Monday, February 9, 2009
When the electrifying Molly Lane dies of a swift and terrible illness, two of her former lovers, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, meet at her funeral. Both men fear for the uncertainty of the future and their mortality, which leads them to make a pact with each other that will have vast and far-reaching consequences. Meanwhile, Clive, a modern genius of a composer, is charged with writing the score of the millennial concert, while Vernon is the editor-in-chief of a floundering newspaper that would do anything to increase its circulation. When Vernon receives stunning information about another of Molly's lovers, the foreign secretary Juilian Garmony, he believes that his newspaper can be saved from its torpor with news of this sensational story, but Clive strongly disagrees. In his opinion, Vernon is being traitorous to Molly's memory and more than a little unkind to Garmony. This argument seriously undermines the friends' relationship and pits each against the other. As Vernon rushes to get his story to print and Clive puts the finishing touches on his symphony, both men find that life has other plans for them. Both Clive and Vernon, driven by their desire for success and renown, will make a terrible choice that will lead them towards the paths of their destruction, and toward the agreement that binds them together.
Frankly, I would read a telephone book if it was penned my McEwan. His perfect eye for prose and the significant weight of his dialogue has impressed me on many occasions. He has a way of capturing the visceral traits in human behavior that people so desperately try to hide. I believe very few authors can compare to McEwan's brilliance. That said, this book was disappointing. I felt that the characters had too much egotism and callousness to make them sympathetic. Vernon and Clive, although cut from different cloths, were much like two sides of the same coin. Clive was entirely too self-absorbed and shallow. He always seemed to be only half-aware of his social actions and their repercussions and he held firm to outdated beliefs and mindsets. Vernon was unlikeable as well. He was also self-absorbed, and there was a cruelty in him that made him slightly repugnant. I found myself growing very tired of his fits of righteous indignation and his issues of entitlement. I was ill at ease with both of these men and their behavior, and it made it very hard to connect and sympathize with their plights. I didn't feel sorry for either of them when things began to turn sour; in fact it seemed as though they were getting what they deserved. I felt rather impersonally towards these characters because neither of the men seemed to have any redeeming or humanizing qualities, nothing to give them the spark of life I was looking for. They seemed almost too stereotypical. I also didn't like the way in which their supposedly great friendship devolved into petty and inconsequential cat fighting. They carried their grudges like heavy weights across their backs, obsessing constantly over perceived slights. This got tiresome very quickly and made the story seem uninteresting and flat.
The conclusion of the story had an ironic twist, but it was so absurdly concocted that it almost became comical. It was at once both overblown and operatic, and although I saw it coming, I couldn't believe it would actually play out in the way that it did. It seemed something so oddly out of character for this writer to conceive of a finale like this, and it ultimately strained the credulity of the book to the breaking point for me. Yes, this book was intended to be satirical, but I think it overreached and instead became ludicrous.
After all the issues I had with this book, there were some very redeeming qualities about it. McEwan's writing was both clever and beautiful, elegant and cultured in a way that entrances. In certain parts of the book he writes so fluidly about the composition of music, I had to wonder if he ever studied classical music. The pages describing Clive at work on his symphony were lush, inviting and thrilling. In my opinion, they were the best scenes in the book. In addition, McEwan has a style of writing that is both acerbic and astute. He has great wit on the page and seems to have a way of unlocking a multi-layered strata of meaning in his narratives. My final impression was that though the language was both satisfying and rich, I felt that this book was reaching and could not find purchase, as there was too little to savor and far too much discordance in the story.
For those who are McEwan fans, this book certainly deserves a perusal but I wouldn't recommend it to for a first time read of this author. If you are the type of person who is in love with language and appreciates the turn of a phrase above all, then this book will not disappoint, but if you are looking for something with a satirical bent there are better books out there. The fact that this book won the Booker Award is somewhat surprising to me. I think McEwan is a fabulous writer but this is not his finest work, and at times it felt like he was not giving it his all. If you really want to get a taste of McEwan's brilliance, I recommend Atonement.