Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

While I consider Ian McEwan to be one of the best novelists alive, I also think his books aren't perfect. They have problems. I don't mean to say that McEwan is a bad writer. He is, in fact, an unusually wonderful writer who is adept at turning language to any purpose. He can make you laugh, and he can terrorize you. His prose is fluid, his words are precise, and the narratives he weaves have moments of breathtaking beauty. In this, the opening scene of Enduring Love comes to mind, as does the retreat at Dunkirk in Atonement.

No, the problems of McEwan's books do not come from any failings that he may have as a craftsman and artist. The problems his books have are that they always set up expectations that McEwan willfully, and masterfully, subverts. Yes, McEwan is a master; he is a master of magnificently not giving us what we want.

Still, as I tell my friends, the worst Ian McEwan novel is better than 99% of the books published in the world. (I would gladly re-read Black Dogs rather than slog through anything by James Patterson.) I am not being hyperbolic. McEwan's novels really are among the best books out there. And, I'm glad to report, Solar is no exception.

The dust jacket of Solar describes it as a comic novel, which is inaccurate. It's in fact a farce, for the central character of the book is a fool, though, in typical McEwan fashion, he is a brilliant and brilliantly-realized fool. And the world through which this fool travels, while broadly realistic, is ludricrous. It is ridiculously real, in an I-can't-believe-that's-how-things-actually-work kind of way. A prime example of this occurs when the scene of the novel shifts to a frozen arctic fjord in Norway, where a group of artists & intellectuals have gathered in an icebound ship to discuss & observe the effects of climate change. Talk about a microcosm. It's a set piece on par with that first scene in Enduring Love. And what happens in the ship's "boot room" is especially telling, both in what it says about people and in what it says about their effect on the planet. The "boot room" is also, sadly, nearly naturalistic in its realism. So, Solar is actually a satire, and we all know satires are always serious.

Solar has funny moments, to be sure, and the arc of its plot adheres to the definition of comic structure. But, as you can probably guess, almost nothing in this novel happens the way you would expect it to. As I said, McEwan is subversive; he's almost trustworthy that way.

Consider the opening lines, which come at you just after an appropriately ironic epigraph:
"He belonged to that class of men -- vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever -- who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so."
It's classic McEwan: the omniscient, third-person narration that, paradoxically, is situated right behind the eyes of our protagonist, so that tone and viewpoint are already at odds. We see what our hero really is, but we also see how he sees himself. But doesn't our hero also see what he really is?

Well, ironically (and McEwan does love irony), he does. Michael Beard, our hero, is very aware of what he really is. He is a former genius with a Nobel in his back pocket, coasting through the last acts of both his fifth marriage and his professional career. At a time when most people would be planning for retirement or at least winding down their pursuits to settle into a comfortable dotage, Beard is allowing his life to implode, slowly and surely, like (that old, tired metaphor) a slow-motion car crash.

See, Michael Beard has a problem that is universal: he just can't help himself. To say he has poor impulse control would be to put too fine a point on it. He's a glutton and a slob who loves food, drink, and women, all in the plural. And that medal he was given by the King of Sweden gives him plenty of access to all three. Solar is filled with descriptions of food and sex, all liberally lubricated with liquor.

Now, outsized appetites can be comical and even endearing, but Beard is also a snob. It's a snobbery born of the same laziness that makes him a slave to his appetites while rendering him incapable of cleaning up after himself. He just can't summon up the energy to wrench himself away from his own ego long enough to empathize with other people. Oh, he's a smart one. But his considerable intellect isn't in the driver's seat; it's just what he uses to extricate himself from the wreckage caused by his never-ending hungers.

And, as if Beard's impulsiveness weren't bad enough, McEwan concocts circumstances that further bedevil our hero. Crimes occur, as do cover-ups. There are betrayals and (since this is a McEwan novel) deaths. A chance encounter over a snack on a train turns into a hilarious misunderstanding that becomes the cause of an argument between Beard and a practitioner of what he considers "the soft sciences." A protest gesture backfires, making Beard appear even more monstrous than he really is. A mishap involving a polar bear rug (how symbolic!) leads to lifelong and fatal consequences that afford Beard yet another opportunity for implosion.

Through all of this, as the novel moves through time and space from 2000 to 2009, from England to Norway to America, McEwan performs the alchemy of making a supremely unpleasant character become a sublimely embodied soul. Remember, we spend nearly all of Solar looking out from behind Beard's eyes, even if the narration is peppered with authorial comment. (Indeed, evidence mounts that Beard may be narrating the whole thing to himself.) So, as we read, we begin to care for Michael Beard, despite all of the people he has hurt. We begin to root for his efforts at creating a new, clean power technology, despite the dark source of his innovations.

But, haven't I mentioned McEwan's penchant for frustrating our expectations? It's a penchant that has cost McEwan, both in terms of readership and reputation. I know well-educated, widely-read people who can't stand Ian McEwan's novels. For, no matter how refined our tastes can be, they are subject to our emotions. And there are those who dislike having their emotions toyed with. They expect their expectations to be satisfied. They expect McEwan, who is so good at creating expectations with his nimble command of language & detail, to pay them off. But he has other ideas. And I, for one, think those ideas can be mind-blowing.

In Solar, McEwan does not resort to the last-act subversions that he used in Atonement. That is, the end of Solar does not radically rewrite its beginning. Nor is it a kind of logical, clockwork conclusion the way it is in Enduring Love. Nor is it the comeuppance that characterizes the shocking ending of Amsterdam. Instead, McEwan brilliantly delivers Beard to an ending that is neither an escape nor a punishment. I give nothing away by quoting it:
"As Beard rose to greet her, he felt in his heart an unfamiliar, swelling sensation, but he doubted as he opened his arms to her that anyone would ever believe him now if he tried to pass it off as love."
It's a bravura finale, followed by an appendix that shows McEwan at his metafictional best, highlighting his role as the wizard behind the curtain, the one we can't help noticing, even as he commands us to pay no attention.

I recommend Solar to anyone with an appetite for literate fiction that follows E.M. Forster's dictate to "only connect." It will make you laugh, and it will horrify you. You may even learn something. But you will have been transported, enjoyably, into the mind and heart of an all-too-human antihero by a master at the height of his subversive powers.

by Ian McEwan


  1. I had forgotten about the train snack incident! I guess it was overshadowed in my mind by the hilarities in the Arctic. Great review!

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  3. Solar is a smart, funny, and perceptive novel about our times, and I highly recommend it. Don't expect it to be another Atonement or On Chesil Beach; McEwan is attempting something entirely different here, and you will have to be willing to take it on its own terms.

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