Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Solar, by Ian McEwan

I've had some resistance to McEwan in the past. I enjoyed the creepy movie that was made of The Cement Garden, but didn't go back and read it. I wasn't thrilled when Amsterdam won a Booker and Tim Parks in some ways similar but to my mind more enjoyable Europa didn't get a look in. I loved the beginning of Atonement, but never quite forgave the writer for breaking off the story and taking it up again in the middle of World War II. And felt the same way all over again when I saw the movie.

But I love Solar. I'm reading it for my book group, and as I've become more grumpy about required reading in general, I wasn't thrilled to learn that this was our next task. I thought I'd give it a try and if I didn't like it fairly quickish, I would not keep going. The resistance vanished right away. It probably actually vanished with the dedication quote from John Updike:

It gives him great pleasure, makes Rabbit feel rich, to contemplate the world's wasting, to know the earth is mortal too.
                                                                         -Rabbit is Rich

Right there, we know we aren't going to have a sympathetic hero enacting our tale.

And sympathetic Michael Beard, the aging former Nobel Prize winner in physics, most definitely is not. Solipsistic, a womanizer, serial husband, glutton, and a good deal worse than that. If you have a low tolerance for anti-heroes, you really probably shouldn't bother with this one. But if you like a dose of Satanic energy to keep the tale going, by all means plunge right in:

"He belonged to that class of men--vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever--who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed it was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women seemed to think he was a genius in need of rescue."

And off we go.  As the story opens, Michael is watching his fifth marriage fall apart, but with uncharacteristic feelings of despondency and obsession. He is a figurehead for a small environmental concern that has staked its future on wind turbines for rooftops, and he can already see that the whole thing is doomed. To escape all this, he allows himself to be invited on a trip to the Arctic, where in the company of a motley crew of artists, he is apparently supposed to make a statement about global warming. Let's just say that things do not go well for him there, and when he gets home, they go worse.

But Michael has a way of turning small setbacks to his own advantage.

Every once in awhile you come across a book that 'speaks to your condition'. The last time this happened for me was when reading Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. It's hard to explain the phenomenon if you haven't experienced it. In both cases I had more than one of the author's previous work with a certain degree of neutrality and a feeling that I didn't quite get what all the buzz was about. But with these two works, I experienced a kind of mind meld. It's a slightly uncanny experience. It would seem that I would have little in common with an aging Nobel physicist who happens to be a bit of a lad, but the inner life of this guy, despite the outer exploits, is some kind of mirror image of mine. It's not a flattering portrait of a mental life, either. Indeed there were some instances where even the outer world held a kind of echo, as when McEwan is describing Beard's dumpy 'temporary' basement London flat.

"Everywhere he looked, his apartment, made gloomier by unwashed windows, reflected some aspect of himself, his worst, fattest self incapable of translating a decent plan into a course of action. At any point in the present, there was always something he would far rather do--read, drink, eat, talk on the phone, drift through the Internet--than contact an electrician or a plumber or a house-cleaning agency, or sort through the three-foot-high paper piles or contact Tom Aldous's father."

And that's not the half of it.

Now, of course, it's one thing if the protagonist's mind in some flukey way mirrors my own, but it's quite a different and higher feat if McEwan has held a mirror the psyche of Western Man (and Woman) in the late stages of industrial civilization, as one of my teachers, Paul Lee, would term it. I'm hoping for the latter, and that other people wriggle a bit in seeing the likeness of their own interior lives to Michael Beard's. I think it's possible. By coincidence, there is a long section in the latest Utne on the culture of narcissism, with a nod and some salutary quotations from his famous book by the same title .

Well, tonight, I'll see if the group sees this book in the same way as I did. I shall report back.

Oh, did I mention that this book is deeply, darkly comic?

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