The Rear-View Mirror: Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)

In 2017, Eagles on Pogo Sticks ended its ten years of soaring and went into a steep yet controlled ascent. After a quick dip into one of the few remaining phone booths, a suspiciously familiar-looking blog emerged: A Damn Fine Cup of Culture. Now, almost a year after we reinvented ourselves (or, more accurately, revealed ourselves as the cuppaholics we are) we’re launching a weekly feature: The Rear-View Mirror, where each Friday we’ll look at the cultural goodies, whether grande, venti or trenta, that may appear closer than they really are. We’re starting in the year of our (re-)launch, 2017. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Lincoln in the Bardo

Back when I was a student, I was pretty much subscribed to the Booker Prize winners. From Midnight’s Children (which, admittedly, I read more than 15 years after its release) via the likes of The Remains of the Day and The Famished Road, The English Patient and The God of Small Things to Amsterdam and Disgrace, I knew that the winning novels would be well worth reading. When I left university, though, I realised that life is very different when you’re not paid to read literature. After a day at the office doing things other than literary criticism, I found that my brain wasn’t necessarily in much of a state to plonk down with a book, and instead I’d watch an episode of something or play video games for an hour. The Booker Prize lost its appeal as any new books I ordered piled up on one of my Billy shelves. I still enjoy reading a lot, but it’s no longer the thing I do most of the time on most days, it’s something to do before going to bed (if I’m awake enough), over the weekend and especially on holidays. Continue reading

Funny how? What’s funny about it?

I like Ian McEwan. Atonement is one of my favourite novels of the last ten years. Enduring Love has stayed with me, as has On Chesil Beach. I even enjoyed Saturday, which was given not so much a panning as a resounding “Hmm” after Atonement was loved by pretty much all the critics.

I just don’t think he’s a particularly funny guy.

Back when his Amsterdam received the Booker Prize in 1998, I remember many people saying that they were making up for not giving him the year before, for Enduring Love. Obviously Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things was more than deserving, but there was definitely something that felt off about giving McEwan the Booker for Amsterdam – a book both slight (more a novella than a novel) and, at least in my opinion, not particularly good.

Amsterdam feels a bit like one of those Roald Dahl stories for adults – people who aren’t particularly nice getting themselves into shitty situations and digging themselves in further the more they try to extricate themselves, doing damage to themselves and to those around them who are usually as unpleasant as they are. There was even a nasty twist in the tale that felt very Dahlish. The thing was, though: Dahl’s stories, while nasty, are also funny. McEwan’s attempt at a joke felt too elaborate, overwritten, and simply not particularly amusing. It felt snide, smug and not a little self-satisfied… and essentially forgettable.

Fast forward twelve years, and it feels like McEwan’s pulled another Amsterdam – though one that dresses itself in topicality. Solar is about a physicist, ageing, fattening, roundly unpleasant but with enough of the hypocritical charm that Brits of a certain class seem to have to bed a number of fairly attractive women. For better or for worse, he ends up occupying himself with climate change and trying to make his name in the growing eco-business. Oh yes, he also frames an innocent man for murder, goes on an Arctic expedition, steals a dead man’s research and generally makes the reader – well, at least this reader – wish that he’d get eaten by a polar bear.

I’ve read articles that described Solar as “laugh-out loud funny”. A friend at work read and loved the novel. And, as I mentioned above, I generally like McEwan a lot. He’s a smart, usually subtle writer – not necessarily original, but great at his craft. But again: when McEwan aims for satirical humour, his writing falls flat for me. Solar displays his craft – McEwan can turn an elegant phrase – but it feels as smug as Amsterdam. The targets of his satire are obvious, his humour considerably less clever than it seems to consider itself; there’s an unpleasant feeling of the novel going, “Did you see that? Wasn’t that funny? Wasn’t that clever?” Solar is neither sharp and nasty enough to be good satire, to my mind, nor does it have an interesting plot or characters to keep me going. I finished it, of course, since a novel almost has to throw up all over my Criterion DVDs to make me put it aside without finishing it, but this overlong, heavy-handed, one-note joke of a novel overstayed its welcome roughly 20 pages in. Perhaps I don’t have enough of a sense of humour, or perhaps I should avoid Mr McEwan’s humoristic writing like the plague, but one Amsterdam was enough for me… and at least that one was only about a third of Solar‘s length.

On the more positive side, though: I recently re-read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and didn’t like it any more the second time around – but I’m warming a lot more to his Never Let Me Go. Part of me wishes I’d been able to read it unspoiled, but even knowing what I do about the novel’s plot I’m enjoying it a lot, much more than either some of Ishiguro’s earlier work or McEwan’s attempts at amusing me. Here’s hoping that this doesn’t mean my next read afterwards has to be another failure!

P.S.: I wasn’t amused to find the old, worn out crisp/biscuit-eating anecdote in Solar, but I did like the meta-absurdity in which it’s developed in the novel – and I was happy to see Douglas Adams (R.I.P.) referenced.

Stick insect: overrated after all?

Well, at least when it comes to her latest hit… We went to see Atonement yesterday. I think the book’s one of the best novels to come out of England in the last few years; it’s intellectually stimulating as well as moving, with some grandiose setpieces and a lot of subtlety in its characterisation. (The only Ian McEwan novel I didn’t like so far was Amsterdam, the one he won his Booker Prize for.)

It’s a hell of a book to adapt to the screen, though. So much of it – its narration, its style, its themes and motifs – is, at its heart, literary. It’s a novel about writing and about fiction, and some of this is likely to be spelled out or left out in an adaptation. Nevertheless, it’s disappointing to see how often the movie chooses to be bluntly explicit when a more implicit approach would have made things more interesting. Like the trailer embedded below, the film version at times seems to be written in large capitals telling its audience what is going on: Imagination! Accusation! Betrayal! And a hard-boiled egg! (Okay, I made that last bit up.)

Distressing how aesthetic war tends to be in the movies…

 Also, I honestly don’t see why people keep praising Keira Knightley’s performance in this film so much. I liked her Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, but there’s nothing much in her Cecelia Tallis that we haven’t seen before. There’s stuck-up Keira, passionate Keira, angry Keira and languishing Keira, and that’s about it. Frankly, I thought her performance was fairly similar to Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean films – not one of the Top 10 performances in movie history, in my opinion.

All in all, much of the first third of the film didn’t work that well for me. It takes a special skill in an actor to pull off “upper class” without falling into a caricature of the “upper class twit” worthy of school theatre and Monty Python. Many of those ageing RSC actors can do it, but in Atonement my main thought was, “If that’s what the British upper class is like, then the masses would have chopped off their heads hundreds of years ago… or otherwise they deserve them!” Every actor seems intent on showing the audience, “Class snobbery is wrong! These people are hateful, hateful idiots!” Which, frankly, I don’t need spelled out in ten-foot letters underlined three times.

However, the film gets a number of things very right. Many of the wartime scenes, especially the already famous long tracking shot along the beach, are quite stunning. There’s a dreamlike quality to some of these scenes that is miles removed from the literal-mindedness of the beginning and ending. The same goes for the scenes in hospital which do not flinch away from the horrible wounds of the soldiers coming home from France. While the cinematography is beautiful, it still gets across the ugliness of war in a few very effective shots.

Still, while there were things to admire, I have to wonder in the end: is such an Easy Reader version of Ian McEwan’s intricate, beautiful novel really necessary? And is it enough to be able to say, “Well, they didn’t screw it up too badly… They did quite okay”? And why, oh why, are so many reviewers infatuated with Keira Knightley?

P.S.: If my suspicion is correct, merely mentioning Keira Knightley in this blog entry should get me lots of hits.

P.P.S.: Sad, innit?