On Ian McEwan’s Solar

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Posted 06 Jan 2011 in Books, Reviews

Whereas I watched and really enjoyed Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Whatever Works, the other day – surprised at myself for enjoying it as much as I did, after sniffy reviews – I read the latest Ian McEwan novel, Solar, at the start of this week with mounting irritation and impatience. Both artists are undoubtedly past their critical peak, and can be relied upon to provide only nostalgic echoes of their early, brilliant work – but I find Allen (the most loudly criticized of the two) and his predictable later films much more lovable than McEwan and his recent novels. Both retain their primary skill – Allen holds on to the ability to riff his way through familiar scenes, and McEwan retains his to paint impressive set-pieces – but only McEwan continues to strive for importance, persisting in state of the nation novels of ever-decreasing relevance.

Whatever Works finds Allen back, figuratively, in the Manhattan of his 70s and 80s pictures. McEwan’s latest recalls his slightest (but not his worst) work, Amsterdam, and works perfectly well when it is an arch comic novel in the mold of Malcolm Bradbury or Kingsley Amis. But his book hinges around the half-way mark and, as McEwan attempts to ramp up the farce, falls apart just as its author is busying himself tying loose ends. The end is as badly written and contrived as any book you’ll find.

What I continue to like about Woody Allen’s films, slight and rushed though they certainly are, is the neatness of scope with which Allen contends himself. Taken as short stories, rather than novels, they are terrific little pieces. A late period Woody Allen (with the exception of the terrible Match Point), if it was presented as an indie by an up and coming director, would be received with delight. Conversely, it’s my sense that a late period McEwan would barely make it out of the sluice pile, were it submitted by a less prestigious author.

Central to Solar’s failure is McEwan’s decision to frame the narrative through a character who is both fundamentally unlikeable and also lacking any of the redeeming features which made Martin Amis’s John Self – for example – so compelling. Michael Beard, a self-absorbed, philandering scientist who stumbles into a figurehead role in the climate change movement, grows in grotesqueness throughout, until by the end it’s just depressing reading of his plight. McEwan – who we can ordinarily count on not to be sentimental – even allows Beard a shot at belated redemption on his final page, prompting a cry of dismay from this reader.

There aren’t even really any beautiful passages; unforgivable for a writer of McEwan’s power. And for all his manifold talents, displayed so luminously in the early stages of his career, he’s never been funny. At times Solar, a profoundly unfunny comic novel, seems to be begging laughs from its audience. They never come.

Solar does, actually, have it’s virtues. It’s colourful in its first half, and McEwan does a commendable job at integrating climate science into the narrative without losing pace or changing tack. But Beard is never troubled by his moral responsibilities – as adulterer, as plagiarist, as coward. As I approached the end – I salute McEwan’s technical skill – I felt the same frantic urgency to reach the denouement I do with all his books; but also an eagerness to get it finished, put it down, go to the next book. I remember the feeling of finishing McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, many years ago, in a pub, and feeling like I’d been punched, grief-stricken that the novel was over.

For me and McEwan, I fear, those days have passed.

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