Impressive to behold – but a virtuous pain to read

Just one now and then, a review appears which takes a step back from the book, film or play under consideration and  makes a wider, more significant point.


A case in point is Walter Kirn’s recent review in the New York Times of Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar – a book so good, Kirn’s argument goes, that it is bad. I haven’t read the novel and have no idea whether this is analysis is fair but it is worth pointing out  that Ian McEwan is the name always mentioned by politicians asked what they have been reading lately. He is the novelist whom it is safe to like – the literary world’s Vince Cable.


Here’s how Kirn opens his review:

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. Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.


There are problems with this kind of review. It is easy and tempting  for unscrupulous  marketing types in publishing to misread whiuloe looking for a quote for the paperback – “ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off” sounds pretty good.


The other is that one looks for other creative works which similarly suffer from over-perfection. I would nominate the film Up in the Air. Confusingly, that promising but profoundly irritating film was based on a novel by Walter Kirn