Sunday, November 17, 2013

Ian McEwan's "Solar": Book Review

I didn't expect to enjoy this much. My impression of Ian McEwan's been grim. I found remaindered his teen incest romp "The Cement Garden" as a teen myself back in the late 70s and that was it, even for a pessimist like me. So, when my wife recommended this, I was skeptical. But, she insisted.

Well, the satirical nature of the polar zipper episode; the delights of salt and vinegar crisps; the joys of fat; the backwards faux-steps on the stairs of a cuckolded husband with his hands to make it seem as if two people are leaving his place, so he can annoy his fifth wife who's carrying on with a builder; the ruminations of au courant, correct thinking feminists angered at Michael Beard's earnest if wobbly defense of the gender roles within scientific careers; the social construction of a gene (if we aren't aware of a cancer cell, can it kill us?) asserted by humorless humanists; the rather predictable British romanticization of the down-home Southwest if unexpected double-wide trailer-settled love: the storyline swerves and taunts. It's all over the place, this novel take on a scientist caught up, in 2000, 2005, and 2009, in trying to launch a way to harness by photovoltaics to save the planet and harness the sun's energy. I hover between three and four stars: it teaches you while entertaining you about scientific advances at least for short stretches, and it contains worthwhile ideas to explore.

Quantum physics for poets, almost literally, enters, and so does the debate over alternative energy and global warming. McEwan must as fiction demands gloss over Beard's "conflation" discovery but tying it to Francis Bacon in the gentle denouement is an elegant touch. Much of the preceding plot proves divergent in tone and intent. I liked it, but it seems deliberately ramshackle, its waddling form following its protagonist's own bulk, appealing for a few if repulsing others. It reflects the mind and intent of a globe-trotting intellectual celebrity who falls and rises in the media, over a decade.

Beard, as one lover of many tells him, is 'still cranky about sunbeams' during the past decade, as his career is revived, shattered, and revived again in a way not very convincing but still lively and often hilarious in a mordant way. He becomes the 'sole witness to his own innocence,' and this impels you to turn the pages, even if the climax is predictable given lots of foreshadowing, admittedly some of it in clever understatement and not too obviously. The symbolism is there, but the story is ragged, the ending weary and rushed, supporting characters rarely more than caricatures or devices to move forward the picaresque episodes, and it veers all over the place in slapdash mood, time, and sympathy for our vexed Beard.

Oddly, the portion of Beard's first wife and his Oxford schooling which formed a compact story in the New Yorker a few years back, also integrating John Milton's poem on light movingly, is not credited in the acknowledgements. It works well here as a core, later in the rambling tale, to show how Beard could charm the ladies. Yet, even for a Nobel laureate, his lure for women two decades or more younger remained for me hard to believe, given his reprehensible if entertaining morality or lack of. I found it unlikely that women would fall for him in his ponderous state, and that he'd settle for the ones he did by the story's end. Yet, McEwan does take the trouble to let us into Beard's loneliness, and his calculations. The challenge remains in contemplating human disaster and ecological meltdown in such an offhand, truly sophomoric manner. 

This offbeat sense, not knowing where Beard will go or what he will do, and not sure how we are meant to respond to him, reminds me of a character Kingsley or Martin Amis might have manufactured. McEwan appears to want to write a lighter entertainment (I think of Graham Greene's difference between his theological themes in his fiction and his criminal or spy thrillers) than his reputation would let on. I did admire how McEwan did not push some metaphors too far, so I recommend this as a summer book for intellectuals. (I stayed in a Palm Springs motel during 115 degree heat, suitably, to peruse it. 8-12-12 to Amazon US)

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