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[594] Solar – Ian McEwan


” Beard comfortably shared all of humanity’s faults, and here he was, a monster of insincerity, cradling tenderly on his arm a woman he thought he might leave one day soon, listening to her with sensitive expression in the expectation that soon he would have to do some talking himself, when all he wanted was to make love to her without preliminaries, eat the meal she had cooked, drink a bottle of wine, and then sleep—without blame, without guilt. ” (172-3)

The protagonist in Solar, a fat, middle-aged Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Michael Beard, is the most despicable character I’ve ever encountered in literature. He is more than disreputable—a pig, a dick. In the course of the book he will not only cheat on five wives and innumerable girlfriends and frame another man who has made him a cuckold for murder in order be rid of him. Solar spans almost 10 years in the first decade of the new millennium and Beard has only coasted on his reputation. His research has run dry, to the extent that he steals another scientist’s plans for cultivating global warming and tries to cash in with his idea.

This was what women had marched for, birth as well as abortion. Perhaps there was nothing he could do. She was absolving him of responsibility, but this was not how it would unfold, this was not how it would unfold, this was not how she would feel when their lives had been transformed, when they repeated the tired, angry scenes, with shouting, the baby wailing, a slamming door . . . (180)

In between speeches and conferences he is wallowed in a dozen of affairs that none of which, to his relief, have produced in a child, until a girlfriend decides to have one without asking for child support. The rest of the book indulges in harping on Beard’s gluttonous habits and sexual promiscuity, while he’s kicking into motion a money-making machine. The writing is above par, and the book is actually intermittently amusing, but ultimately Solar is a repulsive story that showcases McEwan’s cleverness but seems empty at its core. Beard’s central conceit and self-deception are tiresome, and the contrived notion that he is some kind of irresistible hot-shot babe magnet is just ludicrous.

287 pp. Doubleday. Hardcover. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[587] Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan


” A couple of weak stories were not going to dislodge my conviction that he was an original voice, a brilliant mind—and my wonderful lover. He was my subject, my case, my mission. His art, my work and our affair were one. If he failed, I failed. Simply then—we would flourish together. ” (Ch.15, p.233)

To me McEwan has always been a hit-or-miss, despite his deft lyrical touch. The premise of Sweet Tooth, however, draws me in instantly. It’s a satisfying spy novel with a literary twist that provides both surprises and subtly sly references to his early work. The opening quickly pronounces that it is told in retrospection, by Serena Fromme, of a botched operation. A spy novel it is, but sans action. Serena’s mission for MI5, which, at the time in 1972, in the wake of Cold War, was competitive against MI6, is to recruit some pliant, rightish writers to counter to the perceived leftish journalism and commentary of the 1970s.

I doubt it. But it makes Six look idiotic and pompous, so it goes down well here. Anyway, the idea with Sweet Tooth is to strike out on our own, independently of Six or the Americans. Having a novelist was an afterthought, Peter’s whim. Personally, I think it’s a mistake—too unpredictable. (Ch.10, p.151)

A Cambridge graduate who studied mathematics at the insistence of her mother, it’s soon obvious that Serena is unfit for MI5 candidacy. She might be a daft interpreter and critical thinker given all the novels she has devoured. She is recruited almost as a legacy of her middle-aged lover, a Cambridge don, just before he ditches her. Almost half the book is devoted to this curious affair and to her initiation into an institution apparently staffed by chauvinists who treat women as menials even most of them have first-class degrees.

Weren’t we permitting into our conversation the first hints of a future together? But what future could we have had when you haven’t told me who you were? Where did you think it would end up? Surely you didn’t intend to keep this secret from me for the rest of your life. (Ch.22, p.360)

A compulsive reader, Serena is perfect to infiltrate the literary circle of Tom Haley, a talented novelist in his early career. Soon she is caught up in a dilemma: she is in love with the man she is to spy on. This is when the book finally becomes engrossing., ridding of the humdrum of Serena’s lost affair with the Cambridge don. It’s also at this point that one realizes the novel is more about her mission to find love and approval from senior than the intelligence operation. Haley’s stories, with an unusual psychological slant, also outshine the main story as well. Just as Tom and Serena slowly spiral down to a dreadful confrontation of the deceit and lies, McEwan pulls off some extraordinary surprises near the end, tricksy and satisfying. The book seems preposterous in the beginning, but the reward is immense of reader sticks to the end—as Serena fails miserably, though perhaps not so dangerously in her job as a spy. Sweet Tooth is more about writers and writing, about love and trust than espionage and cold war. But perhaps more incisively of all, it’s a novel about how we responses to fiction, and how writers conceive fiction. Writers can be as sly as spies.

378 pp. Anchor Books. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[414] Amsterdam – Ian McEwan

” Just supposing I did get ill in a major way, like Molly, and I started to go downhill and make terrible mistakes—you know, errors of judgment, not knowing the names of things or who I was, that kind of thing. I’d like to know there was someone who’d help me finish it . . . I mean, help me to die. Especially if I got to the point where I couldn’t make the decision for myself, or act on it. ” (II, 53)

On a chilly February day, two old friends meet in the throng outside of a London crematorium to pay their final respects to Molly Lane, whom they had dated before they achieve their current eminence. Clive Linley is Britain’s most successful modern composer who has been commissioned to write the millennial symphony. Vernon Halliday is the editor of the newspaper The Judge. Also in Molly’s love history is Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary, a notorious right-winger tipped to be the next Prime Minister. Vernon somehow obtains pictures, copyrighted by Molly, of Garmony in drag—perfect evidence to stir up a scandal that will strike him down in order to protect the country from his harsh policies.

… it occurred to the many newspaper editors who had bid for Molly’s photographs that the trouble with Vernon’s paper was that it was out of step with changing times . . . Now we live in a more reasonable, compassionate, and tolerant age in which the private and harmless preferences of individuals, however public they may be, remain their own business. Where there is no discernible issue of public interest, the old-fashioned arts of the blackmailer and self-righteous whistle-blower have no place, and while this paper does not wish to impugn the moral sensitivities of the common flea . . . (IV, 136)

In the days that follow Molly’s funeral, the bleak circumstances of her death—the decline of memory, the loss of speech and eventually control of bodily function, unnerves the two friends, invoke such mortifying thoughts of their own mortality. What happened to Molly causes them to make a pact that in the event of symptoms that suddenly leave him helpless, the other will secure the means for a peaceful euthanasia. As Clive struggles to finish the symphony before the deadline, Vernon becomes embroiled in political scandal that costs his job. While both strive to steer clear of their impending crisis, each perpetrates a disastrous moral foul that puts their friendship to test.

… because he’d never made anything good in his life and was eaten up with hatred for those who could. His poky suburban squeamishness was what passed for a moral stand, and meanwhile he was up to the elbows in shit, in fact he had verily pitched his tent on excrement, and to advance his squalid interests he was happy to debase Molly’s memory and ruin a vulnerable fool like Garmony and call up the hate codes of the yellow press . . . (V, 148)

Dark and comic, Amsterdam packs together love, revenge, political intrigue, and media frenzy to shines on the contemporary moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy. As befit McEwan’s usual wordsmith style, each sentence is evident of his meticulous word choices. The book is plot-driven, with witty repartee and scathing retort, setting multiple storylines in motion and spinning to an end with sudden ferocity. Amsterdam is chilling and cleverly wicked because, predicatbly, both men’s agreement becomes murderous and the aftermath of Molly’s death serves to destroy an enduring friendship. One friend’s compromise to secure a higher good is at fault with another’s ethics. But both men are morally ambiguous and vague, leading us to question them rather than to condemn them. The book is one continuous arc that holds my attention from beginning to end. It totally deserves the Booker Prize, which many critics said was a consolation prize since Comfort with Strangers and The Cement Garden didn’t win.

193 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[381] Saturday – Ian McEwan

” It troubles him to consider the powerful currents and dine-tuning that alter fates, the close and distant influences; the accidents of character and circumstance that cause one young woman in Paris to be packing her weekend bag with the bound proof of her first volume of poems before catching the train to a welcoming home in London . . . ” (1:64)

Set in a pivotal in history that as the War on Iraq unfolds, Saturday chronicles one day in the life of a moral, conscientious man who, despite his optimism and foundations, comes to appreciate life’s fragility as uncertainty rushes in. London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne sets out on his Saturday with a full schedule and a brimming mind. In the fringe of his consciousness are the recent attacks of 9/11, the incipient war with Iraq, and a massive anti-war demonstration taking place that day to protest Bush’s potential attack on Iraq.

Theo’s guitar pierces him because it also carries a reprimand, a reminder of buried dissatisfaction in his own life that contains this inventiveness, this style of being free. The music speaks to unexpressed longing and frustration. (1:28)

The discipline and responsibility of a medical career, compounded by starting a family in his mid-20s have shaped a pristine life for Henry, who is constitutionally bound to love one woman all his life.

Where’s his curiosity? What’s wrong with him? But there’s nothing he can do about himself. He meets the occasional questioning glance of an attractive woman with a bland and level smile. This fidelity might look like virtue or doggedness, . . . (1:41)

Fidelity to him is both obduracy and virtue. But the greater reason is his preference for possession and repetition. Throughout the novel Perowne maintains an ongoing inner dialogue—stream of consciousness—made more complex by current events. He spots a plane ablaze traversing across the sky before dawn, makes love to his wife, picks up seafood from the fishmonger for dinner, plays a game of squash, goes to his son’s blues concert rehearsal, anticipates his poet-in-making daughter’s arrival from Paris, and visits his mother, who is afflicted by a neurodengerative disease.

It’s a condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined to the generality, to a community of anxiety. The habit’s grown stronger these past two years, a different scale of news value has been set by monstrous and spectacular scenes. . . . Everyone fears it, but there’s also a darker longing in the collective mind, a sickening for self-punishment and a blasphemous curiosity. (4:180)

His thoughts always engage his family and patients, who reveal more about this person as a surgeon, a father, a son, and a husband. Whereas he is an expert in examining brains, he is not endowed with the same acumen to understand minds. This is the brilliant point of the novel, which relies on the neurosurgeon’s eyes to dictate a view of a world gone mad with terror and the quest for a semblance of its former identity—and sanity. A minor accident, as he drives across a road officially closed to traffic during the anti-war rally, sets in train a sequence of events that impose imminent danger to his family.

McEwan builds many layers of reality from small details. Perowne’s a day in life serves as some metaphor for the quality of a man’s life, but also for what has so recently stunned the world and left it shaken, unconsoled, and irretrievably uncalmed. In a way, Perowne and his family have been assaulted, then left to deal with the repercussions of violence. McEwan doesn’t force his political view on readers but keeps politics at bay, allowing it to intertwine with his protagonist’s mind. Pondering on ideas of fate, life’s fragility and uncertainty, Saturday laments how even one with mental calculation are no measure for a world forever altered by insane circumstances. Written with precision, it proceeds with a serene tension into very different territory where the most secure existence is ringed by sinister possibilities.

289 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[268] The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan

” We hardly spoke at all to each other about Mother. She was everyone’s secret. Even Tom rarely mentioned her and only occasionally cried for her now. I looked around the cellar for other signs, but there was nothing. [7; 98]

Moleskine Guy is now officially weirded out, or spooked out by Ian McEwan. Unlike The Comfort of Strangers, a suspense that amounts to an ambivalence, The Cement Garden is a horror novella, with a shocking subplot.

After his first heart attack he stopped work on the garden altogether. Weeds pushed up through the cracks in the paving stones. Part of the rockery collapsed and the little pond dried up. [1; 21]

The father of four children dies. His death is quickly followed by the death of the children’s mother. In order to avoid being taken into care, the children hide their mother’s death from the outside world, guarding the secret from everyone. They turn the cellar in the basement into a tomb, encasing their mother’s corpse in cement left over from the building of the garden.

My sisters and I no longer played together on Julie’s bed. The games ceased not long after Father died, although it was not his death that brought them to an end. Sue became reluctant. [3; 35]

Jack, the fifteen year old narrator, enters into an incestuous relationship with one of his sisters, while their youngest brother begins to experiment transvestism. To complicate matter further, Jacks feels jealous and directs hostility toward a man whom his oldest sister dates. This man becomes very interested in what might be hidden in the cellar.

We had not been at all careful with Derek. Often what was in the cellar did not seem real enough to keep secret. [10; 140]

Subversion in age and role is the main theme in The Cement Garden. Burying the dead and engaging in sexual activity are probably the type of work anybody least expects to have befallen children. It’s not so much that they are free of supervision that shocks me, it’s the the banality of evil. The book is shocking, morbid, and full of repellent imagery.

153 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[266] The Comfort of Strangers – Ian McEwan

” But they knew each other much as they knew themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of perpetual concern; together they moved slowly, clumsily, effecting lugubrious compromises, attending to delicate shifts of mood, repairing breaches. As individuals they did not easily take offense; but together they managed to offend each other in surprising unexpected ways;…” [13]

Mood, both suspenseful and sinister, bodes the shocking ending of The Comfort of Strangers. The cleverness lays in the fact that a tale of romantic ennui quickly forays into erotic menace and most unexpectedly, a violent crime story. The brooding, the muttering under the breath, the standoffish silence all remind one of On Chesil Beach as the air is charged with tension. But The Comfort of Strangers is creepy that every turn of the page has the power to crawl under my skin.

In in unnamed city that might very well be Venice, Mary, a divorced woman with two children left behind at home, is on vacation with her lover for seven years, Colin. Although their relationship is deep, passionate, and intimate, they cease to be on speaking terms at the moment.

This was no longer a great passion. The pleasure was in its unhurried friendliness, the familiarity of its rituals and procedures, the secure, precision-fit of limbs and bodies, comfortable, like a cast returned to its mold. [17]

By chance the vacationing couple, somewhat naive and unguarded, becomes entangled with a strange couple: Caroline and Robert. The wife loves to have extreme pain inflicted on her and the husband is glad to inflict it. To their thrills but to others menace, they decide to make the new arrivals their victims of sadistic fetish.

The Comfort of Strangers is written with a minimalist approach: A goes to B where A meets C and some terrible things happen. End of the story with no explanation. The approach might give the story a touch of starkness but the cusp of violence and desire, which are redolent in the entire book, beg an explanation or at least a kind of commentary from the author. What’s McEwan’s intention? What’s the underlying white noise? One subtle display is the existence of contradictions beginning with the title of the book. For what Mary and Colin have experienced in their vacation is the least of what they would expect. There is not even a sense of joy, let alone comfort. Comfort is least of what I can derive from this novel.

127 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[130] On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

Novella Reading Challenge #2

“She watched him, willing him to go slower, for she was guiltily afraid of him, and was desperate for more time to herself. Whatever conversation they were about to have, she dreaded it. As she understood it, there were no words to name what had happened. There existed no shared language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other. And to argue about it was even further beyond her imagining. There could be no discussion. She did not want to think about it.” (139)

In 1962, a young newly-wed couple arrives at a hotel on the Dorset coast for their honeymoon. Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting have only been married for eight hours but unlike those who usually consummate their marriage with plenty of intimacy and love-making, they struggle to suppress their private fears of the wedding night to come. McEwan exercises a masterful subtlety and force to unfold an event packed with intense mental struggle and heaviness of silence. What is not spoken, what is implied in between the lines, what dread and impatience, what cluttered thoughts—these are all signs of the couple’s faltering journey to a point of no return.

Why these lovers of modern age are so timid and innocent (and they don’t show any sign of feigning) I have no clue. But that they were raised in a way to not feel the broth of emotions might ring the truth about their fears. Florence’s mother never shows her any affection, let alone an embrace, a hug or precious time together. Edward grows up in a protected state of innocence by the absence of the term that identifies his mother’s condition—she is brain-damaged. The label dissolves intimacy and cooly measures his mother with a public standard. With so much burden on their back, Florence and Edward are somewhat emotionally impaired to cope with the marriage.

Florence is in love with Edward but she dreads intimacy. Her anxieties are more serious than what she dreads: it is a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness for sexual intercourse. The heightened squeamishness stems from her inexperience in feeling love, for she wants to be certain of Edward’s love for her that is not measured by carnal desire and sexual passion. That her whole being is in revolt against the prospect of entanglement of the flesh makes her perform the act as duty, to please him without betraying her lack of interest. Albeit Edward has a long history of engaging with Florence’s shyness (evasiveness), anger that he fights and struggles to keep at bay arouses a darker reckoning: After such humiliation as her open revulsion, his self-dignity finally registers an insult. Savoring the full deliciousness of the injury and wrong she has inflicted on him, elevated by a mawkish sense of himself as being wholesomely in the right, he decides to preserve her as she was in his memories.

On Chesil Beach is not about sex despite some graphic nature in a page or two. Nor is it about sexual tension. Sex is only the medium with which McEwan plays out the extreme and awful consequence of two people’s intrinsic difference in the scope of love. How often are we wrapped up in our ego and fear that have we been more open and patient we can save a relationship? How often do we take understanding for granted out of wishful thinking? How often do we miss the opportunity to change by doing nothing? The book mindfully exposes how, in relationship, one is often fettered by his being unsavvy of the other’s thoughts and needs.