Monday, 15 August 2011
My main holiday read this summer was Ian McEwan's Solar, an appropriate title for a Greek island which hit forty degrees most days. Like most late McEwan, it manages to combine the virtues of being both compellingly readable and intent on tackling heavyweight ideas, although what's distinct about Solar is that the readability derives from an almost picaresque comic mode quite new to McEwan and that the main idea is an overriding contemporary bugbear often sidestepped by novelists: climate change.
McEwan admirers (like myself) who came across Frederick Raphael's brilliant, clinical demolition of On Chesil Beach in PN Review (185) a couple of years ago were afforded an unfamiliar perspective on a novelist who's long been subsumed into a mainstream critical consensus of unwavering superlatives.Despite garnering further extravagant plaudits,On Chesil Beach immediately stuck out as McEwan at his weakest, but it took a prose specialist of Raphael's stature and experience to meticulously unpick the flaws in McEwan's style and deflate the creaky suppositions the book's opening and plotline rest upon. Like all good criticism, furthermore, it forced one to reflect back on the other work and wonder if the same shortcuts and novelistic cliches had accompanied - and in fact eased - McEwan's rise towards mainstream lionisation.
Raphael's main objection to On Chesil Beach's narrative strategy was that it relies too much on the diagetic, putatively omniscient narrative-voice of an 18th or 19thC novelist and too little on dramatic "showing" to push the action forward: this leads to a patronising tendency to tout doxologic generalisations as though they were insights (eg "a conversation about sexual difficulties...is never easy") and manipulate characters as illustrations of ideas rather than through interaction or plot-development. Overall, the tone is de haut en bas, clunkily authoritative; what Raphael calls "the hullo-folksiness of the people's laureate, the pundit who has come here to mark our cards about Life." This represents a disappointing step-back from the genuinely exploratory and disorientating work of McEwan's middle period - in key novels such as The Child in Time, The Innocent and Enduring Love - where "pseudo-realist" effects created beguiling contexts for Ballardian themes of violence, loss and disorder.
The same more conservative, over-determining narrative-voice is certainly there too in Atonement, Saturday and indeed Solar, though perhaps more organically blended-in with materials that are inherently more interesting and complex. A further aspect of what one might call McEwan being the victim of his own success is a grating inclination in these later novels to focus on highly-successful, middle-class characters. After the implausibly brilliant family top neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is endowed with in Saturday - the undergraduate daughter who's already an acclaimed poet in the manner of Craig Raine (ie. a meretricious smartarse, some might say) and the bassist-son who's had lessons off Jack Bruce - Michael Beard, the anti-hero of Solar, is even more egregious in his talents: a Nobel-prize winning physicist, no less. Indeed, one wonders how much the jet-setting, conference-attending existence Beard follows contains elements of McEwan's own internationally-lauded, globe-trotting lifestyle. Certainly the episode set within the Arctic Circle at Longyearbyen had its origins in a trip to observe the effects of climate change McEwan made (see photo above). Beard not only (in one of the book's funniest passages) loses his penis to sub-zero congellation, but is also pursued by a polar bear.(Startling fact-meets-fiction overlap in the news recently, in fact, when a young English student was attacked by a polar bear while camping in Longyearbyen...)
However, Beard's intellectual prowess and scientific ambitions are continually undercut by the bumbling, appetite-driven unconcern with which he conducts his personal life: a serial adulterer and all-round bibulous glutton, he's a kind of grotesque allegorical figure for the excess and over-consumption which are endangering the planet even as he plans to save it (and rescusitate his flagging career) by harnessing solar power on a massive scale. The comic brio of Beard's self-deluding misadventures carries the novel forward with an impressive queasy momentum and provides the vehicle for an ongoing vein of social satire that's quite new for McEwan.
In many ways, Solar could be seen as McEwan attempting to encroach on the pan-critical caustic sweep of Martin Amis, and the novel it most reminded me of was Money. Michael Beard has much in common with that embodiment of consumerist greed John Self, both blundering egotistically through their novels with little consideration for those around them before reaching a devastating plot-denouement where all their past failings and evasions catch up with them. Similarly, Solar mirrors the narrative-arc of Money in plotting the trajectory from boom to eventual bust for Beard, ending the novel in our current frustrated predicament of wondering where all the money's gone.
In attempting to open up the debate on climate change in the form of the novel, McEwan's adoption of an Amisian mode of black comedy and parodic farce (although lacking Amis's acidic bite, his lampooning of post-modernist political correctness is especially sharp) seems appropriate as a way of undermining woolly, idealistic thinking in this area and suggesting that scientists and politicians both need to face the worrying facts of impending ecological disaster more squarely and proactively. It also signals a stylistic progression - with encouraging hints of what Bakhtin calls the carnivalesque mode, more often seen in writers such as Marquez, Grass and Pynchon -beyond the more staid,realist, 'knowing' manner other recent books found him slipping into.