Very, very bad reviews

I am a staunch adherent to the notion that all art and literature is subjective. The works that I enjoy, you might hate and vice versa. So, I am generally hesitant to comment negatively or post bad reviews. However, I just stumbled upon an article that features the most scathing book reviews of 2022 and I felt compelled to share two reviews for books that I personally found so disappointing that I thought you shoukd be warned.

The first one is on Lessons by Ian McEwan. I’ve read all of his previous novels and for the most part was positively disposed to his oeuvre; not so much with his latest.

Everything in Lessons, whose story concludes within a year and a half of its publication date, gives the impression of having been written in extreme haste. Its prose, for example, is pocked with first-order clichés, second-order clichés, dull metaphors, mixed metaphors, limp similes, oxymorons, pleonasms, catachresis, jejune diction, trivializing double entendres, pomposities, flagrant abuse of self-reflexive questions, and barely-concealed cribbings from more talented stylists like Nabokov … Within the first fifty or so pages, Roland experiences no fewer than three portentous epiphanies, none of which turn out to have any bearing on the subsequent four hundred, as though they were narrative coupons McEwan cut out but forgot to cash in …

McEwan’s novel is not so much an epic as it is three novellas in a trench coat … If this all sounds pat, it has less to do with the necessary evil that is plot summary in book reviewing, than to the didacticism with which McEwan imparts these and other praecepta in the novel itself. Yet perhaps worse than the way the book comes pre-interpreted for the reader is the way it comes pre-criticized … The trench coat is History. Draped loosely from the backs of these three narratives are hundreds of named political and cultural events, persons, and phenomena, starting with Dunkirk and ending with the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, which range from the genuinely consequential to the merely newsworthy to the unmentionably trivial.”

–Ryan Ruby on Ian McEwan’s Lessons (The New Left Review)

The second review is of Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel Lapvona. Previous to reading this unnerving dud I was an evangelist for her work. In fact, when her debut novel Eileen was released I badgered folks to read it. In the case of her latest however, I feel the need to warn off unsuspecting readers.

Moshfegh’s own sacraments involve a different orifice, so you will forgive her if her search has led her up her own ass … At first glance, Lapvona is the most disgusting thing Moshfegh has ever written…Yet Moshfegh’s trusty razor can feel oddly blunted in Lapvona. In part, her characteristic incisiveness is dulled by her decision to forgo the first person, in favor of more than a dozen centers of consciousness. This diminishment is also a curious effect of Lapvona itself … Lapvona is the clearest indication yet that the desired effect of Moshfegh’s fiction is not shock but sympathy. Like Hamlet, she must be cruel in order to be kind. Her protagonists are gross and abrasive because they have already begun to molt; peel back their blistering misanthropy and you will find lonely, sensitive people who are in this world but not of it, desperate to transform, ascend, escape …

This is the problem with writing to wake people up: Your ideal reader is inevitably asleep. Even if such readers exist, there is no reason to write books for them—not because novels are for the elite but because the first assumption of every novel must be that the reader will infinitely exceed it. Fear of the reader, not of God, is the beginning of literature. Deep down, Moshfegh knows this….Yet the novelist continues to write as if her readers are fundamentally beneath her; as if they, unlike her, have never stopped to consider that the world may be bullshit; as if they must be steered, tricked, or cajoled into knowledge by those whom the universe has seen fit to appoint as their shepherds …

It’s a shame. Moshfegh dirt is good dirt. But the author of Lapvona is not an iconoclast; she is a nun. Behind the carefully cultivated persona of arrogant genius, past the disgusting pleasures of her fiction and bland heresies of her politics, wedged just above her not inconsiderable talent, there sits a small, hardened lump of piety. She may truly be a great American novelist one day, if only she learns to be less important. Until then, Moshfegh remains a servant of the highest god there is: herself.”

–Andrea Long Chu on Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona (Vulture)


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