Agonizingly, Jonathan Lethem 'Parses' an Ian McEwan Stone
Well, you have to hand it to the Crystal Leth, at least he's bringing something better than plot summary to the increasingly torpid Times Book Review. Lethem has the cover review, of Ian McEwan's novel(la) On Chesil Beach, in this week's Summer Reading issue, and he dives into close reading—yes, close reading—with what's, depending on one's view, either a cute bit of aw-shucks mixed metaphor or an atrocious bit of aw-shucks mixed metaphor that portends the wholesale dissolution of American letters:
Among the encompassing definitions we could give "the novel" is this : a novel is a vast heap of sentences, like stones, arranged on a beach of time. The reader may parse the stones of a novel singly or crunch them in bunches underfoot in his eagerness to cross. These choices generate tension...
No, "parse" does not in any conceivable way mean anything at all related to "crunch," unless the stone-sentences in question are brittle beyond the meaning of the word "stone." No, I don't know if he cares...Okay, no more of this charade...It's definitely cute, not atrocious:
... young, educated ... virgins ... wedding night ... sexual difficulties. The first stone on McEwan's new beach indulges his radical efficiency with a hook. If McEwan's first chapters generally ought to be sent, like Albert Pujols's bats, to the Hall of Fame, then we may agree that in this instance his first sentence is a first chapter of its own, as well as doing extra duty as its host book's perfect piece of ad copy.
Sentence = Stone = Hook = Bat = Chapter. Incredible. But, um, isn't the correct analogue to Pujol's bat, say, McEwan's typewriter? Isn't there something of a slippage between the physical object "hook" and its ad-copy resonances that kind of snaps apart this chain of metaphorical equivalences? And are we to assume that there is some sort of ontological solidity to the concept "chapter" such that it should be a revelation that one sentence can be a chapter in itself? Who knows?! The beauty of Lethem's review is you can think all these thoughts, or none, or some! Just like the summer:
[T]his seeming novel of manners is as fundamentally a horror novel as any McEwan's written, one that carries with it a David Cronenberg sensitivity to what McEwan calls "the secret affair between disgust and joy." That horror is located in the distance between two selves, two subjectivities: humans who will themselves to be "as one," and fail miserably. The horror is in the distance between these sentences, which reside terrifyingly near to one another on the page...If "On Chesil Beach" is a horror novel, it is also as fundamentally a comedy, one with virtual Monty Python overtones: The waiters were arriving with their plates of beef, his piled twice the height of hers.
It seems a comedy of manners, but it's actually a horror novel, as well as a comedy. Fundamentally. Piled high, alright, but whatevs, Lethem's winking all the way; 370 words into the 1600-stone review:
(Here's my spoiler warning: "On Chesil Beach" is far too lean and pure for me to muse on more than a few of its sentences without giving some secrets away. If you're inspired by the hook above, read the book — it'll be nearly as quick as reading my review, and more fun.)