Ian McEwan was on my list of “authors to try” this year, and since he had a new book coming out, I thought it would be fun to read his first novel, The Cement Garden, and his latest, Solar, not necessarily to compare the two works to each other, but perhaps to get an idea of McEwan’s development as a writer. Of course, like musicians, writers don’t necessarily develop along a straight trajectory. Nothing dictates that a writer who previously concerned himself with writing traditional literary fiction cannot shift over into writing stream-of-consciousness narratives or mysteries or young adult novels, just as nothing dictates that a band that previously relied on the “traditional” rock instruments of guitar, bass, and drums cannot make an album of nothing but jazz or pure electronica. The thing is, perhaps unfortunately in some cases, that artists have no control over the consumer’s point of entry with regard to their oeuvre. That is not to say that the electronic enthusiast might not pick that album and love it, and then go on to accept a band’s more typical work. Such things happen.
Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1972 at the tender age of twenty-five for something called the Beard-Einstein Conflation, having something to do with photovoltaics. The story spans the first decade of the twenty-first century. We first meet Beard in the year 2000; he is busy fretting over his unfaithful fifth wife, Patrice, and scheming to get back in her good graces, as it turns out that Patrice is only cheating on him—just this once, with a brute handyman named Turpin—because he has cheated on her eleven times in their five-year marriage.
In his professional life, he holds the Chair at the National Center for Renewable Energy, among other honorary positions, a placement assigned due to his status as a great scientist. But all the honors conferred upon him are based only his past achievements:
One thing was certain. Two decades had passed since he had last sat down and in silence and solitude for hours on end, pencil and pad in hand, to do some thinking, to have an original hypothesis, play with it, pursue it, tease it into life. The occasion never arose—no, that was a weak excuse. He lacked the will, the material, he lacked the spark. He had no new ideas.
He essentially wanders the halls, enjoying his role as a figurehead and rarely concerning himself with the actual science. He’s much more concerned about his marriage than anything happening at the Center, but not because he loves Patrice, necessarily—more because he hates to lose. He wants her attention.
This first section of the novel offers up a few of its most comic moments, especially when he receives an invitation to take a trip to the North Pole (this is how McEwan refers to it, as though Beard were off to see Santa, which somehow makes it even funnier) and decides it will be a sort of vacation where he can try to forget his failing marriage. Upon his return from the North Pole, a gratuitous accident occurs that kicks off the action of the next two sections of the book. I use the word “action” lightly, because for all that happens in Solar, not much happens. There is a Tom-Wolfe type send-up of academics and journalists in the second section (year 2005) that’s rather amusing—in fact, it was really the last part of the book I enjoyed, even though I still had about 150 pages to go at that point.
Now, I generally don’t like to give negative reviews. (I realize that makes me sound like the person at a party who pulls you into a corner and prefaces the conversation with, “Now you know how I don’t like to say anything bad about anybody, but…”) The book has received mixed reviews, and if you are expecting a novel of ideas, a fictional treatise on what we are doing to the planet and why we should stop, you’d be reading the wrong book. For Michael Beard is the sun, and the world revolves around him; it shines its light upon him and illuminates him—but not in a good way. Truly, Beard is nothing new: he’s dick-lit’s Everyman. He manages to be self-loathing buffoon and completely in love with himself at the same time. Even though he’s a short, fat, preening alcoholic, he somehow manages to land five wives, only two of whom we meet in any real detail, and a couple of girlfriends. He steals ideas from other scientists. He acts in other morally questionable ways I won’t mention here because it might be considered a serious spoiler.
In short, there is nothing to recommend him. He does not come across as an eccentric genius—he comes across as a lazy, self-obsessed has-been living off the spoils of Nobel celebrity. And maybe that’s all McEwan wants him to be, but it just isn’t enough to carry an entire 300 pages. The book sprawls uncontrollably. It cannot seem to decide what it wants to be, other than a showcase for McEwan’s considerable talents. In the middle of the book, an event occurs that changes the course of several people’s lives—and ends one altogether—but it seems completely implausible, an artificial event that’s only there to drive the narrative forward. From that moment on, you know what will happen, pretty much. There is only one way a guy like Beard can react.
The other thing (I know, I know…this post is as sprawling as the book was itself): it’s difficult to tell if McEwan is tweaking the nose of prize committees, or if he is generally stating that genius is a matter of accident, a flash in the pan—or both! Mostly, it just seems to be McEwan, through Beard, riffing on contemporary culture. McEwan pulls out all the stops: he juggles balls and twirls plates and swallows fire. He’s like a creative writing student gone haywire, using every trick in the book, referencing Wolfe (Tom, that is), DeLillo, Bellow, Roth. Check this:
“Beard’s past was often a mess, resembling a ripe, odorous cheese oozing into or over his present, but this particular confection had congealed into the appearance of something manageably firm, more Parmesan than Epoisses.”
No self-respecting creative writing teacher in the world would let a student get away with that metaphor. Luckily (or perhaps unfortunately), it’s near the end of the book, or else I might have slammed the cover shut and saved myself several hours.
The general idea here seems to be something along the lines of, ignore the circumstances long enough, and they will bite you in the ass. Beard acts selfishly time and time again, and in the end he gets something of a comeuppance, but mostly the reader is left thinking: who cares? There are plenty of tales of hubris in the world of literature, many of them better constructed than this one.
Some passages I did like:
“In all this time, not one of the six postdocs had moved on to a better-paid job at Caltech or MIT. In a field crammed with prodigies of all sorts, their CVs were exceptional. For a long while Beard, who had always had face-recognition problems, especially with men, could not, or chose not to, tell them apart. They ranged in age from twenty-six to twenty-eight, and all stood above six feet. Two had ponytails, four had identical rimless glasses, two were called Mike, two had Scots accents, three wore colored string around their wrists, all wore faded jeans and trainers and tracksuit tops. Far better to treat them all the same, somewhat distantly, or as if they were one person. Best not to insult one Mike by resuming a conversation that might have been with the other, or to assume that the fellow with the ponytail and glasses, Scots accent and no wrist string was unique, or was not called Mike. Even Jock Braby referred to all six as ‘the ponytails.’”
“All the day the sun had stood barely five degrees above the horizon, and at two-thirty, as though giving up on a bad job, it had sunk. Bear witnessed the moment through a porthole by his bunk, where he lay in agony. He saw the flat snowy vastness of the fjord turn blue, then black. How could he have imagined that being indoors eighteen hours a day with twenty others in a cramped space was a portal to liberty? On arrival, as he passed through the mess room on his way to find his quarters, the first thing he had seen, propped in a corner, was a guitar, surely awaiting its strummer and a tyrannous sing-along. A large section of bookcase was taken up with board games and ancient packs of cards. He might as well have checked into an old people’s home. Monopoly was surely among the games, and here was reason for further regret.”
“There were many figures scattered on the ice around the ship. The helmets transformed the proportions of their heads, the snowmobile suits swelled their rumps, so that from a distance they resembled infants in a nursery playground.”