Oh, the Irony

Thomas Jones

  • Solar by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 285 pp, £18.99, ISBN 0 224 09049 6

In 1997 I went to hear Ian McEwan read from his latest novel, Enduring Love, at a café in a deconsecrated church in Oxford. The passage he chose was the now famous opening chapter, with its vivid and terrible account of a freak ballooning accident in the Chilterns. Much of the figurative vocabulary is drawn from a mathematical or scientific lexicon – ratio, magnitude, geometry, force, angles, equilibrium, gradient, equation, logarithmic complexity, fraction, variable – and at one point the narrator describes ‘the prior moment’ in the following terms:

The convergence of six figures in a flat green space has a comforting geometry from the buzzard’s perspective, the knowable, limited plane of the snooker table. The initial conditions, the force and the direction of the force, define all the consequent pathways, all the angles of collision and return, and the glow of the overhead light bathes the field, the baize and all its moving bodies, in reassuring clarity. I think that while we were still converging, before we made contact, we were in a state of mathematical grace.

Once McEwan had finished reading, during the Q&A session that followed the awed applause, a dissenting voice spoke up from the back of the crowd. The speaker, who introduced himself as a mathematician, said that a mathematician running across a field to help rescue a child in a runaway hot-air balloon wouldn’t have time to consider the situation as if it were a maths problem. Mathematicians don’t think like that, he said.

McEwan could have pointed out that the narrator – a writer of popular science books, rather pompous and not very bright, despite his ‘good physics degree and a doctorate in quantum electrodynamics’ – wasn’t thinking like that at the time: as he himself says, ‘what I describe is shaped by … the obsessive re-examination that followed.’ Instead McEwan told the man in the audience that if he didn’t think as a mathematician at all times then he couldn’t be a very good one (not a polite response, but then the mathematician had just, in so many words, told McEwan he wasn’t a very good novelist); that he, McEwan, always thought like a novelist, whatever he was doing.

It was an odd thing to say – as if being a good mathematician or a good novelist mainly depended on how much time you spent thinking like one – but many of McEwan’s novels seem to be underpinned by that sort of assumption. We know his scientists are scientists because they think like scientists, pretty much all the time. Sometimes this makes for good characterisation, sometimes it doesn’t. The protagonist of The Innocent (1990), for example, is a Post Office engineer with a degree in electronics who’s been sent to Berlin in 1955 to work on a huge phone-tapping operation. There’s a nice moment when, in the process of losing his virginity, he finds himself on the brink of premature ejaculation: ‘He had to avert his eyes, or close them, and think of … of, yes, a circuit diagram, a particularly intricate and lovely one he had committed to memory during the fitting of signal activation units to the Ampex machines.’ This is textbook psychological realism: the detail is accurate, funny, even quite touching in its way.

But 30 pages later McEwan spoils it when the man, having driven away his new girlfriend with a clumsy foray into sadomasochism, wants to make it up with her: ‘He could have drawn an emotional circuit diagram for her.’ This sounds less like the way an electronics engineer would think than the way someone who isn’t an electronics engineer would mock an electronics engineer for thinking. It takes the reader out of the protagonist’s head, the opposite effect to the one that’s presumably intended. The problem isn’t that it makes it hard to believe in him as a scientist, but that it makes it hard to believe in him as a human being. This estrangement masquerading as sympathy is taken to extremes in Saturday (2005), in which McEwan’s hero, a neurosurgeon, can’t look at a fish without thinking about its nervous system. Monomania as a shorthand method of characterisation has a long history in English fiction, but traditionally it has been used for comic minor characters with no inner life: Thwackum and Square in Tom Jones, say, or Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion.

McEwan’s new novel, Solar, unlike any of his previous work, is avowedly comic. And much of it is extremely funny, most of the time on purpose, as it plots its antihero’s cynical and self-serving efforts to tackle climate change over the course of the first decade of the 21st century. Michael Beard is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist in his fifties. But it’s been thirty years since Richard Feynman hailed Beard’s research as ‘magic’ at the 1972 Solvay Conference, and the Beard-Einstein Conflation – the details of which are for obvious reasons left vague, though it has something to do with ‘the interaction of light with matter’ – is by now fairly old hat. Beard lives off his reputation, with a series of honorary professorships, seats on royal commissions, radio appearances, lecture tours and so on.

When the novel opens, in 2000, he’s been the figurehead of the National Centre for Renewable Energy for a year. This involves slogging out to Reading once a week to feign interest in the slow, expensive and pointless development of the WUDU (‘a wind turbine for urban domestic use’). At least it gets Beard out of the house, and away from the grinding breakdown of his fifth marriage: after finding out about his serial infidelities, his much younger wife, Patrice, has begun an affair of her own with a rat-faced builder, Rodney Tarpin, who once did some work on their house. The biggest downside to the weekly trips to Reading is the enthusiasm of one of Beard’s underlings, a post-doctoral researcher called Tom Aldous (his name a tribute to Darwin’s Bulldog), who thinks that the Beard-Einstein Conflation is the key to artificial photosynthesis, a highly efficient way of generating electricity using solar power.

Beard, however, can’t bring himself to care. For one thing, he has his doubts about the threat of climate change, seeing the direr predictions as merely the latest manifestation of mankind’s ‘apocalyptic tendency’. And besides, ‘two decades had passed since he last sat down in silence and solitude for hours on end, pencil and pad in hand, to do some thinking, to have an original hypothesis, play with it, pursue it, tease it into life.’ These days, he can’t always follow the shoptalk of the lowly post-docs at the centre in Reading: ‘Some of the physics which they took for granted was unfamiliar to him.’ Since McEwan and most of his readers (not to mention reviewers) aren’t physicists, this falling off in Beard’s powers is a convenient fig leaf, though it’s also of thematic relevance – Solar is concerned, among other things, with ageing, decay and decline – and necessary to the plot. But once a physicist, always a physicist. Beard goes to Tarpin’s house to confront him, and standing in the driveway hears ‘the homely crackle of the power lines’ overhead. This leads him to reflect: ‘Electrons – so durable, so fundamental. He had spent much of his youth thinking about them.’

As head of the centre, Beard is invited to spend a week on board a luxury yacht frozen into a fjord in Spitsbergen as part of a group of ‘20 artists and scientists concerned with climate change’. ‘Conveniently, just ten miles away, was a dramatically retreating glacier whose sheer blue cliffs regularly calved mansion-sized blocks of ice onto the shore of the fjord.’ Getting there involves a series of comic misadventures, largely to do with snowmobiles, the ungainliness of extreme cold weather clothing, Beard’s fear that he may have lost his penis to frostbite after pulling over to relieve himself in temperatures well below zero, and his refusal ever to ask anyone for help. It’s all a lot funnier than a summary makes it sound: McEwan’s jokes are shaggy-dog stories rather than one-liners.

Once on board, Beard – as it turns out, the only scientist in the party – is exasperated by the artists’ gaseous talk about climate change, mildly disgusted by their ill-concealed excitement about it, and baffled by their apparent belief that their art will in some way ‘deflect the course of a catastrophe’, like ‘prayers’ or ‘totem-pole dances’. There is some pathos in the irony of a novel about climate change pointing out the fruitlessness of attempts to tackle climate change through art. Still, better to do what you can than to do nothing. Most of the time Beard gets quietly pissed in the corner on the endless supply of Libyan wine and lets the artists get on with it. But when a ‘gangling novelist called Meredith’ claims that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle can be applied to ethics, Beard can’t restrain himself: ‘Right plus wrong over the square root of two. What the hell does it mean? Nothing!’

Meanwhile, there’s the problem of the boot room, where everyone is supposed to leave their outdoor clothing hanging on their designated pegs. It’s soon in hopeless disarray, with everyone leaving their stuff chaotically all over the place and stealing everyone else’s hats, boots and gloves. Beard thinks he’s the only one trying to follow the rules, that the confusion is everyone else’s fault, and so presumably does everyone else. ‘How were they to save the earth,’ Beard wonders, just in case you haven’t already worked this moral out for yourself, ‘when it was so much larger than the boot room?’ The best intentions, the noblest ideals, the grandest plans rapidly founder on the ordinary frailties of human nature.

Beard is frailer than most, suffering from a wide range of impulse control problems, enslaved by his id (despite his recent fervour for neuroscience, McEwan hasn’t been able entirely to renounce the Freudianism of his youth) or afflicted by all seven of the deadly sins, depending on how you want to look at it. The characters in McEwan’s novels can be broadly divided into two groups: those who tidy their bedrooms (Briony in Atonement, for example) and those who don’t (Briony’s sister, Cecilia). But the squalor of Beard’s bachelor flat in Marylebone after his fifth divorce makes the narrator’s foul bedroom in The Cement Garden (1978) seem quite fragrant by comparison. Beard will fuck any woman who’ll have him, though it’s a bonus if she keeps a neat house (this economically combines the traditional sins of sloth and lust with the less often mentioned but much worse vice of expecting other people to clean up for you). He also has a serious drinking problem and an engaging weakness for salt and vinegar crisps. Through a combination of incontinence and inertia, Beard – gluttonous, avaricious, lustful, slothful, proud, envious, angry – abuses his spherical body for the sake of instant gratification in a manner that all too obviously echoes the way his species abuses the planet.

Perhaps the answer to the boot-room/ climate-change conundrum is to accept that short-term self-interest will always defeat any altruistic attempt to take the long view, and instead of trying to make people be good, look for ways to turn their badness to the planet’s advantage. Part two of Solar jumps ahead to 2005. Beard has by now been converted to the environmental cause, largely because he’s found a way to use Aldous’s work to accumulate money and prestige for himself. The centrepiece of the novel is a speech he makes to a roomful of pension-fund managers, trying to persuade them to invest in the artificial photosynthesis project he’s working on:

The basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop, or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our grandchildren’s lifetime … How do we slow down and stop while sustaining our civilisation and continuing to bring millions out of poverty? Not by being virtuous, not by going to the bottle bank and turning down the thermostat and buying a smaller car. That merely delays the catastrophe by a year or two … Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest … and the satisfaction of profit.

Before beginning his speech Beard has gobbled down nine smoked salmon sandwiches. During the applause he steps behind the curtain at the back of the stage to throw up, driving home to readers, if not to Beard’s audience, the point about greed trumping virtue.

The only person in the novel who seriously believes that Beard’s work is going to save the planet is his three-year-old daughter. It’s not clear that his artificial photosynthesis project would do that much more to save the world than a trip to the bottle bank. A lot of the effort being expended, with very little success, on trying to prevent climate change might be better spent preparing to deal with its consequences. Except that no one wants to admit that climate change is irreversible. As one of Beard’s girlfriends says, ‘to take the matter seriously would be to think about it all the time. Everything else shrank before it. And so, like everyone she knew, she could not take it seriously. Not entirely. Daily life would not permit it.’

In a New Yorker profile of McEwan last year, Galen Strawson is quoted as saying that ‘Ian is essentially a short-story writer,’ that none of his longer books ‘has the unity of drive that the best novels have’. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The disappearance of the daughter in the supermarket at the beginning of The Child in Time (1987), the balloon accident in Enduring Love, the retreat to Dunkirk and the arrival of the wounded at a London hospital in Atonement (2001) are among the most compelling passages of English fiction of the last 25 years. The novels they’re in, however, are schematically structured, with occasionally lurching plot development, and the main themes are loudly hammered home.

Solar is no exception. The Spitsbergen episode dramatises, grippingly if not especially subtly, the insurmountable obstacles to anything ever actually being done to solve the problems of climate change. It would make a great short story. But McEwan can’t leave it there. Arriving home from the Arctic, Beard surprises an intruder in his house. In an echo of something that happens in The Innocent, the intruder conveniently slips on a polar-bear-skin rug – more original than a banana skin, and oh, the irony – and brains himself on the corner of the coffee table; Beard makes the accident look like murder and frames someone else for it. All of which is a convoluted way for him to free himself from his marriage, avenge himself on his wife’s lovers and steal his disciple’s research to rejuvenate his scientific career.

The elements of farce in Solar have the unintended side-effect of pointing up how farcical many of the events in McEwan’s previous, more serious novels are: the lengths the children go to in The Cement Garden to try to conceal their mother’s corpse, inexpertly disposed of in the cellar; the drunk ex-husband in The Innocent falling asleep in his ex-wife’s wardrobe while waiting for her to come home with her new fiancé; the nervous young man, also in The Innocent, struggling round Berlin failing to get rid of a pair of suitcases stuffed with body parts; the young man in Atonement sending the drastically wrong draft of a letter to the young woman he’s just realised he’s in love with. In The Cement Garden or The Innocent, the incongruous elements of farce make the stories darker. But McEwan hasn’t been interested in that kind of darkness for some time, and in his more recent novels, such as Saturday or even the intermittently dazzling Atonement, the farcical elements are merely incongruous. At least Solar is meant to be funny.

There’s some heavy-handed satire, too, which takes potshots at 1970s feminists and postmodernist cranks who won’t listen to anyone they disagree with and whimsically reject the objective truths of science – leading to many pages of blokeish guffawing at their unthinking deployment of jargon (‘hegemonic’, ‘reductionist’ etc) and lack of common sense. McEwan’s condescendingness here would be easier to bear if he weren’t so inclined to misuse jargon himself, coming up with such vacuities as a plane leaving the stack over Heathrow for its descent ‘on a banking hairpin tangent’ or a road in the desert in New Mexico running ahead ‘straight as a Euclidean line’.

Beard is in New Mexico in 2009 – part three – for the grand opening of his artificial photosynthesis project. This, inevitably, is far less grand than he’d hoped, with only a fraction of the solar panels he’d wanted, but it should at least produce enough electricity to meet the needs of the nearby town of Lordsburg. The desert of the American South-West is an irresistible setting for a showdown, and so it’s here, on the eve of his triumph, that all Beard’s deceptions unravel, and all the people he has deceived converge to destroy him. By this point I found myself wanting him to get away with it, not because I’d grown perversely fond of the old rogue or hoped he’d save the world (it’s only a novel), but to upset the tyrannical predictability of the plot. Of course he can’t get away with it, though, because actions have consequences (as Newton didn’t quite say) and Beard, like the human race, must reap what he has sown. No vice is left unpunished. There’s even a hint in the last sentence that the final blow will be dealt by his passion for salt and vinegar crisps.