Against the Fray

Thomas Pynchon may not have been susceptible to the Rake’s $49 check (and neither apparently is Dave Eggers), but the Ian McEwan flap has had Pynchon issuing a letter in support of McEwan.

Then again, on second thought, given that “indispensable” is misspelled in the letter, I’m wondering if this message truly came from Pynchon. Surely a man of his scrutiny wouldn’t have committed such a rudimentary solecism. And if Pynchon is referencing the Internet, why would he be working off a typewriter? I suspect a possible hoax, unless Pynchon, Ellison-like, clings obstinately to his typewriter. (via Maud)

Here’s the full text:

Given the British genius for coded utterance, this could all be about something else entirely, impossible on this side of the ocean to appreciate in any nuanced way — but assuming that it really is about who owns the rights to describe using gentian violet for ringworm, for heaven’s sake, allow me a gentle suggestion. Oddly enough, most of us who write historical fiction do feel some obligation to accuracy. It is that Ruskin business about “a capacity responsive to the claims of fact, but unoppressed by them.” Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act — it is simply what we do. The worst you can call it is a form of primitive behavior. Writers are naturally drawn, chimpanzee-like, to the color and the music of the English idiom we are blessed to have inherited. When given the chance we will usually try to use the more vivid and tuneful among its words. I cannot of course speak for Mr. McEwan’s method of processing, but should be very surprised indeed if something of the sort, even for brief moments, had not occurred during his research for Atonement. Gentian violet! Come on. Who among us could have resisted that one?

Memoirs of the Blitz have borne indispensible [sic] witness, and helped later generations know something of the tragedy and heroism of those days. For Mr. McEwan to have put details from one of them to further creative use, acknowledging this openly and often, and then explaining it clearly and honorably, surely merits not our scolding, but our gratitude.

Saturday — Overhyped or Misunderstood?

As my colleague Scott Esposito (who, for the past day or so, has seen his thoughts after December 11 undisplayed, along with several other noble Typepad bloggers, thanks to the supreme incompetence of Six Apart[1]) has pointed out, Slate’s top 10 list is a rather pedestrian list, with the only notable contributions from deputy editor David Plotz and editorial assistant Blake Wilson. Could it be that the young ‘uns over at Slate are the only ones over there reading outside of the box (Phillip Roth, Ian McEwan, et al.)? The continued praise for Saturday[2] continues to perplex me. And I’m a hard-core McEwan fan. Is it a generational thing? Or am I just missing something beyond an overwritten Mrs. Dalloway homage with a few good confrontation scenes? I’m always willing to shift my arguments. But for the love of literature, If there are any Saturday fans in the crowd, please help a clueless white boy out.

[1] An issue with the primary disk system? Running diagonistics on the device? That sounds to me like an incompetent tech support team without a backup system, not unlike Microsoft releasing a security patch to Internet Explorer after the hole has existed for years. The moral of the story: If you value the half-life of your posts, back up your shit up, yo.

[2] If you’re interested, my review is here.

The Interwining Legacy of Things That Inexplicably Scare the Bejesus Out of You and Fiction

Written just after the author stepped into rush hour traffic and before he dared to look out of his own window before returning to his computer, Ian McEwan’s novel “Saturday” creates a hero who dares to live out a privileged lifestyle and worriedly thinks about his investment portfolio. It is fear, directed towards the expected and the humdrum and the implausible, that drives Mr. McEwan’s masterpiece. Today this fiction may seem as prophetic as Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian,” which features a palpable portrait of vampires tapping into victims while on the run. But both authors agree that today’s fiction is designed to present things that will scare the bejesus out of you, with ordinarily stable minds rushing to FOX News and conspiracy-themed newsletters in search of further things to be frightened about.

“We can never have enough things to be frightened about. I myself am terrified of half-cooked foie gras,” Mr. McEwan wrote in an Op-Ed piece just after enjoying a six-course meal on the very day of the London subway and bus bombings. (His article appeared simultaneously in Gourmet and Ladies’ Home Journal.) That same day Ms. Kostova wrote on her Web site, “The bombings sadden me. But, on the bright side, sales should boost up as people look for more things to be afraid of.”

soccer mom'With such inevitability and the persistent strain of soccer moms fearing that the terrorists could firebomb the small-town high school fields they regularly frequent at any second, some of the most ambitious novelists are not only addressing this climate of fear but going a bit hogwild in their depictions, leaving a legacy that is not only quite silly but good for drawing half-baked generalizations that can be referenced while engaged in pretentious cocktail party banter. This is what Mr. McEwan calls “the complacent stage,” a needlessly introspective and self-absorbed novel just after a big success (in this case, the remarkable “Atonement”). It would appear that this complacence is shared by Michael Cunningham’s “Specimen Days,” which is also considered a critical disappointment. Cunningham’s most recent novel offers Walt Whitman’s poems as the cure-all elixir. Have a drinking problem? Read “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” Feeling depressed (perhaps suicidal?) because your local Whole Foods Market decided to close early and you couldn’t get cheese made with coagulating enzymes? “O Captain! My Captain!” is right around the corner.

The important thing these days is for novels to reflect an almost pathological neurosis that only the richest 10% of our society can understand. This will then, in turn, perpetuate irrationally conceived fears in literature which detract from more pressing dilemmas.

If It Isn’t Art, It’s Memorex

Ian McEwan has said that “life imitates art.” In the last year alone, McEwan reports that he witnessed a balloon accident and was stalked by a mentally ill man, published a tawdry photo in a newspaper, lived with the consequences of playing a prank as a child, and began sleeping with his siblings when both of his parents died. McEwan hopes that he can fix things so that “art can imitate life,” because this might make his novels more interesting, in light of the mixed reviews for Saturday.

[RELATED: How Critics Got Saturday Wrong]

I Should Probably Sleep, But…

  • While we’d never expect USA Today to give us a call (we’d probably spend most of the time making fun of the infographs), we’re nevertheless delighted to see some of our favorite blogs get recognition.
  • And speaking of newspapers, we’re still wondering how the folks at the Scotsman find their fey subjects. A recent profile chronicles Francis Ellen, an author who has created a novel with music performed by the characters. The Samplist is expected to launch at the London Book Fair and a CD tie-in will feature a computer-generated, counterfeit piano piece.
  • Sarah Crompton wonders if anybody’s going to say anything bad about Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Saturday. Give it time, Sarah. Give it time. The minute Leon Wieseltier, Joe Queenan or Dale Peck get their grubby little hands on it, the reviews are almost certain to tip into the sensational. I suspect it’s a Yank thing.
  • We’d be terribly remiss if we didn’t remind folks that The Collected Stories of Carol Shields are now available, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood. In other Shields news, her daughters say that they learned a good deal about their mother working on their respective projects. (In Anne Giardini’s case, it’s a first novel.)
  • The word that appears the most in Birnbaum’s latest, an interview with Eva Hoffman: passport.

Solid Contentions

solid_geometry.jpegApparently, Ewan McGregor’s uncle (Denis Lawson, who played Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy) turned Ian McEwan’s infamous short story,”Solid Geometry,” into a film last year. [Denis Lawson interview.] While this version doesn’t appear to be available online, this wasn’t the first film adaptation of “Solid Geometry.” This forum thread includes an article that chronicles the initial 1979 version. Set to be directed by Mike Newell, BBC-2 pulled the plug when they learned of a nine-inch penis prop. Producer Stephen Gilbert issued public statements, was fired by the BBC, and entered into a substantial dispute. This BBC audio review, featuring smug British intellectual types dismissing the controversy and the penis, details the new Lawson version and covers, in part, the 1979 version.