by Ian McEwan
285 pages, Nan A. Talese
Review by Marc Nash
Ian McEwan does comedy. Who knew?
The problem is this book is entirely frivolous. The science sounds assiduously researched, but the eco-technology is really just a backdrop. Solar is all about its central character Michael Beard.
Literature is full of comic monsters. But for all their comedic value, they have a certain edge to them and a modicum of self-insight, if only into what motivates them to spite the rest of humanity. They usually have a sense of humour about the world they plot to subvert as well. None of these are present in Beard. He is all Falstaff and no Iago. A buffoon, in other words. How curiously old fashioned a concept.
Short, fat, gluttonously forever putting off his health regime, five times married and with all his best work in theoretical physics long behind him as he exists and trades off his former glories. Now the fear, despair and anxiety that arises by the nagging thought that your first ever piece of work will never be surpassed by anything else you do in your life, ought to make for a fascinating theme. It's sidelined here, which is a shame and a missed opportunity. Beard rarely seems troubled by his coasting through life and other people. He is too feckless even to aspire to a Napoleon Complex befitting his small and persecuted stature.
The book builds slowly as he lurches through one crisis to another, which he refers to as "adding to the general untidiness (of his life)". While I believe he is obsessed by sex, I don't believe his improbable continued success with the ladies. Yes some might have been attracted by his fame. Or the women might have been ivory tower dweller inadequates themselves. But the ones we are introduced to here are from more humble stock, a waitress, a school teacher and a dance costume shop owner. Only one is palpably desperate, so how do the others see past his flab to find anything attractive about a man without a single redeemable feature in his personality? McEwan supplies these women with motivations, but they don't ring true when it comes to basic animal attraction. Is he losing his usually sure grip?
Beard is a caricature, the book is a cartoon. I'm not saying it isn't amusing and witty and clever in places, it is. McEwan is an arch stylist and linguist after all. But we laugh at Beard not with him. His blindspots, his delusions, his alternating inappropriate observance or ignoring of etiquette in social situations. He is so benighted and inadequate we ought to feel sorry for him and guilty at our laughter at his expense. Yet he is so privileged, so insensitive to those lesser mortals around him, we simply can't feel for him. His own 3 year old daughter sees him as a super-hero who is going to save the planet's ecology. She gets to the heart of him, for we can all view him as a super-hero comic book character. One who is in all likelihood going to swallow his kryptonite capsule when the going finally gets too tough. There is nothing wrong with an unreliable narrator as our guide, but when he is so myopic, so shot through with patent flaws, we want to distance ourselves from any empathic association with him.
A further slightly worrying trend for me is that Rodney Trapin, a key protagonist in the unfolding story here, is portrayed as a stock working-class caricature, just as the assailant in "Saturday" was. What the UK media (and now politicians) love to call 'White-Van man". It's alarming because it suggests to me a blindness towards a class outside of McEwan's own (a blindness one shared by Martin Amis) and rather an outdated chip on his shoulder about the other, that which he does not understand and actually seems to fear, at least to judge by these two recent portraits. Yet in his early books, McEwan suggested a great understanding of such a class of people. Has his success so removed him from experiencing such people in the present as to update his own personal reading of such folk?
And on to the ending. Without giving anything away, it is farcical that all the loose strands of his life, all the wronged people seeking redress, most of whom reside in Britain, traipse out to the New Mexico desert to confront him. I am reminded of a Whitehall farce, again curiously old-fashioned and somewhat improbable. A humanus ex machina.
Beard is no Holden Caulfield or Saul Karoo. Despite much learned discursion on solar energy, quantum physics, gender politics of the 1960s, the book remains unworthy of McEwan's reputation for gravitas. That doesn't make it a bad book, it just makes it a bad McEwan book. I still enjoyed reading it for the humour and language. But I insist he return to form in his next offering if I am still to remain a fan. I found this as bloated as Beard's abused body.