The Reading Room: A Single Man, With Major Issues
By Florian Gargaillo (LA), Staff Writer
Ian McEwan is a strange being. He started out in the late 70s/early 80s with a series of vaguely shocking novels about perverted romantic entanglements before exploding onto the literary landscape in 2001 with the magnificent “Atonement,” which he will probably never be able to beat, though he has been trying hard ever since. His output since “Atonement” has been consistently unreliable, from “Saturday” (which was awful) to “On Chesil Beach” (which was wonderful). And it’s hard to read his new novel “Solar” without some frustration. It really should not be possible for someone — anyone — to write so well and so badly in a single book.

“Solar” tells the story of physicist Michael Beard, a former Nobel Prize laureate whose fifth marriage is going down the drain and who has lost all interest in his research on solar energy. Skeptical of climate change and fiercely jealous of his wife’s lover (the couple have been sleeping in separate rooms ever since she learned that he had been repeatedly cheating on her for years), Beard has turned inward, watching his own world collapse as the world around him hurdles to a close. “Solar” is set against a backdrop of natural disasters, personal and global, and though McEwan does try to join these two strands together, he is not always very clear (or successful) in his attempts.

At its heart, though, “Solar” is about a man who can no longer be happy because he no longer feels like a man. The novel is replete with images, metaphors and references (vague or explicit) to Beard’s waning masculinity. He is obsessed with his wife’s infidelities with younger men and feels disconnected from the professional world that turned him into a celebrity. McEwan seems to be joining the company of Roth and Updike — the all-boys club of aging writers who dwell somewhat neurotically on the passing of their youth and sexual prowess — though at times it is hard to tell if this is really McEwan writing or McEwan trying to pull a Roth.

Granted, McEwan’s style is still very much on display here, at least in his stronger passages. The writing is slick and the humor so black you can never quite be sure if McEwan is actually kidding around or not. When one of the scientists at Beard’s lab dies, his colleague says: “I suppose we can honor his memory by developing his micro wind-turbine thingie. We’re all deeply committed.” “Oh yes, that,” Beard said. “Of course. It will be his monument.”

The main problem with “Solar” is that McEwan seems to be on hyperactive mode. He keeps his plot firmly under control in one passage and then takes wild risks in another. The tone shifts in ways that the novel itself can’t quite seem to handle, switching from grotesque comedy to “serious” satire on political correctness and the hypocrisy of green politics. The first 50 pages are the best — a taut, perceptive, well-crafted plunge into the obsessive jealousies of Michael Beard à la Othello. Then we change suddenly from Beard’s inner crisis to a ridiculous episode in which Beard is invited to the North Pole for a conference and his genitalia freezes off from the cold — a plot twist from which the novel never quite recovers. The succeeding sled-chase with a polar bear would be terrible if it were not so funny in its awfulness. Ultimately, McEwan seems to fare a lot better when he stays at home in Great Britain than when he goes gallivanting about the North Pole.

He is also a lot better with the ironies of human comedy than satire or crime stories (which is what “Solar” inexplicably becomes near the end of part one). My favorite passage is without the doubt the one in which Beard cracks open a packet of chips on a train and his neighbor reaches over and unapologetically begins eating from the packet, staring at Beard fixedly as though challenging him. The two then launch a lengthy chip-eating war. It is the most brilliant sequence in the book — absurdist, yes, but subtly absurdist, and you’d be surprised how much truth and human psychology McEwan manages to drain out of a chip challenge, of all things.

The reason McEwan is not so good with satire is that his writing becomes too prosaic every time he turns to “big” issues. There just aren’t enough witty barbs or brilliant turns of phrases to keep the reader from skipping ahead to the next paragraph. It’s also hard to tell whether or not his satire extends to his protagonist. In many ways, that is a question of where you are in the novel. The Michael Beard of the first part is very different from that of the second part, and you could argue that while McEwan is very sympathetic to Beard in the early pages of his novel, by the time he has reached the 100-page mark he has turned Beard into a target for satire. The flawed neurotics of early Beard have been replaced by the figure of a fat, casually manipulative Beard that McEwan patronizingly pats on the head, which is hard to accept because we have come to like Beard on some level, warts and all.

In that light, it might be best to pass over “Solar” and wait for McEwan to come up with something more deserving of his talent. “Solar” is too scattered and expansive for him in a way that the human-focused “On Chesil Beach” was not. Perhaps after this, McEwan will have learned to shoot for the earth rather than for the stars.

Issue 23, Submitted 2010-04-26 07:47:39