Saturday, March 13, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan reviewed by Eileen Battersby

THE PLANET IS in danger; worse than that, it is doomed unless an answer is found. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard is an unlikely saviour. He has a mild interest in that global fear and the various conferences it demands – after all, that shared anxiety keeps him busy on the lecture circuit. Beard is not in such good shape himself, bloated and unfit, possibly alcoholic, and burnt out; he is a mess, even if his name remains a useful commodity. Long since contented with living off a reputation established early in a life that now seems to have belonged to someone else, his major interests are sex, food and cockily extending dinner invitations to females he happens upon while avoiding others who think they may have a hold on him.

When the novel opens, Beard is 53, childless and about to part company with the lovely Patrice, his fifth wife, who, aware of his womanising, has forsaken him for their building contractor, a nasty piece of rough called Rodney Tarpin – uncouth and illiterate, and “seven inches taller and 20 years younger” than our hero. But good old Beard has an advantage: his natural recklessness. McEwan is obviously as fascinated with the flawed Beard as the reader will become. Beard, we are told, “belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so.”

Beard is an Everyman; opportunistic, greedy, self-obsessed and very human. He is somewhat more intellectually sophisticated than Martin Amis’s John Self, who clambered through Money (1984). There are also flashes of John Updike’s Rabbit. McEwan, an admirer of Updike, is a gifted writer, precise and ironic. While his prose does not possess quite the linguistic flourish of Amis the younger (whose feel for the grotesque has always set him above his peers), McEwan has a quick eye, an elegantly brisk turn of phrase and, here more than ever before, a grasp of inspired detail. Beard is a terrific creation, a human disaster. Vain, vulnerable, he is all of us; he lives in his own little fantasy and sees everything in relation to himself.

Each of his marriages has collapsed in turn, but now he is older and despite his infidelity, he wants to keep his current wife, particularly as she is having an affair. Tactics are important. Jealousy, he muses, is always effective. Having sustained a conversation with a female voice on the radio, he then goes down the stairs on his hands and knees, attempting with his hands to create the impression of a second set of departing footsteps and hoping his wife thinks a lover is being escorted from the house. Beard is obnoxious, but he is also resourceful, somehow immensely likable – and yes, he fails to keep Patrice.

This is an impressively plotted, adroit and well-executed black comedy; it is also incredibly funny, with dialogue worthy of an accomplished scriptwriter. McEwan has always been ironic, a quality that dominated his Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam (1998), but the comic writing in Solar is a revelation. Many of the set-pieces, such as Beard’s frantic efforts to escape his snow-suit in order to answer the call of nature, his flight from a polar bear or his visit to the builder’s mock-Tudor semi, are cartoon funny. McEwan’s timing throughout Solar is flawless, all the more so because while Beard’s antics are graphically believable, so too is McEwan’s message.

As a righteous group of eco-warrior artists and environmentalists converge on the Arctic for a global-warming mission, they subject the snowscapes to the polluting emissions spat out by their snowmobiles. Equally, the same group can’t even keep their bulky protective gear in order. They throw it all over the base-camp boot room and end up stealing from each other. The polemical point is obvious: man is destructive and self-seeking, even when it comes to respecting snow boots.

But before Beard takes off on his jaunt to Norway, which proves more trial than vacation, he acquires an unwanted follower, an eager, young, rural-accented scientist named Tom Aldous, who is relentless and wants, with Beard’s help, to save the world. He also desires something else, Beard’s wife. None of this is known until Beard returns to London following his trip to the Arctic. On discovering Tom very much at home in Beard’s house, the action takes an unexpected turn. Throughout Solar, McEwan plays with ambivalence. In attempting to cover up an accident, Beard, ever resourceful, not only conceals the facts but takes his revenge – or does he?

SINCE THE PUBLICATION of his debut collection, First Love, Last Rites (1975), Ian McEwan has been a searing force in British fiction. Initially a master of sexual menace, as in The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981), he went on to consider his country as a passive entity in thrall to Margaret Thatcher in The Child in Time (1987), a novel which defined every parent’s worst nightmare while also presenting Britain in decline. Later he would explore, less emphatically, the Blair years, in Saturday (2005). The legacy of the second World War, as is evident from The Innocent (1990) and Black Dogs (1992), shaped the consciousness of McEwan, who was born in 1948 and spent his childhood years in various military bases.

Throughout his career, McEwan has looked to the past with its burden of psychological damage, as in Atonement (2001) and the delightful bitter romance, On Chesil Beach (2007), but also to the present, his England, his world.

This new novel tackles a huge issue and McEwan, just as he did his homework on surgical procedures for Saturday , has grasped the science of the climate-change debate. It takes daring to balance all of this, including the potential of solar energy, with an account of one less than virtuous man’s appalling personal life. While the world’s ice caps melt, Beard gets fatter. Here is a gluttonous scientist whose spiralling cholesterol has not yet killed him, if only because his love of alcohol does not also involve cigarettes. Beard, “rotund, slow-moving and pinkly hot”, sits in the bath contemplating with horror the heaving mass that is his body.

Elsewhere, on a train, Beard prepares to devour a packet of crisps: “He would eat two crisps at once.” McEwan then unleashes the unexpected:

“It was at this moment, as he glanced up, that he witnessed his fellow passenger, sitting forward, gaze still eerily fixed, elbow on the table, perhaps in conscious parody. Then, letting one forearm drop, crane-like, down into the bag, the man stole a crisp, probably the largest in the packet, held it in front of his face for a second or two, then ate it, not with Beard’s fastidiousness, but with an insolent chewing motion, with lips parted so that one could glimpse it turning to paste on his tongue. The man did not even blink, his stare was so intense. And the act was so flagrant, so unorthodox, that even Beard, who was quite capable of unconventional thought – how else had he won his Prize? – could only sit in frozen shock and try, for dignity’s sake, by remaining expressionless, to betray no emotion.”

The passage continues with Beard attempting to read the man’s behaviour. “The physicist,” writes McEwan, “knew much about light, but about forms of public expression in contemporary culture he was in the dark.”

The redeeming quality of Saturday was that the smug brain surgeon, Henry Perowne, thought like a smug brain surgeon. The appalling Beard is a convincing professional who has no idea how to relate, or commit, to other humans. In the aftermath of his divorce from Patrice, Beard had rented a flat that he systemically reduced to squalor. But of course men such as Beard always manage to attract a woman intent on providing food and other comforts. Such a woman is Melissa, who not only wants Beard, she wants his child. Beard recoils in horror, but Melissa is determined.

LIGHT HAS A symbolic role in the action. It is not only the subject of Beard’s life’s work; it is a source from which he has acted, not least in the use of Milton’s poem when wooing a literature student, his first wife. As the action moves in three major time sequences, from 2000 to 2005 and on to 2009, with fleeting flashbacks, the characters evolve and change. Relationships falter, while Beard encounters not only ghosts from his past but the fallout of his behaviour. McEwan keeps us guessing. Just when his professional life appears to be falling asunder, Beard, with commendable control, turns to his surest comfort, food. The two women in his life converge upon him and ultimately it may be Beard’s heart that decides the outcome.

Solar is an ambivalent, comic picaresque of cunning and subtle wisdom. Beard, not quite a villain, is no saint. As his American lover informs him, “you’re not an entirely good person, nor am I!” Nor is anyone in the novel, with the possible exception of Beard’s little daughter. McEwan has no delusions about humankind and wonders at the patience of women. McEwan’s established readers will enjoy it, as will everyone else, not only for the humour but for many moments of eerie truth.

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