Friday, June 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 142 (6/25) -- Solar by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is such an engaging, compulsively readable writer than I forget about his knives until the moment after he slams one home. And, if you know anything at all about McEwan, you know that there's always a knife; a McEwan hero can no more emerge triumphant and happy at the end of one of his novels than a fish can fly to the moon. Solar is not as inevitable a tragedy as his last novel, the short and near-perfect On Chesil Beach (which I reviewed here, three years ago), nor is it as relentlessly negative as his early books like The Child in Time or The Comfort of Strangers. But it's still a McEwan novel, and that implies dreadful things for his hero.

This time, that hero is Michael Beard, a middle-aged physicist coasting on one burst of brilliance from his youth that brought him fame, fortune, and a Nobel Prize. Solar opens with Beard in the dying days of his fifth marriage in 2000; Beard has cobbled together an income from various corporate boards and institutes and editorships and speaking engagements, none of which require much more of him than his name and an occasional day of his time. McEwan intends Solar to be more light-hearted and humorous than his usual fare, and he signposts this partially through Beard's physicality -- the physicist remarks over and over again about his corpulence and his failed attempts to get himself into shape -- and partially through Beard's appetite for women. But, even though one of the motors of Solar is Beard's relentless womanizing -- he's had eleven affairs in the few years of his current marriage, and, as McEwan presents him, is always on the lookout for new conquests -- his point of view, in the usual coldly detached McEwanesque limited third, never comments physically on the women passing by, or engages in direct sexual thoughts. McEwan has declared that Michael Beard is a man who has a lot of affairs -- in the way that, one begins to assume, McEwan believes the hero of an English comic novel must -- but feels that is sufficient to establish the point, and so glosses over the actual sex.

It's fascinating to find that there's something -- after all of these years, and all of the novels flaying bare every aspect of human unpleasantness and bad behavior -- that McEwan flinches away from writing about, and to find that it's so central to normal life as happy, healthy sex.

So Solar begins with Beard, whom we only later learn is one of the great Lotharios of the world of physical science, obsessing over the single affair of his fifth wife, Patrice. (We do learn, quickly, that all of those four previous marriages broke up due to Beard's own affairs, but, at this point, we're assuming it's the usual English novel treatment -- of course well-off and intelligent people have affairs, since they all do in novels like this.) Patrice has been carrying on with the transparently Mellors-esque Tarpin, a local builder who has done a lot of work on their magnificent, gorgeous (and deliberately childless) home. Stated that baldly, it looks much less real and nuanced than McEwan has actually made it, but, still -- the fat intellectual's wife is carrying on with a burly plebeian, once again.

Beard's obsession with his wife and her infidelity leads to a bad act of his own -- as it always does, with McEwan heroes -- the consequences of which will be delayed until a Job-like pile of woes at the very end of Solar. For this novel, in the end, is the story of how all of Michael Beard's bad habits, lazinesses, cut corners, and ignored chances come back to him, and how, at the age of sixty, he is utterly unprepared to deal with the consequences of what he's done. It's divided into three roughly equal parts, set in 2000, 2005, and 2009, in which Beard sinks deeper and deeper into his habits -- which don't appear all that bad, or that damaging, along the way -- until everything comes back to him in a whirlwind at the end.

Solar isn't as comic as McEwan seems to think it is; he's been calling it a comic novel, but it's not particularly funny, and only light by comparison with his other works. It's also been called satirical, but if there's a single exaggeration in its milieu -- aside from the artificial photosynthesis project Beard launches, which has no equivalent in our world -- I missed it; in fact, Solar has fewer outrageous global warming deniers than the real world, and the ones in Solar are relatively sane and reasonable. Satire, to be effective, does need to go further than reality, and I didn't see much evidence that Solar did so.

But it is entertaining, and an engrossing look at a man as blindered and limited as the rest of us. It's also within a stone's throw of science fiction, which encourages those of us who want to see SF as literature, and vice versa. I doubt Solar will be remembered as one of McEwan's major novels a century from now, but it's a fine novel of man and science this year, which is plenty good enough.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Phosphorescent - The Mermaid Parade
via FoxyTunes

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