Friday, June 04, 2010

Solar / Ian McEwan

You are going to remember Michael Beard.
<-- Protagonist of Ian McEwan’s latest absorbing novel, Michael Beard, by his own admission is "greedy, selfish, calculating, mendacious."
Accurate descriptions all, to which might be added -- womanizing, fat, and a plagiaristic thief of intellectual property.
If this doesn’t sound like the kind of character you would normally find yourself sympathetically attracted to, let me add one thing more: Michael Beard is lost.
And it's this lostness that drives the book’s central theme and allows him a firm place in the reader’s heart.

Centering on the life of fictional Nobel laureate Michael Beard, the novel outlines, details, and over a period of nine years, sometimes mercilessly dissects Beard’s disintegrating life. Beard, a willing participant in a long slate of unhealthy indulgences, is now -- years after winning the prize for his work on the Einstein-Beard Conflation – filled with middle-aged angst, and resting comfortably on his oversized laureate laurels.

As the book opens, Beard, working through his fifth floundering marriage and involved in numerous affairs, is baffled to find himself on the other end of the cheater roster as his wife Patrice threatens to leave him for a younger lover. It is this capsizing that starts the plot’s exploration of the downward plunge that Michael Beard faces. Or - perhaps more accurately and tragically – refuses to face. A master in the art of self-deception, Beard works to keep his frailties at bay until a smoothly executed McEwan plot forces him to a place where there is no longer any place to hide from himself.

Flawed, yet needing to maintain an illusion of worth and dignity, Beard is a character who seems to represent both the best and the worst that Man can be.

Readers may recognize in Beard qualities typically found in the classic tragic hero: a man who has potential for greatness yet who falls short of fulfilling it. Sometimes battered buffoon, sometimes scientific genius, Beard ambles through this brilliantly crafted plot. Slipped into exquisite character study is a subplot of murder, as well as thoughts on global warming, political correctness in academia, and the fixes that a hedonist middle-aged man can find himself thrown into.
It is McEwan's grace and ease in presenting meticulously drawn out, precisely chiseled description that makes him one of Britain’s most readable literary authors... skill that is much in evidence in Solar.

Those familiar with McEwan’s repeated themes will find in this novel his affection for playing with how misperceptions may have far reaching consequences - both in his protagonists and in the reader who is carried along by them. His predilection for the misperceived – and thus illusory - is here presented with both tragic as well as humorous implications. Long adept at utilizing illusions that his protagonists cling to, McEwan places us at the mercy of a narrative voice that is seeing the events from a limited point of view, a solipsistic view that readily and with utter misdirected certainty leaps to conclusions – conclusions that are often ruinously wrong.

In Atonement, McEwan used a character’s illusory view to bring tragic consequences to several characters; in the intense and compact On Chesil Beach, illusion breaks apart a relationship in the havoc of one brief honeymoon night.
In Solar, McEwan handles the havoc that illusion produces with a lighter hand. Two scenes -- one involving confusion over a bag of potato chips and one that involves maneuvering a zipper during an urgent call of nature in the Arctic Circle -- will have book clubs talking - and laughing - long into the night. Appropriately humorous, yet at the same time, they point to an underlying theme of how our lingering illusions of self and others often result in our later undoing.

Beard is the archetypical McEwan character who often wants a thing to be a certain way [through what is said or believed] whether that thing is true in actuality or not. Throughout the book, for instance, Beard, who has a suspicious spot on his hand, does not want to go to the doctor -- he would rather believe the story he tells himself [about his physical condition] than hear a doctor's pronouncement of existing problems. He says, "A diagnosis is kind of a modern curse. If you didn't go and see these people, you wouldn't get whatever it is they want you to have."

Solar is no one thing.
It is not just a novel making sense of our problems in handling climate control.
Nor is it simply a caustic satire on how cynical sellouts for personal gain trump idealism.
It's not just a story of a floundering, yet gifted, man whose flaws and evasions doggedly pursue him.
Nor merely another bright showcase for the radiant McEwan style.
It is all of these.

But perhaps more to the heart of the matter, Solar gives us a bit of an Everyman theme in Beard, a man who does not, will not, or cannot own up to his shortcomings. He is a once brilliant scientist, full of potential, who now plods along piecing unsatisfying relationships together and doing just enough to get by while pursuing his own hedonistic pleasures.
In the end, the saving grace is that Beard has just enough conscience, just enough discontent with his life to make him aware that he doesn’t measure up even to his own lowered standards. But there is no given resolve. No one flying off on the back of a flap-eared elephant. Solar is more like a minor chord struck, and an unrelenting right foot heavy on that third pedal of the piano.
McEwan’s portrayal of Beard works because it can make the reader want to look away, even while seeing some small part of ourselves in him. He is a man pushing life-issues to the back burner, but there is only so much room left on that stovetop. The reader realizes this, and upon shutting the back cover, wonders whether Michael Beard will ever know it.
I encourage you to


Stefanie said...

So you liked it? I've read lots of mixed reviews, a few glowing and several who hated it. I saw the book won the Wodehouse prize for humorous fiction or something like that. Was it funny? Have people prehaps been misreading it and taking it seriously and in doing so that is why they don't understand it? I'm relying on you to clear this up for me Cip ;)

Anonymous said...

Stephanie, I hear you.
I read a review that said it was funny too...and so I honestly didn't want to read it. I could not imagine a "funny" McEwan writing about a fat man. That was how the review made it sound.

But read it I did. It was McEwan, after all! And I absolutely loved it.

You ask about the comedic parts. Well, there are parts that are light, yes.

But the overall impression I have of the book is just as cipriano is a story of a lost man. A man with his life in shambles...even if he doesn't admit it to me a sourpuss, but that's not real funny to me.

Yet McEwan doesn't sentimentalize the thing. There is just enough "humor" at the human condition (as in, "Lord, what fools these mortals be") to keep it from ever being morose.

And, there is considerable satire here; mostly, I thought, poking fun at the sacred annals of academia, at overwrought political correctness, and at our pomposity and bewilderment in grappling with the issue of climate change.

This is not just another writer trying to cash in on writing about current events either. Doubtless McEwan himself finds our ecological situation serious. What I loved most about the book, which on surface is a science-bound novel, is that there is as much humanistic concern and artistry here as there is observation of current events.

I consider McEwan to be always - bottom line - about the individual whose perceptions fail him.
The failures may be about something the character believes he has seen or even about something as basic as his own muddled self-awareness and self-deception.

And, while McEwan writes as if he knows his science (both ecology and quantum mechanics), never did I feel lost in the jargon of it.

I wonder if the label "funny" might just mean that this is not a macabre McEwan (like in some of his earlier work) or that, though he is writing of a cosmic issue, he is not heavy-handed with this theme.

McEwan himself said, "I hate comic novels; it's like being wrestled to the ground and being tickled, being forced to laugh."
But he also said that the book had a few comic passages.
The one that cip notes (about the call of nature in the arctic) is very funny - but NOT to Michael Beard.
Plus...both of the extended comic passages are directly related to McEwan's favorite topic of - as cip said - misperceptions.

Reviewers don't know everything - not even the lovely and spectacular cipriano.
But if in the past you have like McEwan - or (the main character reminds me of Herzog) Saul Bellow -I think you will love this book.

Stefanie said...

Anonynous, thanks for the wonderful and thorough explanation. I will not scratch the book off my to-read list :)

Cipriano said...

It is really something, the way that a writer like McEwan sort of either really attracts "fans" or somehow garners detractors. I have always said that there is this edge to him that polarizes readers -- you either really like McEwan or don't like him at all.
There are some of his books that I have not enjoyed all that much [like Amsterdam, for instance... also I did not care for Black Dogs that much, nor his short stories] but then there are things like Enduring Love, Chesil Beach, Atonement -- real gems in my opinion.
And now this one, Solar, which I place in the latter category.
On the question -- Was it funny?
Well, as Anonymous here has stated, there are definitely amusing portions -- but [I am restating the former comments] the overall impression is quite sobering.
There is no way that this is a "goofy" novel. Michael Beard is not a comic character -- not at all.
There are such brutal, lonely moments in his life. He's a sort of one-hit wonder physicist -- lauded and applauded by everyone in his life except the ones that matter most at the time!
Really, it is a sobering read.
My love for the work of Ian McEwan has not waned as a result of reading Solar.
Quite the opposite, when I was done I quickly scanned the first-page thing to see if there are other novels of his I have not yet read.
And sadly -- there isn't.
I think that if people are misreading the novel it is not because they are taking it too seriously. It's more likely that they are not taking it seriously enough!
I encourage you...... trust me.
Get McEwanized!

Stefanie said...

Get McEwanized, eh? I read Atonement and liked it, found it very distrubing actually. I believe I have Saturday at home. My husband read that one and liked it so I'll have to give it a go and eventually make my way to Solar. I trust your reading opinion and that you wouldn't steer me wrong :)