May 18, 2013

Solar, by Ian McEwan


Solar is the type of novel I love: the extended tale of a smart fool, an egotistical clown who scrabbles to the top only to have his sins and foolishness catch up with him. The best of this genre is typified by Jane Smiley's Good Faith and Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, two novels I would re-read at the drop of a hat.

Solar doesn't quite reach their heights. McEwan's great line writing is an unwavering delight, and the plotting is great, if not as intricate and full as those other novels. The problem is his protagonist, the physicist Michael Beard, who is meant to be a flawed and somewhat comic fool. The great hat trick of this type is the novelist's ability to make you feel a complex blend of derision and, eventually, affection for him. It's that last bit that's the sticking point.

It doesn't help that Beard describes himself as physically grotesque, a lardball who can't stem his love for food and drink (and sex and reputation and money and leisure). And yet he has a constant stream of comely women at his beck and call, usually three or four at once, a vast and rotating cast over the ten years or so of the novel. I know that we, as readers, are supposed to have long accepted that young(ish) and beautiful(ish) women are attracted to ugly old men for their money and protection, but I can't seem to buy it. It just engendered a whole lot of eye-rolling---and a feeling of disgust, not just for the character but for the novelist.

The ending of the novel is problematic too. I'm sympathetic; endings are the hardest part of fiction. I once read a take-off on a writing seminar that advised students, if they got stuck, to just end it with "And then he got hit by a bus." Novelists have limited choices: death, satisfaction (romance attained, legal case won, mountain climbed), failure. Solar ends with a modern variant, what I call the moment of grace. The world is crashing down around the protagonist, but he steps out into the sunshine, feels the warmth and light that the universe is showering upon him, and for a moment is lifted above the worldly concerns that have consumed him for the entire length of the novel. It can be a truly touching thing, but here it just feels cheap and unearned, the moment-of-grace equivalent of that bus: "And then he felt love for a moment." Okay.

There's something about McEwan's writing of gender, too, that bothers me. Some readers complained that it's the same old Maileresque middle-aged man in crisis that we've had for decades on end now, but I need to actually read a Mailer novel before I can write "Maileresque" with authority. For me the women are reminiscent of Saul Bellow's, those shimmering presences on the sidelines whom the protagonist views with affection but distance, ready to expose their sadnesses and little humiliations. It truly makes me uncomfortable, probably compounded my dislike of McEwan's Saturday, which featured a home invasion in which bad things occur, but mostly for the women in the family. There's a similar scene in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace that still causes my face to make an involuntary moue of disgust. I don't experience these things as artistically challenging or a picture of harsh reality, but as a glimpse of a sick little part of the novelist's head. It pains me to even put McEwan in the same corner as Coetzee, because he's written some truly great books. I hope that he turns a corner with his next one.

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