Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Solar inefficiency

My first McEwan (Saturday) was an intellectual seduction.

My second McEwan (Enduring Love)... it was love.

My third McEwan (On Chesil Beach), I was basking in the afterglow.

My fourth McEwan (Atonement) — I was confused and bit angry about it.

This, Solar, is my fifth book by Ian McEwan. I spent the first half of the novel deciding it was over, the love is gone. The second half had me reconsidering, that there might be something more substantial here, worth puzzling over and working through.

From the Guardian:

The genesis of the book was McEwan's journey to the Arctic circle in 2005 with a mixed group of scientists and artists to witness climate change at first hand. "I adored that trip," he says. "While the sculptors and painters did their thing, I just hiked around with whoever would come with me." Walking the frozen fjords with Antony Gormley he discussed landscape and imagination. At dinner there was "idealistic conversation about how we had to be different in our relations with government".

But just the other side of the door from the living quarters was a boot room. "It was chaos. There was no malice, but people were careless and would inadvertently borrow each other's stuff. Clothes and equipment there to save our lives, which we should have been able to look after very easily, would go missing, and I thought, for all the fine words and good intentions, maybe there was a comic inadequacy in human nature in dealing with this problem." Copenhagen confirmed his fears. "It was unprecedented for world leaders to be summoned by science. But it resulted in disarray and conflict with elements of Whitehall farce. So I thought that if I ever did get round to this project, I would want to write about a very flawed guy. Someone hopeless, or hopelessly self-interested."

Thus, Michael Beard, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was born. He's not likable at all, and I don't think McEwan works very hard to make him in any way sympathetic. I couldn't bring myself to care what happened to him. Certainly Beard doesn't care much about anyone or anything — for all his abstract work in photovoltaics, I don't feel he ever really believes that climate change is a real problem. The point of him seems for us to be able to point and laugh at him, and puzzle over how a Nobel laureate can be so subaverage, so stupid, on so many levels.

Among other blunders he has to overcome, Beard makes some public remarks that immediately recalled those made by Larry Summers, President of Harvard, in January 2005:

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the — I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are — the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

Certainly it was a hot topic in that neighbourhood of the blogiverse that I frequented then. McEwan in his acknowledgements credits the exchange between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke, which was directly spawned by Summer's comments. (Hey, Ian, It's, not — this is why it's a good idea to have someone check your work.) This to say the character of Beard does have solid grounding in reality, even if it is unpopular and unpleasant.

As ever, McEwan is great with language:

The flight from Berlin was a typical failure. At the start, as he lowered his broad rear into his seat, barely two hours after a meaty Germanic breakfast, he was forming his resolutions: no drinks but water, no snacks, a green-leaf salad, a portion of fish, no pudding, and at the same time, at the approach of a silver tray and the murmured invitation of a female voice, his hand was closing round the stem of his runway champagne. A half-hour later he was ripping open the sachet of a salt-studded, beef-glazed, toasted corn-type sticklet snack that came with his jumbo gin and tonic. Then there was spread before him a white tablecloth, the sight of which fired some neuronal starter gun for his stomach juices. The gin melted his remaining resolve. He chose the starter he had decided against: quails' legs wrapped in bacon on a bed of creamed garlic. Then, cubes of pork belly mounted on a hill-fort of buttered rice. The 'pavé' was another of those starter guns: a paving slab of chocolate sponge encased in chocolate under a chocolate sauce; goat's cheese, cow's cheese in a nest of white grapes, three rolls, a chocolate mint, three glasses of Burgundy, and finally, as though it would absolve him of all else, he forced himself back through the menu to confront the oil-sodden salad that came with the quail. When his tray was removed, only the grapes remained.

I do wish I'd known before starting in that Solar is a comedy (though a tragic one, to be sure). (That'll teach me for not reading the jacket flaps!) Had I been so predisposed, I might've found it much funnier. As it was, expecting something serious, and even though I chuckled aloud at least twice, I never really found my groove with respect to the tone of the book. Maybe I just don't find McEwan funny. Or maybe it's a British thing.

(Part of me still thinks it's up the writer and his words and the way he puts them together to make it clear that it's meant to be funny or sarcastic or pompous or sincere, but the more it goes, the more I think there's some other ingredient that's beyond anyone's control. The reader's mindset definitely plays a role. This is perhaps why I'm finding Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain so delightfully funny, and why everybody in the office is cursing email for all the communication difficulties it generates.)

Despite my not loving it, I think Solar would make an excellent bookclub read. Beard's personal and marital failings, along with his social faux pas, not to mention the issue of climate change (and the role scientists, politicians, and artists ought to play), are great fodder for discussion. Oh, right, and the crime — there's a pretty big crime committed, which, even though it's pretty central, kind of gets glossed over. The ethics of that whole thing is also something to talk about. But see? There's all this interesting stuff — it just doesn't hang together well.

I wouldn't recommend this book to you if it's your first time out with McEwan, but if you've been around the block with him already, you may find things in it
that may deepen your appreciation of him.

Climate change.
Digested read.


claire said...

I'll have to see for myself, making sure to expect humor! Ha. So do you still plan on reading anything else by him or is this the end? :(

Isabella said...

Oh, Claire, I'm definitely going back for more! McEwan and I will be off to Amsterdam together later this year, then we'll see...

cipriano said...

Terrific, unpartisan, review.
I always take it quite seriously when a reviewer says they love the author, but not this particular foray of the beloved author. That is significant.
I tend to really like McEwan.
And I have ordered this book as a review book, from the publisher. You review is a provocative inauguration to what awaits me.