Solar (2010), by Ian McEwan


Novelist Ian McEwan, gentle, magical blender of naturalism and romanticism in Atonement, reminds in Solar of a genteel Howard Beale, the fed-up “Union Broadcasting System” newscaster in Paddy Chayefsky’s dark screenplay for Network (1976). You remember Beale (Peter Finch), in the time slot up against Walter and Chet-and-David, suddenly and famously shouting that the true news is so bad, stupid and frustrating that he’s “mad as hell!” Chayefsky satirizes the birth and criminal youth of Reality  TV, and, as we now know only too well, no Exorcist banished that possessing Devil cheered on by the public.

McEwan’s being mad as hell is low-spoken, beautifully controlled, precise, broad, and artful; but he’s hopelessly disgusted with everything–there is no progress, just a great decline–with individually and collectively bumbling, immoral, dangerous, fatuous Homo sapiens the chief exhibit: the darkness of the intellect, the weakness of the flesh. Not only can Homo Sap not be redeemed, but that woeful creature is with more than a hint doomed to an inevitable extinction becoming ever more evident in our time: McEwan shorts human stock. Even Nabokov’s mordant “laughter in the dark” is unheard in the continuous, unforgiving noon brightness of Solar. McEwan says he hates “comedy” (to include, presumably, the “dark” variety), and especially his often being said to be writing it by Media Think People, hyenas howling in a glass Echo Chamber who themselves are exposed in his sunlight.

The only tolerable perseverance in the Inferno, McEwan must think, lies in telling stories seamlessly and richly to dramatize his vision of a despicable, inscrutably farcical, fatal human condition. Good novels bring News, and there must be catharsis here for Bad News McEwan.

He’s not merely returned to classic literary naturalism but has been just as innovative as his blend of naturalism and romanticism in Atonement since now, in Solar, he has created to serve his grim vision what we might call neo-naturalism: people remain accidental, futile, self-defeating creatures ruined not only by their flawed nature but by impersonal forces beyond their understanding let alone their control; but (and this is what seems new in Solar) they are not to be felt sorry for. In Zola, Dreiser, Hardy, Norris and other classic literary naturalists, you feel pity and compassion for us poor adrift and forsaken: the world is no damned good, not its helpless people. But in Solar, humans deserve their sorry outcomes.

Consider today’s culturally- and commercially-driven ubiquitous, relentless evisceration of humans as disease-prone, germ-ridden, unsanitary, unhygienic, self-corrupting, fanatical, cruel, collectively suicidal, clueless, disorganized and effectively disgusting creatures (“If it bleeds it leads” amended by “If it bleeds it sells”). What percentage of the advertisement bombardment these days is pharmaceutical? And what percentage of “news” conveys the dramas that globally “ignorant armies clash by night” and individual monsters of crime abound? Answer: the great preponderance. Humanity is 24/7 inspected not anew by Swift’s curious Lilliputians standing outside the giant’s disgusting nostril caverns but by the modern descendants of those fantastic small beings, namely, genial, hectoring, equally disgusted medical “scientists” wearing white coats and scaled down in physical size in TV commercials or hosting daily afternoon shows of “health” burlesque in search of germs and stupidity among the adoring audiences. Can there be any doubt such bears on the current pessimistic and unsympathetic (and ultimately despairing) image of humans which, I think, is dramatized at the moment far better than anywhere else in Solar?

Solar is a crucial book.

McEwan’s main character, Britisher Michael Beard, over whose shoulder the narrator describes every moment of the narrative, is 53 when first we meet him, a famous physicist, minor celebrity, Nobel Laureate for his “Einstein-Beard Conflation,” a once skeptical but now opportunistic Prominent in the climate-change movement (albeit he scorns people who refer to “the planet” as pretentious), a veteran boondoggler on condition of the right fees, a vain serial philanderer married five times, an absentee father of a toddler daughter, a slob whose slovenly bachelor apartments are always the proverbial pigsty, an overweight and self-destructively gluttonous junk food addict, and, well, consistently criminal, vile, stupid and feckless in his personal and private lives, with only a few flashes of brilliance (just after the most memorable of which, a persuasive and elegant pitch to mean-spirited, uncomprehending and tunnel-vision institutional investors in a fancy Manhattan hotel to support a grandiose clean energy project, he throws up behind the curtain back-dropping the podium because he had wolfed down too many fish hors d’oeuvre before speaking); his more serious crimes include hiding real evidence and creating false evidence to frame someone for murder, together with pilfering from the research of a deceased younger scientist for financial gain and unearned regard. His Nobel comes because the committee feels it is Great Britain’s turn and, McEwan lets out, there might even have been among those lauded poseurs in tuxedos an astonishingly ignorant conflation of Beard’s name with that of another British scientist; and further along these lines: no peerless Einstein, no clever Einstein-Beard Conflation (“…what I saw was that the most common element in the universe, hydrogen, could be made cheaply, efficiently, and in vast quantities by imitating photosynthesis in a certain way, and that it could power our civilization…[so that] now we will have clean energy, endlessly self-renewing, and we can begin to draw back from the brink of self-destructive global warming”–which, by the way, McEwan makes clear was not what Beard first saw in his young-scientist’s epiphany, Beard here years later publicly exaggerating his youthful breakthrough to puff-up his deflating image).

Comparably contemptible are all the other characters in Solar: wives, lovers, colleagues, enemies, media types, investors and the lot. They’re shortsighted, selfish, lack compassion, are unprincipled and just as foolish as Beard.

McEwan’s roller-coaster ride on which humanity is riding to a fatal wreck ensues from: 1) the self-defeating anthropology of humans AKA the weakness of human flesh, individual and collective, which will inevitably turn the rare beautiful thought–Dirac’s equation, the Einstein-Beard Conflation, a crucial clean-energy project to change the fuel paradigm–into a farcical failure of practical implementation; and 2) the unreliable human mind AKA the darkness of the intellect or the limits to knowing as reflected in our era by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Event Horizon, the radical postmodern skepticism (e.g., texts are reality, not trees and raindrops and protons and neutrons), the stubborn counter thesis that there is in fact no global warming–it just depends on which sequence of yearly temperatures you decide to use in framing the prediction, dire versus typical; the faux science in string theory owing to the impossibility of obtaining confirming observations and which leaves career-invested proponents with the dubious argument that their math is so elegant it must represent underlying reality…well these and other characteristic human cognitive shortfalls, together with the sociological bumbling of the few smart Homo Saps (surrounded as they are by legions of striving charlatans, e.g., “environmental artists” and media idiots), doom any chance of real “progress” before we help Nature do us in.

McEwan is angry and beaten down. A good defense attorney could make a case for him: nuclear proliferation; financial disasters with their secretive mendacity among politicians and industry leaders coupled with the savaged public’s hapless ignorance; the poverty, tyranny and general horror in “the developing world”; the “War on Drugs”; climate change; the war on women in much of the world; along with a bundle of other Swords of Damocles dangling precariously overhead.

As a paragon of naturalism, McEwan’s strength is his plotting–perhaps unrivaled–since he is really describing a sort of despairing lab experiment in which processes and causes must be carefully dramatized and the atonally symphonic experiment, the awful demonstration, leave nothing important out yet please Occam. Yes, pessimism, or at least the convincing illusion of it, when you think about it, requires great and comprehensive precision in depiction.

He makes a superb case you need to confront and overturn by recourse to broader history that his brilliant, pessimistic selectivity does not want you to recall. He’s a dark tempter. You can’t help admiring his ironic treatment of “conflation” and “solar.” In short, he’s gone solar as in seeing red.

Reader resistance is essential.

The Marshall Plan, nuclear arms control agreements, Allied war victories, keeping that Republic Ben Franklin urged us to keep, muddling through–McEwan might well remember some high history.

But I’m glad he hasn’t.

His book is a classic of the present very disheartening moment, an important and extraordinarily accomplished novel. It is the latest version of great Disillusionment Literature–The Sun Also Rises, Miss Lonelyhearts, Good-bye To All That–and, as such, essential reading.

A test to take and pass.

Leave a Reply