Saturday, has not been more widely commented upon. The distinctive structure of the book, which follows one day in the life of a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, is the exact structure of Mrs. Dalloway, which follows a day in the life of a housewife, Clarissa Dalloway."

    Actually, Kakutani made that precise point about Woolf in the second paragraph of her review on March 18th, and so did John Freeman when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran his interview with McEwan two days after hers, the same day Marta Salij (Detroit Free Press) invoked Woolf in her review. Hell, way back on March 13th, James Schiff's Charlotte News & Observer headline was "A 'Mrs. Dalloway' for post-9/11 world." Last Sunday's headline in the Oregon Register-Guard review by Hephzibah Anderson adds, "It's like Virginia Woolf meets the war on terror." If I could get past the subscription firewalls at the NY Sun and LA Times, I'd run the full quotes from those reviews, too, but maybe you get the point.*

    So what exactly is Katie Roiphe on about when she "wonders why so few critics have interested themselves in McEwan's connection to Virginia Woolf"? Actually, Roiphe's game becomes apparent towards the end of her review: "It may be that there is a certain gentle sexism at work: Is it too hard to imagine that a male writer of McEwan's stature might be channeling Virginia Woolf?" A pundit's always got to have a hook, and for Roiphe, that hook is inevitably going to be about sexism. It might well be the case that the book reviewing world is a gently sexist one, whatever that means, but a simple Google search would have demonstrated that the Woolf/McEwan bond was the wrong issue with which to try to make that point. Basic research of the sort one expects from freshman comp students, let alone Ivy League English professors, would have proved to Roiphe that, no, it isn't too hard to imagine McEwan might be "channeling" Woolf; apparently, that interpretation borders on the obvious. It's a shame Roiphe didn't run that Google search...and an even bigger shame that her editor at Slate didn't, either. Because as nicely as she charts McEwan's literary debts, Roiphe's not saying anything significantly new on the subject--and when she claims she is, she's misinforming Slate readers...some of whom will be gullible enough to believe her.

    * And that's just the American reviews; in England, Peter Kemp (Sunday Times) noticed the similarities when the book was published in January, and at this point I confess I got bored with proving Roiphe wrong.

    posted by ron @ Thursday, March 31, 2005 | Permanent link

Tuesday, March 29, 2005
    Violent Saturday

    Since Ian McEwan's going to be reading at a Manhattan bookstore tonight, I thought I'd prepare myself by checking up on some of the reviews Saturday has been getting. I can't really review Keith Gessen's (New York) thoughtful piece, because he's a moderately close acquaintance, but take note of the "strikingly uniform arc" he identifies in McEwan's fiction:

    "He begins with a modern urban character suffering from loneliness and anomie despite a seeming façade of contentment and affection, and then proceeds to terrorize the character into contact with life. There is a technical mastery to the constructions that borders on the clinical and mirrors the characters’ own lack of affect. If the people in McEwan’s novels occasionally wonder why they cannot feel, one occasionally wonders if it isn’t because McEwan never taught them how."

    Observe also the comparison between McEwan's opening lines and those of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow; Keith's obviously a guy who's given a lot of thought as to how language works its precise effects. For now, let's move on to the front-page NYTBR review from Zoe Heller, a long, long piece that recounts the plot so minutely one almost feels no obligation, and certainly feels no strength, to actually read the book afterwards to see how it "capture[s] the moral tangle of personal life and historical context that is our lived experience."

    Mike Littwin (Baltimore Sun) observes that McEwan's taking on the post-9/11 world as a subject means that his fiction and reality have finally come into synch, then winds carefully through the plot's twists and turns before deciding it's "a political novel, perhaps too much so, asking questions perhaps too directly." Carol Herman (Washington Times) does a little less recapping of the "breathtaking narrative" and focuses a bit more intently on the "uncommonly strong and graceful" web of literary allusions (though in all fairness, Littwin certainly doesn't skimp on that front). On one point, they both agree: Herman notes that "the author allows Matthew Arnold to be part of saving the day," while Littwin observes that "a Matthew Arnold poem offers a chance at rescue and redemption."

    Jean Charbonneau (Denver Post) doesn't invoke Arnold directly, but in sharing the details of the climax's "allegory of high culture winning over the forces of obscurantism," s/he does give away a bit too much. The final paragraph's also a bit weak, playing up McEwan's alleged widespread reputation as "the best novelist in the English language today" and declaring that he's on a roll. It feels like a summation, but to a certain extent it's an evasion. And a curious one, given that Charbonneau's clearly not afraid to engage the novel directly, even if the insights s/he offers are fairly bland, i.e., "a highly cerebral man... makes for an unusual and often captivating narrator."

    And take one more careful note: where Charbonneau and other writers find brilliant suspense, such that Heller calls McEwan "the master clockmaker of novelists," Gessen sees quite the opposite, viewing Saturday as heading "with great deliberation toward its crisis" and a conclusion that marks McEwan's "refusal to strike through any masks or shatter any windows." Even for a reviewer who's known for poking holes in the conventional wisdom of the literati, that's a pretty searing indictment. He's not alone in making it, though; Heller also wonders if the contrived climax might reveal that " [McEwan's] symmetries seem to have gotten the better of him and his art comes perilously close to stifling life altogether."

    posted by ron @ Tuesday, March 29, 2005 | Permanent link


BEATRIX archives

Ron Hogan is a freelance writer who reviews books and interviews writers for publications such as Publishers Weekly. He is also the author of an illustrated overview of American films from the 1970s called The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane, due out from Bulfinch Press in November 2005.

How did this season's hot books generate their heat? And why do other novels surrounded by buzz turn into duds? Beatrix, a subset of my longrunning literary blog Beatrice.com, openly speculated about these questions in the form of "book review reviews" from January to August of 2005.

Beatrice; or, Where It All Began
I first launched Beatrice.com in 1995 as a venue for author interviews. In late 2003, I switched over to a daily blog of news and commentary about books and authors. What you see here now is essentially one side of that blog's original makeup, the side that dealt with how books were received by the literary culture. The full blog contains not only these "book review reviews," but news items about various writers and original insights from the authors themselves in the form of interviews, blog excerpts, and guest articles.


Write Me:

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I'll Show You Mine
One of my regular gigs is as a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Although some people have a problem with anonymous reviews in PW, I'm all for them in general principle (though I think embargoes are a crock, but that's a different story)...anyway, I'd like to give any reveiwers who might be reading this the same opportunity to critique me, so I'll look into whether it's kosher for me to pull back the curtain. And I'll try to land some assignments with bylines, too. (In fact, if you're reading this, and you can assign book reviews...)


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