Sunday, April 4, 2010

Little Light, More Heat

This appeared in today's DNA.

SOLAR Ian McEwan

You can’t scan the newspaper these days without spotting headlines dealing with the failure or otherwise of the Copenhagen summit, the success of the so-called Earth Hour, the actions of the UN climate change panel and more. Global warming and sources of renewable energy are, well, hot topics and certainly a fitting subject for the contemporary novel. When the novelist in question is of the stature of Ian McEwan, there’s a buoyancy of expectations.

Solar, however, turns out to be a victim of the greenhouse effect – an over-heated creation that, while not without a certain appeal, also possesses an unevenness of shape. This is the tale of Michael Beard, now in his fifth decade, who’s been “sprinkled by Stockholm’s magic dust” when he was younger, having been awarded the physics Nobel for his conflation of an Einsteinian hypothesis. Many particles have accelerated since then and it’s been over two decades since Beard did anything original, content to live off sinecures and speaking engagements.

As the novel opens, we meet Beard trying to balance the elegance and simplicity of the world of physics with the messiness of his domestic life. He isn’t an especially likeable chap: he cheats on his wife, eats and drinks to excess, dissembles and isn’t above stealing the work of a post-doctorate student and passing it off as his own.

Solar unfolds in three parts, relating episodes from Beard’s life during the years 2000, 2005 and 2009. The prevailing mood of the novel is that of farce, be it when detailing the fortunes of Beard’s frozen penis during an expedition to the Arctic, or the manner in which his wife’s young lover meets an untimely end. At other times, McEwan takes aim at other irritants of modern life, from media sensationalism to well-meaning but ineffectual liberal post-modernists unpacking every phrase for meaning in context.

McEwan’s prose is rich and accomplished throughout – no surprises there – and in addition, he’s clearly steeped himself in the lore of modern physics in order to create verisimilitude for Beard and his world. (“Dimensions tightly wrapped in six circles, the rediscovery of Kalusa and Klein from the nineteen-twenties, the delightful intricacies of the Calabi-Yau manifolds and orbifolds!”). This manner of writing also puts one in mind of the medical knowledge that the author presented us with in the case of Perowne, the neuroscientist from his earlier Saturday.

Beard careens from one lover and one engagement to another, progressing from heading a British government centre for renewable energy to becoming an “energy consultant” to setting up a site in New Mexico to create clean energy through artificial photosynthesis. His excesses over the years, however, finally catch up with him, in a manner that brings to mind a saying by Einstein: “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once”. The accumulation of bad karma spills over to create a conjoined nemesis that arrives all of a sudden in Beard’s life in the form of unexpected phone calls, e-mails and personal visits. It must be said that, in terms of plot, this sudden downfall smacks too heavily of contrivance -- the sudden gathering together of strings to enmesh Beard isn’t McEwan at his most elegant.

Solar, then, aims to be a mordantly comic work, revealing the pettiness and fads of civilisation as we know it through the actions of a character who often approaches the grotesque. At one point, the gluttonous, philandering Beard, in an uncharacteristically quiet moment, muses that “the pressure of numbers, the abundance of inventions, the blind forces of desires and needs looked unstoppable and were generating a heat, a modern kind of heat that had become, by clever shifts, his subject, his profession.” It’s the same subject, in fact, that is Solar’s guiding light.


Anil P said...

Interesting review. Been a long time since I las read McEwan.

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once is such a wonderful insight.

Unknown said...

Yes, a nice tongue-in-cheek one at that.