Help pick the worst books of the decade: Ian McEwan gets my vote
Over at the Guardian, for my money the best books website in the multiverse, Sam Jordison writes persuasively that it’s not enough for critics and readers to concoct lists of the best books of the rapidly closing decade. To get a true reflection of the era, we must “name and shame” the worst books, too.
The mind leaps to the challenge, aquiver with literary bloodlust. Or at least mine does. Without even trolling my files to look over reviews I’ve written during the wretched first 10 years of the new millennium, three books present themselves all but unbidden: Nick Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante; Tim Willocks’ The Religion; and Ian McEwan’s masterpiece of all that’s wrong with serious fiction, Saturday.
What were the worst books you read since Bill Clinton left office? Jordison wants your help, and so do I. A ground rule or two: Let’s set aside what Jordison calls the “soft targets,” the fish-in-a-barrel books of bestselling scribes the likes of Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell or Mitch Albom (Yes, Mitch Albom: The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I rest my case).
“No, more intriguing by far are the over-rated books,” writes Jordison. “There’s nothing worse than being told something is wonderful only to discover it’s actually The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru.”
Let me help get the ball rolling. The following three books all have considerable strengths, alloyed with various degrees of vomitous awfulness: Overwriting (Willocks), self-flattery (Tosches), the rising bile of artistic inauthenticity (McEwan). Here’s what I had to say at the time:
“Tim Willocks’ The Religion, a sweeping epic romance set against the Turkish siege of Malta in 1565, a battle that determined the shapes of Christian Europe and the Islamic world for centuries to come, might be a candidate for best novel of the year—were it not, I regret to say, so very badly written.” That’s the lead from my 2007 review.
Alas, I cannot find a link to my 2002 review of Nick Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante — which I named both the best and the worst novel of the year, but this excerpt will give you the idea: “Vile, disgusting, naively romantic, but also possessing an irresistible energy and inventiveness, it is one part big fat joke, one part genuine literary pop art. It’s a coprophilous masterpiece, which is another way of saying that seldom has such a load of crap been thrown together with such verve and gusto.”
My deepest disgust, however, is reserved for McEwan, if only for the undeniable scope of his talents. 2005’s Saturday, praised to the skies by most critics, is a skillfully wrought piffle about a neurosurgeon who runs afoul of a low-level gangster, climaxing with the gangster and a couple of henchmen invading his home during the holidays. The perfect family is saved when –this is
rich, indeed — the grown daughter beguiles the thug with a recitation of “Dover Beach.”
Right. Three goons out of a Guy Richie movie are going to be diverted from the pleasures of rape, robbery and murder by a naked 18-year-old girl declaiming poetry at them. Ugh.
“A falser note is hard to imagine,” I groused in my 2007 review. “But then this scene is not really about what happens when insane gangsters with a strong sense of resentment get the upper hand on a bunch of wealthy and attractive people. By having Perrowne and company handily escape certain death, McEwan flatters the affluent, college-educated sophisticates most likely to be his readers, hinting they, too, would elude danger from a disenfranchised and angry underclass with such ease and aplomb! In reality, most people threatened in this manner would die horrible, humiliating, undignified deaths.”
So Saturday gets my nod for the worst novel of the decade. Please, send me your nominations. Meanwhile, I’ll try to round out a full list of 10. Oh, yeah, how could I forget Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men? More to come.