When I first read Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr’s review of the movie “Atonement” I decided I needed to read the book. Although The Hangover likes to be entertained by his reading material, I also read as a writer and hope to learn at the same time. Burr’s description indicated the book held great promise:
“Regret is everywhere in Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel ‘Atonement,’ like the air the characters breathe or the water they keep tumbling into. It seeps into cracks, weighs people down, turns them brittle and exhausted. It’s the stuff of life and the clay of fiction.”
That sounds like compelling reading, and I believed my fiction could only be improved by delving into Ian McEwan’s mastery of authorial control and tone. I ordered the book, scanned the cover, and was horrified by a blurb on the back:
“McEwan could be the most psychologically astute writer working today, our era’s Jane Austen.” –Esquire
The problem being, I just can’t read Jane Austen. I’ve tried. I couldn’t do it in high school when “Pride and Prejudice” was required in a world lit class. I couldn’t do it in college when confronted by the same book. Maybe the archaic sensibilities of Austen’s time were partly responsible. More likely it was the narration which seemed to have six pages of detailed thought for every one line of dialog. I remember myself screaming at several characters: “Oh for chrissakes, just do something, you jackass.”
The closest I’ve come to reading Austen was seeing the film, “Sense and Sensibility.” I must confess that I only went to the movie because it was Mrs. Hangover’s turn to pick, and more to the point, at that time we were only dating. Somehow, Emma Thompson turned what had to be characters buried in an intolerable amount of thinking into characters actually doing and saying things. I did enjoy the movie, although I did not feel in the least compelled to go buy the book.
I term over-the-top, stuck-in-the-head style writers, Henry Jamesians. As you might guess, he is another writer I just can’t stomach. I’ve failed in two attempts on “Portrait of a Lady,” including one in graduate school where I promised myself I would read everything. I think my official “Lady” total was thirty-two pages. I hated it so much that when I rented the movie (I would not lower myself to Cliff’s Notes), I couldn’t watch more than fifteen minutes (even with Nicole Kidman, Barbara Hershey, and Mary Louise Parker filling the screen).
The Hangover is not alone in its disdain for these two writers. Mark Twain couldn’t stand them either:
On James: “Once you put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.”
On Austen: “Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”
Ian McEwan, on the other hand, is a pleasure to read. His characters may think, but they also talk and act–quite frequently. The pages of Atonement resonate. Description is tactile and comes from every angle. And as Burr notes, mood and atmosphere are masterfully alive and real. That The Hangover highly recommends a book that was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and named Best Book of the Year by the hordes of newspapers (Washington Post, Boston Globe, etc…,.) should not come as a surprise. That we do so when its author was compared to Jane Austen is shocking.
I cracked the cover fearing overwritten, Jamesian introspection. I was not disappointed to find it missing.