Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book Review: Solar (Ian McEwan)

A Booker prize-winning author, celebrated as one of the greatest of his generation.  The hottest global issue of the day (if you can pardon the cheap pun).  The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction.  One of the major literary events of the year so far.  Put it all together and what do you get?  A big fat dud, that is what.

Ian McEwan's Solar is a disappointing (and ultimately unsuccessful) effort of a 'serious' author to write a comic novel.  McEwan is witty, has a good way with his words, is sensitive.  He can create depth in characters, he is astute with his psychological observations, he is a great pacer of his books.  He is not, someone should tell him, funny.  Doing the laugh-out-loud stuff is not for him.  Solar, Mr.McEwan, is tedious, forced, and (gasp!) boring.

A quick summary - Solar is a humorous take on the shady side of science, playing out in the context of a global warming scientist.  The protagonist is Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize winning physicist.  The novel plays out in three disjointed periods, 2000, 2005 and 2009, with a lot of flashbacks thrown in to connect the three.  When the novel opens, Beard is an illustrious if bored star of his narrow academic world.  He has limited interest left in science, though he is quite happy to squeeze every last bit of juice out of his Nobel Prize.  
In an inward, specialized world, he was, courtesy of Stockholm, a celebrity, and he coasted from year to year, vaguely weary of himself, bereft of alternatives. ... He lacked the will, the material, he lacked the spark.  He had no new ideas.
His personal life, on the other hand, has all the spark that he can handle, and then some.  He is on his fifth marriage, and it is going the way of the other four.  The colorful personal life and bland professional one collide in an event of unexpected violence, of the sort that McEwan has always liked. A book thus far sleepy and muddled, comes awake, if briefly.

Beard gets involved, through blatantly unethical means, in the science - and business - of global warming.  In a few years, he finds himself on the verge of what he thinks is something dramatic.  'My dad is changing the world', as his daughter says, too cutely by half.  On the personal front, Beard has let himself go.  Too many women, too much food (all of it junk), a lifestyle of slovenliness.  Like the planet itself, he seems on a path of self-destruction, blissfully unaware the whole time that what he considers progress is taking him ever a step closer to the precipice.  The reader, as in many McEwan novels, can see the impending disaster taking shape, even if Beard cannot.  Will Beard's sins come back to haunt him?  If so, which of his many sins would get there first?

The comedy in Solar, such as it is, is in the utter cluelessness of the Nobel Prize winning scientist.  Even as everyone can see that his choices are disastrous and he is going ever deeper into a sinkhole, Beard seems ... apathetic.  "I shouldn't have to care.  I won the Nobel Prize.  I am trying to save the world." - or near enough.

There are many different ways in which Solar doesn't work.  The most important is this:  The comedy is too forced.  It feels like McEwan is trying too hard.  For instance, there is the juvenile humor of Beard's penis freezing when he whips it out to pee in the Arctic.  The entire episode of the Arctic expedition seems (to me) to have little other purpose in the rest of the novel.  And here is the thing - it is not funny!  It reads like something Judd Apatow might write, not Ian McEwan.

There are parts that do work, to be fair.  I particularly liked the science.  McEwan has clearly done a lot of research into climate science, and solar energy alternatives in particular.  The pieces where they are discussed (sans silly attempts at humor) are the better parts of the book.  Unfortunately, there just isn't enough about global warming in a book ostensibly about a scientist working on it.  Of course, the real science of global warming would be out of place in what McEwan is trying to achieve here.  As one of the characters in the book says -
It is difficult to be serious about global warming and not be consumed by it.
And McEwan surely doesn't want to get consumed by anything as serious as this in Solar.

There is also a great little set-piece with Beard in a train that I loved.  Numerous reviewers have hated this piece, finding it derivative.  I have to say that personally, this was one of my favorite parts in an otherwise spotty book.  Beard is sitting in a train, opposite a young man.  Beard has just bought a bag of chips, with a Union Jack on its cover.
So childish of him, this infatuation, so weak, so harmful, a microcosm of all past errors and folly, of the impatient way he had of having to have what he wanted instantly.  He took the bag in both hands and pulled its neck apart, discharging a clammy fragrance of frying fat and vinegar.  It was an artful laboratory simulation of the corner fish-and-chip shop, an enactment of fond memories and desire and nationhood.  That flag was a considered choice.  He lifted clear a single crisp between forefinger and thumb, replaced the bag on the table, and sat back.  He was a man to take his pleasures seriously.  The trick was to set the fragment ton the center of the tongue and, after a moment's spreading sensation, push the potato up hard to shatter against the roof of the mouth.  his theory was that the rigid irregular surface caused tiny abrasions in the soft flesh into which salt and chemicals poured, creating a mild and distinctive pleasure-pain.
This remarkably well written passage is the beginning of a four page episode that culminates, for my money, very satisfyingly.  The plot of this particular set-piece is nothing too original, as McEwan quickly divulges a few pages later.  But the writing is artful enough to make it entirely worthwhile.

Unfortunately, such pleasures are few and far between in Solar.  Even more unfortunately for McEwan, they happen, more often than not, when he is isn't trying to be funny, but is rather writing on a more intimate level.  As I said before, humor is not his thing.

After Atonement, Ian McEwan gained the justifiable reputation of someone who is a master of the language and who was going to define great fiction in the new millennium.  Saturday was certainly no Atonement, but it was a great book in its own right.  On Chesil Beach was a lightweight in more ways than one, as I mentioned in Brick and Rope's review of the book in December.  Now Solar has turned out to be an outright dud.  I wonder whether I would have it in me to read the next McEwan.  After all, there is only so many passes you get for writing one all-time-great book.