Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

It all started with Glover’s Mistake by Nick Laird (Zadie Smith’s husband) a few months ago. While it is about many things, it is mostly about three people’s messed up lives and all the mistakes they make, continuously. I realized at the end, well really at the beginning, that I didn’t like any of the characters.  James Glover was a naive little opportunist who dates and is engaged to a complete narcissist artist, Ruth Marks. They are introduced by a passive-aggressive awkward computer nerd who posts negative reviews of movies, books, and people on his little blog, David Pinner. The fact that he introduced them is the major conflict of the story, he wishes he hadn’t because he’s in love with this ridiculous woman. Glover and Pinner are flatmates, and Pinner fashions himself as a self-created art critic/public intellectual that lords over Glover’s kind nature that seeps into his slowness to make the reader almost pity him, almost. Soon enough, Glover makes a mistake and Pinner is faced with the choice of keeping the confidences of his friend or making an anonymous phone call to Ruth to tell her of the mistake. Which do you think he chooses?

There is nothing, not one thing, that is redeeming about any of these characters. You are not supposed to love them, forgive them, pity them, sympathize with them; they are abhorrent creatures. And I found that I liked them. Not just liked, but loved their bad decisions, the error of the assurance, the misplaced confidence that comes with a truly selfish act.

Then I read Mavis Gallant’s The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories. Gallant’s book has been receiving a lot of reviews lately (here in the Guardian, here at NPR by’s Jessa Crispin) and so I tried it out. Plus, I couldn’t resist the lovely New York Review of Books cover. It is more difficult to discuss short story collection, because one is either reductive and discusses all of them, or too specific and ignores the complexity of the collection. But for space, and because I want to get where I’m really going, I’ll sum up. I didn’t dislike the character in Gallant’s stories, but I didn’t like them either. They mostly made bad decisions that led to uncomfortable or undesired situations. The characters were kind of floating around life, not sure where they were going, but pretty damn sure they weren’t supposed to be where they were. Her stories did not inspire me, or give me good feelings about the world. It actually reinforced my view that no body really knows what the hell they are doing, that everyone is just floating.

So let’s recap: decisions, particularly bad decisions, are very interesting, especially when you experience a character’s bad decisions with them. You are almost a part of their decision, a silent aide, a passive bystander, and forced to take their perspective.

All these thoughts and feelings reached the boiling point in Ian McEwan’s soon-to-be-released novel Solar. The reader is introduced to Michael Beard three times: 2000, 2005, and 2009. I say “introduced” because it is almost like meeting a new person each time; he certainly wishes to reivent his life each moment. Don’t let that last statement mislead you into thinking that  he is some kind of positive-thinking spiritual nut. Oh no, Michael Beard is one of the most self-centered and flawed characters I’ve ever read. He is a Nobel Prize winning scientist for the Einstein-Beard Conflation (which is never really given in detail, only that he improved upon Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), and that was the last bit of science he did, almost 20 years ago. He’s overweight, has had 5 wives and his current wife is happily and openly having an affair. And that’s only in 2000. In 2005 he’s still done nothing in science, and feels he’s falling behind in the new theories, but hides under the laurels of his Conflation. In 2005 he upsets a varying degree of scientists and liberal arts professors by, mindlessly and unintentionally, declaring that there are biological differences in men and women and that they should be developed in light of those sexual differences. Eventually, the press and media start on insults of “eugenicist” and “neo-Nazi”. In 2009, there is a lawsuit being brought against him that threatens his solar energy project.

I don’t want to give anything away, because McEwan always has some surprises and these are significantly larger than the turns in his other novels. But moving with my theme, I will say that I didn’t like Beard. He made decisions that were wrong, selfish, and was punished for them. He had no self-control yet desired it. Never comfortable, always striving, falling short, and rationalizing the shortcoming. But I loved it, despite Beard’s selfishness.

I’m not really sure if my preference for these types of books reflect some kind of inner turmoil, or if it is a larger movement on the part of civilization on an unending quest to find well-written literature about something positive, and failing.  I’m going to go with both, for now.

P.S. I don’t wish to get in the habit of reviewing things that haven’t been released, but I can’t promise it won’t happen again.