Holiday readingSo I got through some books while I was away, mostly on the plane there and back.
Amsterdam is McEwan in grotesque mode, in which he unleashes his profound misanthropy. I quite like that, but as usual, he creates fine caricatures and then allows them to coarsen, colliding them in a plot that stretches belief too far and stifles enjoyment.
If McEwan had more faith in his ability to capture the human condition, he would write better books. But he doesn't. He escapes from the lack into a plot twist that is just wrong.
The book suffers from other flaws that McEwan often displays. He is often lauded as a stylist, but what this reputation is built on, I don't know. Yes, he can write, and there's none of the leadenness that makes Zadie Smith, for instance, entirely unreadable. But he never flies. I think it's because he only has one tone, a sort of "ha ha, look at him" leer. In Enduring love, it was unbearable. Where pathos, profundity, even sympathy were demanded, McEwan could not rise above "woah, check it".
Still, on the upside, it was readable. The characters were entirely unbelievable but fun all the same. However, it has to be said, you can never consider McEwan a great writer, not even a particularly good one, because he lacks the ability to tell the truth, to uncover us, to show us what we are really like. For me, that is the heart of art. You show us what we are like or what we could be, or you are showing us nothing that will last.
I finally read Life of Pi. I found it curiously flat and uninspiring. It was nicely written but in a rather self-absorbed prose that didn't engage me. I think it had too much of an air of the instruction manual (and I don't mean just those parts that actually were an instruction manual).
I wasn't clear on what the message was supposed to be. I think the cause is more likely my own lack of engagement than any failing on Martel's part (although I think I can blame him for not engaging me!). I didn't see how the boy's character saw him through. He just seemed to plod to survival. (Well, maybe that was the message? But no. You know when a book is trying to tell you something. I knew I was supposed to be understanding something but I just couldn't see what it was.)
Curiously too, although Martel evoked Indian food brilliantly, he didn't capture Pondicherry at all. I could not recognise it from his description.
I am a huge fan of Peter Carey, but I approached Theft with some apprehension, for two reasons. First, that it was subtitled "A love story", which is unpromising. Not because you think that Carey will deliver a love story (when he has, in Oscar and Lucinda for instance, he has been quite brilliant) but because you know that he is going to be in "clever" mode. Second, because while Carey can write wonderful books, he can also write some awful shit.
So which was it? For once, neither. And a bit of both. It was a cleverly constructed entertainment, with the usual Careyesque central character, engaging, flawed, funny. As a narrator, Bones reminds you of the Illywhacker, although he doesn't hit the outrageous heights of Herbert Badgery. But it also had another, wholly superfluous narrator, whose voice was all wrong, and who seemed to exist simply to add an overlay of "depth", which the book didn't need. Take him out and you have a neat comedy thriller, which made some arch, if not subtle, observations about the art world. Where Carey differs from McEwan (and one of the several reasons he is a far superior reasons) is that his characters, though grotesque, are plausible. McEwan will take a couple of facets of a person and stretch them into a whole being; Carey allows his characters to have a full set of attributes. McEwan has contempt for his characters; Carey loves his.
But neat as it was, it was slight. Carey needs to give himself a bigger canvas again. His great books have been sprawling picaresques, in which he has allowed a strong character to propel the plot. It may be too much to hope for another Jack Maggs, but I am hoping that he still has at least one.
I also read The little green book by Phil Gordon, so I came back fired up, ready to play great poker, etc etc. Well, Mr Fucking Gordon, you explain why I cannot even cash in a dollar tourney, huh?
And I read half of Brick Lane, which surprised me by being quite good. It would have been excellent if someone had taken the shears to it. It's a big book that would have been ten times better as a small book. It has too much scope filled with too little stuff. (I know, that's criticism of the highest quality! But I can't find the mots justes for it: the feeling that a book sprawled out of control, was overstuffed. The best I can come up with is that it was not high enough in concept: it wasn't thematically strong enough to carry so much prose.)
Ali writes quite well in a sixth-form essay sort of way, correctly but rarely passionately. At least she didn't try to overwhelm the reader with overwriting, which is a common failing in English writers at the moment. But I have been entirely unmoved by it. I am thinking, this is okay.
Writers, if you're aiming for "okay", aim again. Aim higher. That is all.