Aug 9, 2010

Monkey droppings - Solar by Ian McEwan

The monkey confronts the concept of aging.

The monkey gets depressed.

The monkey confronts the concept of a grilled cheese sandwich instead.

by Ian McEwan (2010)
He belonged to that class of men - vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever - who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or so he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so.And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue.
Michael Beard is in need of rescue, but not in the way he thinks. Michael needs rescue from his own shortcomings, and quickly; the world is hurtling toward the abyss, after all.

From the reading of the jacket copy, it would appear that Solar, Ian McEwan's newest, is a comedy about the end days, where one man may hold the key to humankind's survival, but only if his redemption is forthcoming. A Terry Pratchettesque comic romp through the apocalypse, as it were.

This being a McEwan novel, however, things are rarely as they appear. The author may indeed wield a narrative device ripe with comic intent - and, truly, he succeeds in some wonderfully absurd set pieces - but Solar is in actuality a paean to aging, and a novel as pungent and blissfully thick of wit as the best of John Updike and Saul Bellow.

Michael Beard is a smart man, no question. A Nobel Prize-winning physicist for his ground-breaking Beard-Einstein Conflation, Beard, now in his fifties, has been summarily side-tracked (rather unwillingly) by the scientific demands of climate change, a study in which he has little interest or patience. Finding himself surrounded by vigorous young scientists, Beard is very much unhappy:
After outlining what he expected to read next year in the third IPCC report, Aldous told Beard - and was the fiftieth person to do so in the past twelve months - that the last ten years of the twentieth century had been the warmest ten, or was it nine, on record. Then he was musing on climate sensitivity, the temperature rise associated with a doubling of CO2 above pre-industrial levels. As they entered London proper, it was radiative forcing, and after that the familiar litany of shrinking glaciers, encroaching deserts dissolving coral reefs, disappearing this and that, on and on, while Beard sank into a gloom of inattention, not because the planet was in peril - that moronic word again -but because someone was telling him it was with such enthusiasm. This is what he disliked about political people - injustice and calamity animated them, it was their milk, their lifeblood, it pleasured them.
Worse yet, Michael's wife Patrice is cheating on him. Despite the decades of indiscretions he has had throughout four previous marriages, this table-turning leaves Michael, "not yet a refugee from the near-silent endgame of his fifth marriage," decidedly lopsided of emotion. A trip to the Arctic with a boatload of flaky artists, followed by a surreptitious accident, appear to place Beard on more solid ground, but even so, the book's only one-third over. Starting in the year 2000, and then jumping ahead to 2005 and 2009, Solar evocatively captures the steady erosion of a man to the various elements of age, society, lust, and food, even as his career threatens to bring him to prominence yet again.

Solar finds McEwan neatly interplaying the precise, befuddling world of the abstract physicist - "Quantum mechanics. What a repository, a dump, of human aspiration it was, the borderland where mathematical rigour defeated common sense, and reason and fantasy irrationally merged." - with the world of the aging Lothario, as insane and irrational a world as has ever been discovered. The qualities that make Beard a genius at his work- the irrational leaps of logic, the ability to conceive the inconceivable - are the very same qualities that make him an utter failure as a human being. Beard can make sense of the most abstract qualities of light, yet cannot possibly be bothered to figure out the reasoning behind his latest tryst. Beard is a man "self-sufficient, self-absorbed, his mind a cluster of appetites and dreamy thoughts," and McEwan takes great delight in throwing whatever possible in Beard's path to throw off his equilibrium.

Despite the intensely comedic nature of Solar's construction (has anyone ever so lovingly crafted an ode to the common potato chip?), there is an indefinable but definite core of sadness at its core, the theory that, despite moments of unadulterated genius, man is as little able to control his base impulses as he is the natural world. How can we be expected to halt imminent catastrophe when even the best and brightest of us cannot comprehend nor control the simplest of impulses that drive ourselves?

I don't believe that Solar is perfect; I found my attention wandering from time to time, as Beard's inner meanderings can be somewhat exhausting. But the writing is gloriously smart (as per usual for McEwan), and Michael Beard is a magnificently flawed creation, an amalgamation of the best and worst of man's capabilities.


No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...