Solar – Ian McEwan

12 July 2011
[I began reading this book last year, but gave up. I’ve started again from where I left off; the first entry is what I wrote previously.]

4 October 2010
First half of Part 1 – 2000
I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Michael Beard is one of McEwan’s total shits, even worse than the two main protagonists in Amsterdam. I think I’m going to hate this book for similar reasons to why I hated that book as well: it’s already turning into a clunky satire on an unsympathetic middle-aged man who, we are to believe, was massively thrusting and successful in early life but has turned into a self-pitying buffoon. Beard is supposed to be a Nobel Prize winner, for God’s sake – and now McEwan is relying on the old cliché of how mathematicians have done all their best work before they reach 30 in order to persuade us that this idiot, resting his increasingly tired-looking laurels, used to be a somebody.

It’s nonsense, but we’re supposed to be ok with it because this is obviously one of McEwan’s entertainments and we shouldn’t be taking it too seriously. Fine. I just wish it was funny instead of, well, not funny. And comedies should be as convincing as any other kind of fiction: if preposterous things happen, we need to be able to believe them. For instance, Beard can’t distinguish between any of the five post-docs he works with: even after months they are mix-and-match collections of ponytails (or not), casual clothes and string wrist-bands. The builder shagging Beard’s fifth wife – yawn – has done up the front of his house. I’m not quite sure why McEwan has to go into so much detail about how it displays every imaginable bad taste cliché from bolted-on mock-Tudor timbers to a hot-tub and red telephone box. (McEwan tells us Beard doesn’t care – but, obviously, he does.)

The plot. Beard has been a serial adulterer all his life, and as each wife has found out they’ve agreed to amicable divorces. But wife number five is, Beard now thinks, very beautiful – and when she discovers he’s had his eleven affairs in five years (I don’t think McEwan bothers to tell us how she can be so precise) she gets her own back. She has sex in the builder’s house, sex in her own when Beard is away on one of his conferences – McEwan obviously doesn’t feel he needs to work hard to satirise the academic conference circuit, because we all know what it’s like – and, for the first time ever, Beard is tortured by jealousy.

He’s already become lazy to the point of intellectual flabbiness – the wind-turbine project he’s nominally leading is only up and running because he signed the applications without reading them – and he hadn’t had an original thought in 20 years. Now, his newly discovered interior life of emotional torture – how we laughed – is pushing everything else in his life even further to the sidelines. When one of the ‘ponytails’, with an insufferable Norfolk accent, tries to persuade him that wind power is a dead end and that solar power is their man, well, we might be listening – we’ve read the features in the Sunday supplements – but Beard isn’t.

Beard finally goes round to the mock-Tudor house to confront his wife’s lover. I don’t know why we get nearly a page of detailed description of what he looks like, particularly when it’s the non-visual Beard looking… but it doesn’t matter anyway. The builder smacks Beard hard and, not long after, Beard decides to accept the next invitation he gets to get out of London. It’s far enough away from his humiliation in Cricklewood, in a luxury development ostensibly built as part of a study of the effect of global warming on the Arctic. The people at the wind-turbine project think he’s going on an eight-week Arctic expedition, not a six-day holiday, and he gets a proper send-off. How we laughed, again. (I must stop saying that.)

[Later]
A few pages further on, to Beard’s mishap on the ice
McEwan, like the young author he was 30 years ago, needs a hilariously disgusting set piece. So he goes about setting it up, with Beard rising groggy and late, with the guide so impatient he doesn’t give him even the most basic of instructions – like, for instance, don’t try to urinate in sub-zero temperatures – with Beard already tired and exasperated after the earlier set-piece scene, running to two solid pages of description, of the frustrations of getting into his cold-weather gear. Reader, he has a piss in the middle of an ice-field, leaves his cock out too long – and feels a searing pain as he attempts to tuck himself back in. The next thing he feels is a two-inch icy thing sliding down the inside of his trouser leg. Of course, we can’t be sure what the cold object is as it rests against his knee, but Beard knows…

…and I’m tired of this for the moment. I’ve got another book to read – named, ominously, as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time, so I probably won’t like that one either – and I’ll come back to the clownish professor another time.

15 July 2011
The rest of Part 1 and all of Part 2
I looked back over what I’d written last year. Why do I go on like that? I talk about what I call McEwan’s entertainments, and how I seem to have a problem with them. In fact, they’re not as different from his more serious output as I’m making out – Saturday, say, or Atonement. Plot and characterisation are often gothic whichever style McEwan is going for, with bizarre events and twists driven by characters with distinctly distorted view of reality. The narrative kick-start in Saturday comes about with the main character’s encounter with an almost psychopathic criminal. (McEwan helpfully defines exactly what sub-species of psycho he is as the novel goes on.) In Atonement it’s a pubescent wannabe writer who sees something and creates a fantasy narrative from it out of her own imagination.

In these novels, the solemn kind, events might seem outlandish, but McEwan spends a lot of time persuading us that they could happen, honest. I’m particularly thinking of the police in Atonement swallowing the upper-middle-class girl’s account of what she saw, and the pages of circumstantial detail needed to make the denouement of On Chesil Beach seem plausible. I didn’t believe either because, well, it isn’t only McEwan’s entertainments I have trouble with. I never forget there’s a writer writing this stuff. (I’ll come back to that, because McEwan often does, whatever style he’s writing in.)

Anyway, whether the novels do or don’t have a veneer of satire, the typical scenario either has a highly successful middle-class man shoved unceremoniously out of his comfort zone or a bright working-class man finding himself out of his depth in a middle-class world that has no interest in him. (In Enduring Love and Saturday – solemn – and Amsterdam and Solar – not solemn – it’s the former.) McEwan loves to have his characters squirming. In the serious books he wants us to be sympathetic, because it usually isn’t that character’s fault – or if it is, the mistake they’ve made is understandable. In the satires we’re not on the character’s side at all; whenever we get inside their heads it’s all a heap of self-deluding fantasy and if they squirm, well, let them.

But I’m not telling you the plot. Part 1 continues with farcical things happening in the Arctic. There’s a tiresome sequence of scenes in the ‘boot room’, where the outside clothes are stored. Beard blames the increasing chaos on everybody else – but we see him getting his locker number wrong every single time, so that he keeps finding other people’s stuff. (28 becomes 18 becomes 17….) This is a fairly thin idea, but McEwan thinks it’s neat enough for Beard to make an analogy between what he calls the particular entropy in the boot room and the generally hopeless prospects for civilisation. McEwan often gives the farcical events of the novel this kind of serious spin. Just because this is a comedy, he seems to be saying, don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m not making important points.

For the rest of his stay in the Arctic, Beard behaves in exactly the ways you’d expect. His penis hasn’t broken off, but it’s sore – and anyway, the only two women he fancies have their husbands with them. He’s dismissive of the other participants – they’re artists, for god’s sake – but it doesn’t show him up as the monster he might have been because McEwan’s satirical agenda has made them such easy targets. (They remind me of those metropolitan stereotypes satirised in the Sunday supplements and Private Eye, accompanied by a cartoon caricature.) The only really monstrous behaviour is Beard’s merciless treatment of a novelist who makes a metaphorical point based on the Heisenberg principle. Otherwise… Beard drinks too much. And eats too much. And… ok, we get it.

He gets back to Heathrow, and we get a plot-driven section involving a McEwan favourite: what to do with a dead body. In one early novel it ends up buried in the cellar; in another we get a lovingly detailed description of how it is cut up and dissolved in chemicals. In this one, Beard leaves it where it is. But, hang on, couldn’t he…? If he…? What’s happened is he’s arrived home to find the Norfolk ponytail lounging around in a dressing gown Beard recognises as his own. Etc. Yes, he’s the wife’s lover – she’s called Patrice – and can’t they be grown up about this? Beard thinks not, the ponytail makes a kind of pleading lunge towards him – and there’s a balletic sequence like the one leading to a not-quite fatal injury in Saturday as his head collides with the corner of a coffee table.

It’s preposterous, obviously, but McEwan allows himself these moments, as though daring us to complain about the implausibility: it’s a story, for goodness’ sake. And the preposterousness doesn’t stop there. Beard fakes a murder scene, finds and a toolbox belonging to Tarpin, his wife’s other lover bits of his hair in a comb to jam under the ponytail’s fingernails, and… and a few months later, with Tarpin in jail, he begins to believe his own story. It’s one of the times when McEwan is being serious, or serious-lite: versions of reality are contingent on all kinds of factors – and somebody like Beard Is going to believe the one that fits best. (It’s just struck me that Tarpin, having received a 16-year sentence, will be due for parole some time during Part 3. The faked evidence all points to Beard having framed him, and the ex-con is not going to be happy.)

And McEwan has started a different hare running: the now dead ponytail – he’s called Tony Aldous as, I suppose, in Brave New World – has always considered solar power the real answer – and while pleading with Beard he has tried to use his project as a bargaining tool. It’s a synthetic photosynthesis project and at the end of Part 1 Beard looks at the papers briefly. Then he begins to study them, with increasing interest. This man, who has made no contribution to science for decades, is having an idea. Not an original idea, obviously – but when has that ever mattered to the academics that McEwan loves us to hate?

Part 2 all takes place on one day. Sure, we need some of the back-story filling in – five years have passed since the end of Part 1 – but McEwan seems to fancy recycling the structure of Saturday for this middle section. Fine. Beard is flying back from Berlin, although it could be almost anywhere in the world: the photosynthesis project now has commercial backing without McEwan having to go through all that boring stuff about setting up research labs and business partners…. Later in the day Beard will give a talk to potential backers, and after that he’ll go to have dinner at the nice house owned by Melissa, his current lover. He’s now nearly 60, is ‘35 pounds’ overweight – that’s two and a half stone to British readers – and seems to have been busier than at any time since he was about 30. Fine.

This section is… what? 100 or so pages spent in the company of a very unlikeable man. No change there, then. Sometimes, like when Beard looks down at London and the surrounding country from his plane, stacked along with dozens of others and circling lazily, McEwan lets it get almost poetic. Memories and neatly metaphorical comparisons – London is an ants’ nest, or a living body, or micro-circuitry – seem almost out of place in the mind of this defiantly unpoetic man, but they let McEwan show his serious side. Western civilisation, an idea he has Beard come back to in his pitch to the money-men, doesn’t run on fresh air.

McEwan likes to give us back stories – always at Beard’s expense – during the lulls in the action he seems to place there for the purpose. This is where we get the teasing information that, briefly, Beard has been a tabloid villain. He makes an unguarded suggestion – not without foundation in recent research, he insists, but carelessly presented – that women might not be as successful in mathematics or physics as men because they are cognitively hard-wired differently. This gives McEwan the chance to have a go at two favourite targets: academics and journalists. The common ground is to do with lazy interpretations of what people actually say and re-presenting their ideas as sound-bites. Beard becomes a eugenicist, and the tabloids’ muck-raking makes him a woman-hating love rat and Nazi sympathiser. I think the faddish, self-serving academics come off worst. McEwan has a photo of Beard, handcuffed, in every major newspaper worldwide – but that’s just the novelist showing off: the incident leading to this image is just silly.

On the train there’s still no hurry – plenty of time for a comic set piece. Beard, never able to resist buying a snack, has put down his crisps on the table between him and the man opposite. When he starts to eat them, one by one, the man joins in. Beard is appalled, but the man is well-built and looks a bit threatening…. Etc. It turns out that the crisps weren’t Beard’s at all, but the other man’s. Oops. It’s diverting enough, and McEwan can slip in one of his serious points about points of view and interpretations of reality. And later, after Beard has moulded it into an anecdote to lighten up his speech, an academic (spit) asks him where he got it from. It’s a narrative archetype, the ‘unwitting thief’, and it’s been around for centuries. McEwan makes a big thing of it, turns it into one of his metafictional jeux d’esprit. Within the novel, the incident is real. But – etc. (In Atonement he makes an even bigger thing of it, having ‘CC’ – Cyril Connolly, no less – commenting on a story we’ve taken to be real. By the end of the novel McEwan takes the idea to its logical conclusion.)

Before this, on arrival at the venue, Beard has eaten far too many wild salmon sandwiches. He feels nauseous all the way through his presentation and throws up privately behind a convenient curtain before questions. Up to this point we’ve had, well, nauseating descriptions of the feel and bilge-water taste of the slowly accumulating pressure of vomit that Beard is having to suppress all though his speech. There’s a metaphorical point being made here somewhere, to do with the unedifying reality behind the façade that Beard presents. Yep.

And so to Melissa’s house, for an evening of mollycoddling and security. Wrong. Melissa is fine, loving, beautiful – how does this fat bastard get such lookers? – but…. But what? As he calculates his eventual exit strategy – Patrice was definitely not only his last wife, but his ‘final’ wife, and he’ll leave this one soon – he wonders about the tiny change in the atmosphere he can detect. Have you guessed yet? Beard hasn’t. So she spells it out: she tells him she’s pregnant and puts him off his dinner. Or is it after dinner but before sex? Whatever, she’s getting her counter-arguments in before he can even begin to formulate his insistence on an abortion. And by the time they’re making love, with Beard so disorientated he has to flick through his mental audition stage of past lovers to help him on his way, she’s persuading him to promise he will try to love the child. The words she gets him to say are ‘I will’, and we wonder whether she’ll be wife No. 6 after all by the time we get to Part 3.

But before Part 2 ends, McEwan gives us a tiny interlude to remind us that it isn’t only in his personal life that Beard is almost pathologically self-centred. He has raided the fridge and is now sitting – in MacEwan’s description, is enthroned – on the lavatory. He contemplates the noble work he is doing, perpetuating the dream of ‘poor old Tom Aldous’. Nobody remembers him now but Beard, in that way he has, manages to warp his own theft of the younger man’s project into a kind of memorial. He congratulates himself on his generosity, conveniently forgetting – in that other way he has – that if the project works he’ll stand to make a fortune.

19 July
Part 3 – to the end
In a way, this is the exact opposite of an Evelyn Waugh comedy. Waugh manoeuvres some hapless innocent into ever more inextricable scrapes, and then rescues him. In Scoop he has Boot praying for a miracle, some ‘god from a machine’ – and has his rescuer arrive by plane at that instant, to sort out every knotty problem for him one by one. McEwan’s main character is the antithesis of an innocent, is 100% responsible for the mess he finds himself in – and if there is a plane on its way it’s carrying a payload of bombs. There really is a plane in Solar, on its way to where Beard’s high-profile project is about to be switched on in a blaze of highly choreographed razzmatazz.

In fact, there have already been two planes, each carrying the opposite of a fairy godmother, and another is on its way with Melissa on her way for a showdown. Tarpin’s already in the country – no surprise there, then, although McEwan does play one of his little tricks on us when he forces Beard to talk to him – and, far worse, so is a lawyer representing the head of the centre where he and Aldous used to work…. And, already on the ground, is Darlene, Beard’s bit of local rough, bearing down on him in at least two different ways. One of these is in Beard’s motel room, where she is not letting him forget that he said he would marry her. (He’s got into the habit, which surely is a recent thing, of saying whatever will get him out of a fix.) The other is her strategy, having found Melissa’s number, of letting her know all about it.

By the time we reach the last few pages of the novel, Beard has been so outmanoeuvred in his conversation with the lawyer that Toby Hammer, his American business partner and the only person in the novel he ever calls a friend, is pulling the plug and never wants to speak to him again. He is even fatter than before, carrying 65 pounds – that’s four and a half stone – of excess weight, has a malignant melanoma on the back of his hand, and… and what’s an author to do?

What can he do? What usually happens in moral fables, in which we’ve followed a man’s fairly rapid descent into hell? The coup de grace, that’s what, which McEwan delivers in the last line. We’ve just been with Beard as, swigging gin from a hip flask, he eats the unheathiest meal imaginable. (I remember deep-fried cheese in batter is a side-dish.) In the restaurant, with all his ambitions for the project in ruins – literally, because he’s heard that someone, probably Tarpin, has smashed up all the solar panels – we get the arrival not only of Melissa, but also of Darlene. Oh dear. But there’s somebody else: Catriona, the three-year-old daughter he’s been having snatched or accidental conversations with all through Part 3. He feels a swelling in his chest he’s never felt before as the girl rushes towards him – but, as he realises in the final sentence, ‘nobody would ever believe him now if he tried to pass it off as love.’

Good old Ian McEwan, making it all ambiguous like this. It’s a heart attack, right? Beard has gorged, boozed, lied, screwed, cheated himself to death, right? Well, maybe. But this particular author couldn’t possibly comment. Maybe in the pit that Beard has consigned himself to, this vision of childish innocence is enough to bring redemption even to a monster. Maybe.

Except…. There’s an Appendix, the speech given by a spokesman for the Nobel Prize committee all those years ago. And it’s clear that Beard really was responsible for something uniquely valuable. There was something remarkable enough in Beard’s research for Richard Feinman to play around with in a legendary demonstration. It’s something, we realise, that Aldous needed in order for his photosynthesis idea to work. Beard’s is the story of a fall from grace into, well, sin – and it never needed to be like this. If, by the end of the novel, he’s the picture in Dorian Gray’s attic – he’s like that because that’s how he’s made himself. Redemption? Forget it.

Ok. Do I need to fill in any more details? The setting for this final third of the novel is no accident: America, not only in all its brashness but its consumerism, its supersize restaurant servings – Toby Hammer eats 35 pancakes in one go – and, of course, its constant and flagrant disregard for scarce resources and the effect on the environment. These are Beard’s main concerns now, as he has been telling people in speeches since he discovered Aldous’s notes… except they aren’t, of course. He hires an SUV to get around because he can’t fit comfortably into anything smaller. He flies to and fro across the Atlantic as if being ferried across a stream, he… etc. when things have fallen apart at the end he begins to look favourably on a new nuclear project he’s been invited to lead, persuading himself, in that self-deceiving way we know all about, with the names of environmentalists who seem to have changed their minds about it.

A question I usually find myself asking about novels that cast a wide moral net is… is the main character an Everyman? Is he, well, us, off to hell in a hand-cart – or a big car or a Boeing jet​? His everyday self-deceptions, self-justifications, self-indulgences…. Aren’t we all like that? The way he puts off disagreeable decisions, takes the line of least resistance – you can see where I’m going with this – are just like the whole of western society since we decided it was too difficult to do anything meaningful about global warming and the depletion of fuel reserves. And, to go back to the domestic level again, he’s not going to be saved by a sentimental tug at the heart when he sees his grandchild. She’s the one who’s going to have her future desolated.

McEwan doesn’t say any of this. I’m not sure he’d care to spell it out in such a preachy, finger-pointing way. He might have a serious point – that is, he might have a point that he hasn’t simply taken up because that’s what any self-respecting 21st Century novelist should do – but after all, this is a comic novel, a farce. Beard has a brilliant mind, has been showing since his university years an extraordinary ability to plan his life – we get all this in a rather long and tiresome flashback – but he just can’t be arsed.

The problem with the novel’s undeniably serious purpose, I think, is the set-up McEwan lumbers himself with at the start: it’s all a bit lightweight The characterisation of Beard, the satire of academia, those easy hits on easy targets are all the comfortable stuff of Sunday supplements. And, no matter how much weight McEwan tries to hang on to the narrative as things move on, it never feels like the cautionary tale for the 21st century that he seems to want it to be. It’s just a comedy about an overgrown baby who gets the come-uppance he deserves – nothing at all to do with us.

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