I read it so long ago I can't really give anything but vague impressions at this point, but it basically epitomized the Don DeLillo style that I dislike the most - thin, cold, distant characters babbling on about (in my opinion) uninsightful, half-baked social theory that I don't care to read in the first place, let alone embedded in what's supposed to be a novel.
This is my big problem with White Noise
actually. I really can't understand the acclaim that book gets. So much of it is written in this very sneering, tin-eared satirical tone. It doesn't even illustrate anything about the consumerist lifestyle that wasn't already spelled out by protesters on liberal college campuses in the 60s and 70s.
What I liked about Mao II
was that in comparison it seems to come from a place of ambivalence and really trying to grapple with the confusions of postmodern existence by pitting the consciousnesses of different ways of approaching that existence against each other. It also has some of the most beautiful and thrilling descriptive passages I've ever read (though I frankly did have to look up a lot of words to fully appreciate their beauty... if I didn't have a dictionary close by my appreciation of the novel would have been almost zilch).
There is DeLillo's standard trope of all dialogue being in DeLillo's same rhythm and unrealistic syntatx, but for me in this case it is a blessing rather than a curse because realistically varied dialogue wouldn't really fit with what the rest of the book is doing aesthetically. And anyway, each character represents a different opposed impulse and tendencies of thought in DeLillo's own mind, so they might as well all be unified by his unique cadence. If they are uniform rhythmically and syntactically, they are all very different in the directions in which their different digressions go, and this alone is distinct enough that I can usually tell which character is speaking without DeLillo even having to go "said Bill" or "said Karen".
As for the social theory, well, idk. That's usually something that bothers me too, but I'm actually interested in the problems DeLillo explores here. I find his examination of the individual vs. the crowd--and of the novelist's lost voice in an age beholden to terror and sensationalistic news stories--to be very interesting and relevant (especially in light of all the stuff that was going on around the time he was writing it; Salman Rushdie vs. Khomeini, Khomeini's funeral, the Hillsbourough disaster, the mass Moonie weddings). And hell, a lot of that stuff seems even more relevant today, when the novel seems even less important to mainstream culture than it did then, when the mainstream media is worse than ever, when we're still living with the after-effects of Bush's War on Terror, when all voices of opinion seem to be neutered down to equal in the flattened noisy chatter of internet hysteria. I'm not a very politically involved person, I'm not a real political person--at least in a detailed keeping up with everything way--but to be honest I don't think DeLillo is either; he's just concerned with particular broad trends that disturb him and tries to tackle them from different angles through different characters.
One of the biggest mistakes people made in interpreting the book was assuming the novelist in it, Bill Gray, is the character DeLillo identifies with. Wrong. DeLillo identifies with the totality of the discursive movements of the book and all the different directions they go in, contradicting each other as they do. I also have to admit I got a little tired of almost every amateur reviewer saying that all the characters were simply mouthpieces for DeLillo's "point," without anybody being able to identify exactly what that point is. And the reason they can't is that they haven't really engaged with what DeLillo has tried to do. He's not being a preacher here. He's longing for some kind of access to individualism that America has promised but not delivered, and he's trying to figure out why it's hard to get to in a postmodern society. He's not preaching, he's having a conversation with himself. I don't know if that's helpful or makes you want to read the book again, but it's how I felt about it. He's using the novel form as a way to understand, as a way to cast different beautiful, contradictory, lightning visions and have them wrestle with each other more than he is in telling a gripping story, per se. It's better understood as a set of intersecting parts interacting with each other, bouncing off each other, echoing each other, than it is as a coherent, traditionally satisfying narrative.
Kind of frustrated with Oscar Wao so I'm having insomniac sessions re-reading Atonement and I think it's by far the best book I've read from the 00s without question.
God dammit, I hated the first 100 pages so much there's no way I'm going to read the rest of it (and at this point I'd have to reread the first 100 pages as well, since it's been so long), but I really want to know what you see in it.
Like, I just don't even get how you, a connoisseur of literature who's read at least as much as me (probably significantly more), can actually just sit there and read his third-rate prose. It's like a fucking NaNoWriMo draft or something. Ugh. De gustibus, I guess.
I can't see how you don't like his prose! Actually imo McEwan is the best living English prose stylist. Of course the first section of Atonement is not pure McEwan, it's McEwan through another character, but it's still excellent as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, it's impossible to talk about the merits of the novel with someone who hasn't finished it because the nature of how you understand every single thing about the first section--from the way it is written down to what happens--is totally shifted by the ending of the book. So finish it, and read it carefully, asking what the significance of every word in every paragraph is (I really do believe the book is intentionally detailed at this microscopic a level), what the push-and-pull of the thematic tensions are, and I honestly think you will come to understand why I think it is the greatest piece of literature of our new century. You know how guys like Franzen and Wallace are always talking about using postmodern techniques to arrive at some new more humanist, emotionally-wrenching perspective, rather than using it merely to undercut and critique everything? Well this book is the epitome of that, and it frankly wipes the floor with both of those guys (and I'm saying this as a big fan of Wallace*). Like with the DeLillo it's one of those books that can be explained best by seeing every character as a different aspect of McEwan's own consciousness rather than assuming he identifies with one more than the others. Atonement gives us McEwan's own contradictory mindsets wrestling with themselves, and the sum of those wrestling matches creates a very beautiful, majestic form which--if I'm being honest--mimics my own state of mind in a way that hits really close to home.
*Not Franzen though. Fuck him.