Saturday, April 17, 2010

Walter Kirn up in the air!

I'm concurrently reading Walter Kirn's 2001 novel, Up in the Air, and enjoying it no less than I'm enjoying Ian McEwan's Solar. Up in the Air is a romp, though a story much different from that told by the George Clooney movie (much darker, yet funnier), and a novel much different from McEwan's (its dark action concentrated into a tiny fraction of the decade taken by the tragicomic action of Solar).
    With what dismay, then, did I read this morning, in this coming Sunday's New York Times Book Review, Kirn's front-page review of Solar, which is about as total a dump-on of another writer's work as a reviewer writes. It opens:
According to the perverse aesthetics of artistic guilty pleasure, certain books and movies are so bad—so crudely conceived, despicably motivated and atrociously executed—that they’re actually rather good. Solar, the new novel by Ian McEwan, is just the opposite: a book so good—so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off—that it’s actually quite bad...There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either.
    Fortunately for the discerning reader, the illogic of "so good it's bad" undermines Kirn's position from the get-go. But Walter Kirn's standing, both as novelist and as "a regular contributor to the Book Review," will browbeat the unwary into thinking that there might be something to his quasi-logical argument, so maybe they should just skip Solar. So much the worse for them.
    Kirn more or less writes off the boot room, which I blogged about the other day: It
devolves [emphasis mine] into a model Hobbesian jungle as the supposedly liberal junket­eers steal the best gear for themselves, placing their own survival before the group’s and putting the lie to man’s altruistic posturing.
Why does it "devolve"? It doesn't. Kirn's just miffed. His underlying complaint about Solar may be that expressed in his paragraph:
There’s little that’s lifelike about Solar, despite its relentless pretensions to relevance. The story is structured like a crossword puzzle, in rows and columns of little empty boxes that McEwan helps us fill in by providing witty riddles whose solutions flatter our intelligence. The process feels pleasantly antic and cerebral, but in time its premeditated quality becomes preposterously artificial, as do its swerves into heady slapstick humor.
As a reader of the book, I find none of this justified. To say that Solar is "structured like a crossword puzzle" is just silly. "Premediated...preposterously artificial" suggests a formula for summing up Kirn's review: Preposterous! Whatever McEwan might have published, I suspect that Kirn had premeditated to put it down, however artificial the logic of his put-down would have to be.

I think there's a clue to Kirn's pique in his statement:
What makes Solar such a noble nullity is that it answers these challenges so easily, with such a quotient of stress-free mastery that they feel less like challenges than like problems in a literary exam the author has devised as a means of proving his own prowess. This may be Beard’s story, but it’s McEwan’s vehicle, constructed to let him pull all the showy turns of the major contemporary novelist and ambitious public intellectual: personalizing the political, politicizing the personal and poeticizing everything else.
    The clues, I mean, are so easily, major contemporary novelist, and ambitious public intellectual. Kirn appears to have been suffering a serious case of jealousy!


  1. I came across your good post after finishing SOLAR and then going online to see if anyone else was curious about Kirn's so over-the-top hostile review of it (the week after the Times Book Review published Kirn's screed, there were four letters of bewilderment and outrage, etc., so the likes of you and I aren't alone).

    I like Kirn's work, and he's doing quite well, isn't he? So why does he sound like Ian kicked his dog?

    Jealousy, clearly, and I like your detective work in finding the smoking-gun phrases.

    Having been hit hard by an equally hostile critic in a prominent publication when my meager first novel was published, I'm perversely sensitive to this stuff. I just wish lit-crit folks would put their guns down. SOLAR isn't McEwan's best, but I found it cruelly funny. Kirn's behavior (especially his giving away the entire plot, which calls for a critic's license being suspended) was just... cruel.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I too gladly read those four letters, which I reported on May 2, at