Friday, August 11, 2006

Book Reviews: I. McEwan, J. Stewart (updated)

Ian McEwan, Saturday (B)

Saturday is a rather eventful day in the life of a stolid, though somewhat dreamy, surgeon. It's not quite held together enough event-wise (or thematically) to stalk out a normal novel. But this one's not really about moving the story along--McEwan dissects this man's day almost moment-by-moment, or at least includes all the moments that lead off to thought digressions. The cascade from thought to thought comes off with impressive verisimilitude--it's similar enough to my own daily mental excursions--and may be an example one way an essayist could turn into a novelist. Most of his digressions are suitably interesting.

While the drifting course of subjects works as a reasonable thinking model, it's less effective as a storytelling medium. The density of asides doesn't always match the intensity of the moment. This could be acceptable in a different frame, but I don't really need those long, dull stretches parsed out by the instant.

It's important (on the story's terms) to remark that Saturday is set around the 2003 buildup to the Iraq war (a lumped-together code phrase that's every bit as annoying as 'the events of 9-11'). McEwan stages a demonstration near the protagonist's home, and a couple of soliloquies and an external argument debate the issue for the reader. Now, fiction in general presents arguments about real-life issues on some level, which is what makes it relevant, an extra layer of meaning that separates a serious the good from the great in many cases. Often, this discussion is thematic, implicit, and usually it's about the deeply personal, or the deeply philosophical.

It's best when these discussions are broad-based and subtle. As the scope of the central argument narrows to the specific, it begins to look like a polemic. When it becomes explicit, even more so. McEwan tries to paint a fair view of the Iraq war, but he's got the benefit of hindsight (his characters sure look prescient), and is inevitably stacking these argument in his favor. His arguments were not even particularly novel, but a rehash of the prepackaged synopses out in the media then and now. I felt mildly insulted as a reader. (Thankfully, there was more to the novel than this.)

McEwan also lost half a grade for his use of the present tense. It can generate a flow, but it's always disrupting, and I don't see how it was added much here.

Jon Stewart, Naked Pictures of Famous People (B)

The only way these two books became a paired reading is that I bought them both in the airport.

I love Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, and it's hard to not read his essays in the light of his other gig. It's not a favorable way to look at it, because most of them would have benefited his comic delivery. The funniest of the bunch are the ones that read most like short stories.

Also, written in 1998, the subject matter can be a little weak. A guy like Stewart may need to reflect the shine of weightier real-life farce. Stewart is funniest when he makes you cringe a little bit too. Making fun of a dumb Gerald Ford (suspiciously like current Bush caracitures) just doesn't hit very hard.

(It's possible that I just wasn't in the mood.)


Anonymous said...

Stop your bitching and write. We are reading.

Keifus said...

Yeah, sorry about that. I think I oughtta switch to lemonade.