Thursday, April 08, 2010

On Lee's The Surrendered and McEwan's Solar

It has been weeks since I posted to this blog. Sadly, in that time I have completed only two books. Reading before blogging. If reading does not take place, the blog goes neglected as well.

For the first time in quite a while the pace of my reading has slackened. In the first quarter of 2010 I have averaged less than 10 books a month. It took all of seven days in April to complete Ian McEwan's new book, Solar, and it is hardly a voluminous tome (the redundancy here is for effect).

There is nothing for it, but to forge on . . .

The first of the two books that have taken so much time is Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered. I confess I have been hesitate to write about this book. Not because I didn't like it, I did, but because it deals with such a weighty subject.

The Surrendered is about the horrors of war, particularly its brutal effects upon the innocent who are caught up in its madness. Recently, when Lee read from the opening chapter of his novel at Politics & Prose (that lovely little D.C. bookstore) the audience paused for a beat, perhaps a beat and a half, before bursting into applause at the conclusion of his reading. It is that kind of book -- sober, horrific, vividly realistic.

It will give any serious reader pause. It is a book in which you admire the skill of the writer even as you wonder if you really want to read a book on such a grim topic.

The Surrendered will certainly rank as Lee's finest work (at least something new supplants it), although it is not without its flaws. The best of the book is set in a Korean orphanage where three victims of war come together: an American soldier who served in the Korean conflict; a Korean girl, orphaned by the war; and the wife of an American missionary, who is a survivor of the Chinese-Japanese conflict in Manchuria.

The novel loses its way during those passages involving what passes for present time in the book. The soldier and the orphan girl, now a grown woman dying of cancer, are brought together by the woman's desire to find their son (it gets complicated), who is somewhere in Europe. But the reader does not care for this missing son and his very presence in the book seems arbitrary and a mere device to bring these two damaged souls back together.

If Lee stumbles, it is only that . . . a stumble and not a fall. The final passage links to the opening chapter in a skillful, almost breathtaking display of authorial command. Ultimately, The Surrendered is a flawed, yet heart-breakingly beautiful book that demands we see war for the horror that it is and acknowledge the great damage its wreaks on the guilty and innocent alike.

Because Solar is written by Ian McEwan we must read it. And we must acknowledge that it is written with skill, that it is highly readable, at times slyly funny and insightful, but -- and this isn't easy to say -- it is a disappointing book.

Despite it's title and it's cover (an image of our sun), Solar is not about global warming. It is about Michael Beard, a frowzy Nobel Prize-winning physicist who seems determined to demonstrate all on his own the concept of entropy -- that nature tends from order to disorder.

When we meet him, Beard is overweight womanizer, well into the dissolution of his fifth marriage and living off the tidy crumbs that fall to a Nobel laureate. By the novel's conclusion, his health is failing. He is morbidly obese, constitutionally unable to bypass a meal or a drink. He's fathered a child by one woman (despite his age and protestations never to become a father) and asked an equally frowzy waitress to marry him, while in the throes of sexual passion. And that doesn't begin to describe the state of Beard's career, which is disintegrating at about the same pace as his body.

The trouble with Solar -- more correctly, my trouble with Solar -- is that Beard is such an unpleasant shit, I don't care. Within pages I'm ready for him to get his comeuppance and be done with it. The book is not so funny or clever or insightful to continue to spend time with this creep.
Solar is a well-written dud.

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