"a virtuous pain to read"

This week's New York Times Book Review featured a lengthy takedown by Walter Kirn of Ian McEwan's new novel Solar. To put it briefly, Kirn found the book "impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read." Kirn, however, did not put it briefly; he picks the book apart at great length, and I found the result astute and very entertaining. Whether you agree will probably depend on how you feel about McEwan. Although Kirn focuses narrowly on the novel under review (which I haven't read), his criticisms reflected my reaction to the little of McEwan's fiction that I have read. I am turned off by the "premeditated quality" of the storytelling, and the prominence in the plot of what Kirn describes as "witty riddles whose solutions flatter our intelligence." And I laughed out loud at this, Kirn's description of a particularly on-the-nose sequence from Solar (which is set against the topical backdrop of climate science):

Then the disciple takes a slapstick tumble, fatally impaling his neck on the edge of a glass table after slipping on of all the unsteady surfaces that could be brought to use a polar-bear-skin rug. Does such a coincidental catastrophe even qualify as irony? Or is this just a joke? But aren't jokes funny?

I suppose that means Kirn disagrees with Michiko Kakutani's observation (in an ultimately negative NYT review from a few weeks back) that "Solar" stands out as McEwan's "funniest" work.

Reading this review from Kirn also reminded me of "Secular Sabbath," David Impastato's essay for Commonweal on McIwan's atheistic novel Saturday. Kirn writes, "The McEwan of 'Solar' can't just tell a tale, he has to teach a truth at the same time, ceaselessly, compulsively." Impastato found the same didacticism throughout Saturday. Have you had a more favorable response to these books, or any others by McEwan?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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