McEwan experiments with a selfish scientist
The author takes a huge risk by using a greedy, repulsive narrator, leaving his readers trapped, writes Jason Cowley
Published 21/03/2010 | 05:00
Jonathan Cape, €13.99
Solar is a sly, sardonic novel about a dislikable English physicist and philanderer named Michael Beard. He's a recognisable Ian McEwan type, a one-dimensional, self-deceiving man of science. We have met others like him before in McEwan's novels -- such as Joe Rose, the science writer who narrates Enduring Love, or Henry Perowne, the brain surgeon protagonist of Saturday -- but none is quite as repulsive as Beard. Perhaps McEwan should have written against expectation by choosing as his protagonist a scientist who has a profound artistic sensibility in the model of his friend Richard Dawkins, or an artist who is articulate in the language of science, as McEwan is himself. As it is, he remains a determined binarist; what continues to interest him are stark dichotomies, the clash and interplay of stable oppositions. Repeatedly in his fiction he sets reason against unreason, science against art, the mind against the body, technology against nature.
Beard, who we are encouraged to believe won a Nobel prize in physics as a young man for something called the Beard-Einstein Conflation, is a short, fat, balding, much-married man of immense bodily appetites and scant self-discipline. He rapaciously consumes food, women and drink, with little regard for the consequences. He's a resolute short-termist, fearful of commitment and of becoming a father, living for the here and now. His behaviour is a local example of the general problem of human over-consumption: just as Beard devours everything around him, so we are devouring our world, with its finite resources and fragile ecosystems.
The trick of the novel, its central comic turn, is to make Beard, the greedy, selfish uber-consumer, an accidental expert on anthropogenic climate change. Through his expertise as a physicist, and then his opportunism in stealing the research ideas of a graduate student who works with him at an institute in Berkshire known only as the Centre, Beard is engaged in a programme to create cheap renewable energy through a process of artificial photosynthesis (you'll need to read the book to be filled in on the science).
McEwan's great gamble is to narrate Solar, which is in three parts and spans nine years, from 2000 to 2009, entirely from Beard's point of view. Some of this is satisfying, especially the pithy scientific elaborations. McEwan, who has a precise, technician's vocabulary, has swotted up to PhD level on physics, just as he did on neurosurgery for Saturday, musicology for Amsterdam and molecular biology for Enduring Love. None of this extracurricular learning feels perfunctory, especially when compared with, say, Martin Amis's The Information, where disquisitions on infinity, black holes, dwarf planets and astronomy felt imposed on the narrative rather than being intrinsic to it. In Solar, the physics never feels forced or unearned but rather is embedded in the deep structures of Beard's consciousness. We see the world just as he does, in all its cold reductiveness.
In McEwan's early fiction, in his strange, experimental short stories and novellas, with their isolated, sexually deviant male protagonists, he wrote from the outside in, as it were. His was always the controlling intelligence, aggressively masculine, and he followed his young male protagonists less in thought than in action, detailing their psychosis and alienation with the cold detachment of a coroner examining a corpse. So devoid of emotion were these early fictions that reading them felt almost like an act of voyeurism. McEwan appeared to have no feelings for his characters; instead, he dissected them as if they were rats in a laboratory experiment.
Here was, as John Updike said of Amis in a different context, "an atrocity-minded author" -- but one with perhaps the most controlled, exact and fastidious prose style of all contemporary British novelists.
McEwan's cruellest book, the one in which the violence seems most gratuitous and nasty, is The Comfort of Strangers (1981), his novella about a young British couple adrift in an autumnal Venice of shadows and fear that marked a point of transition for him: after this, and a long period of silence, he returned as a different writer. The instinct for cruelty remained but it was mitigated by a much deeper, more sophisticated, even feminine, moral and aesthetic sensibility.
From The Child in Time (1987) onwards, he was less a postmodernist than a realist, with a 19th-Century interest in character, agency and storytelling, in the what, how and why of the human dilemma. In addition, he was developing a modernist's concern with consciousness, and began to experiment with different ways of representing the essence of what Virginia Woolf called the "quick of the mind".
McEwan was now writing from inside out: thought determined action, and there was a new descriptive density to his writing. Where once he had shrunk and compressed, he now expanded and inflated. He was no longer a miniaturist, and yet he was still a writer of great, self-contained set-pieces, such as his description of a ballooning accident that provides the celebrated opening to Enduring Love; or the disappearance of an infant from a supermarket at the beginning of The Child in Time, a scene of such intense and urgent panic that it would torment any parent who read it; or the extended scene in On Chesil Beach, where the virginal newlyweds try and fail to consummate their marriage, with devastating consequences for the rest of their lives.
Yet what unifies all McEwan's fiction is his preoccupation with the randomness of human endeavour in a post-religious, Darwinian world: his novels invariably turn on one sudden, unaccountable, life-changing happening or fatal equivocation. In Solar, the moment of crisis occurs when Beard returns from a trip to the Arctic to discover one of his graduate students at play in his house. It's quickly apparent that he is having an affair with Beard's unhappy and desperate wife (the marriage is over; Beard is a serial adulterer), and, in the ensuing confusion, the student falls and hits his head: "No breathing, no pulse." Instead of helping the student or calling for an ambulance, Beard stumblingly intervenes to make it appear as if he has been murdered -- as you would -- so as to frame one of his wife's previous lovers, a thuggish builder whom Beard has confronted earlier in the novel.
The circumstances of the death are used by Beard to extricate himself from his marriage, to punish the loathed builder and to reanimate his moribund career by appropriating the student's research into climate change and claiming it as his own. In one bound, it seems, he's free.
That's a lot of change to believe in, however, and from this point everything feels excessively neat, ruthlessly schematic. Solar is very similar in style to the Booker prize-winning Amsterdam, especially in its narrative tidiness, jauntiness of tone and desire to punish foolish men.
But Amsterdam was a novella, whereas Solar feels as if it has been stretched far beyond its natural length. Much of the first part, which is set in 2000 and culminates in the death of the student, reads like an exercise in extended scene-setting, to no obvious purpose or effect. The protracted episode in which Beard travels with a group of scientists, artists and green activists to the Arctic, played mostly for laughs -- he pisses outside and his penis freezes; he is menaced by a polar bear -- is laboriously over-described. There is, sentence by sentence, an uncharacteristic verbosity.
The chief revelation of the Arctic mission is to show how the bootroom, where the well-intentioned group keeps its foul-weather clothing, becomes, after only a few days, a site of anarchy and chaos. This then is another parable of human rapacity: we take what we can, when we can.
The best and most complex scene occurs towards the end of the second part. Beard and his latest lover, a kind, generous, full-figured woman, are together at her house. She has prepared a meal, and just before they sit down to eat it she tells Beard that she's pregnant and determined to keep the baby. In sentences of extraordinary poise and precision, McEwan contrasts Beard's selfish sense of revulsion at the news with that of his lover's hopeful joy. So minutely does he track Beard's ever-shifting, contradictory positions you have a returning sense, so familiar in McEwan's fiction, of events somehow sliding inexorably towards disaster. But then the lens blurs, there's an unexpected softening of focus and, after having sex, exhausted, the couple fall asleep.
We next encounter Beard, four years later, in 2009, at the beginning of part three. He's in New Mexico preparing for a conference, and it is there, under the ferocious sun, that a lifetime of carelessness eventually catches up with him in a denouement that wouldn't be out of place in a piece of farce.
It was always going to be high risk, wagering so much on having as your central character a comic grotesque so loathsome and self-pitying, with thoughts mostly so banal, and then leaving the reader trapped, unrelieved, in his company for nearly 300 pages.
In Atonement, the character Bryony writes fiction in which she seeks "to show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive".
What is absent from Solar, ultimately, are other minds, the sense that people other than Beard are present, equally alive, with something to contribute. Without them, after a while, it feels as if you are locked inside an echo chamber, listening only to the reverberations of the one same sound -- the groan of a fat, selfish man in late middle age eating himself.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman magazine