Friday, April 23, 2010

Feast Of Excess

There is a notion that a novel has to be as healthy and bland as kale or else it isn’t literature. As if the unspoken rule is that it must only be sternly serious and if it happens to be enjoyable, then that must be an oversight on the writer’s part. This seems to be the root of a lot of the criticism of Ian Mc Ewan’s Solar, for what it is not.

That Mc Ewan’s novels are elaborately constructed marvels of prose and entertaining is a testament to his skill. (This could be lost on this NYTimes book reviewer.) If Solar does not reach the same high watermark that everyone was expecting after Atonement or On Chesil Beach, the writing is the epitome of Mc Ewan’s stylistic precision. Still, Mc Ewan is going for a laugh any time he describes a glutton’s eagerly anticipated meal:

“She took away the bowl with the three cold lozenges and set the main course down before him. Four wedges of skinless chicken breast interleaved with three minute steaks, the whole wrapped in bacon, with a honey and cheese topping, and served with twice-roasted jacket potatoes already impregnated with butter and cream cheese.”

Solar is an indulgent feast of satire.

Solar harkens back to the style of Amsterdam, operating in a comedic-tragic register which also recalls the bold mischief of Mc Ewan's early short stories. There, the characters are young and depraved, making sense of the world from a limited understanding of it. What those life lessons earn the protagonist of Solar, Michael Beard, is a deficit; forever after he will go to extremes to avoid humiliation at the hands of an associate, using whatever vengeance at his means, getting away with whatever he can. Youthful curiosity and glory is eventually replaced with the fading returns of post-middle-age survival. Beard isn’t a character easy to like, but he seems prototypically human, and it is as easy to laugh at him as it is to have hope for him in his failings.

Mc Ewan wallows in Beard’s excesses. This is the opposite of the life-saving and affirming protagonist in Saturday; Beard is a man who on the face of his accomplishments (Nobel Prize winning physicist) might be enviable, but is flailing with a dangerous lack of scruples. Maybe the degree to which a reader is willing to follow this reprehensible character is how much he or she recognizes the folly of human endeavor.

Self-consciousness drives Mc Ewan’s protagonists; he has consistently perfected the limited third person point of view, or, as James Wood has it, free indirect style. In particular, this consciousness allows Mc Ewan to confront moral quandary and force the character to interact with their world on a finite scale. The depth of this consciousness can be almost uncomfortably perverse and unbridled, backed up by the scientific mind that allows Mc Ewan to focus in on the protagonist’s whims with a dissecting knife. That this consciousness is rendered in more depth and literary-ness than the person having the experience would probably have is playing to the satire.

The rendering of Beard’s gluttony is anachronistic, almost indecent details applied to a novel of a lofty and timely subject (Global warming). The effect is ornate overstatement, words larded on because Mc Ewan can, that feels defiant--in a sense, he’s showing off--but it’s a sure-footed, often hilarious, touch.

Much of the narrative of Solar relies too readily on the withholding of information. In a more high minded work it might be considered manipulative, but this is light treatment of a heavy topic. The problem for Mc Ewan is taking a subject too earnestly and becoming heavy-handed, bogged down in technical jargon and plot machinations as he did in Saturday. In Solar, he applies his research to make the stakes relevant, though the reader may find that these stakes are largely misconstrued. Beard is the center of his own universe.

Solar begins tentatively, with a back-story summary, though this exposition provides signposts for the novel’s departures. If a novel is a journey, there are enough clues from Mc Ewan that the reader will be taken on an adventure. And ultimately, Solar achieves what a novel should, engaging the reader in a world that suspends in wonder, be that wonder at the skill of the writer, or at the anticipatory pleasure of what is to come. The repast can be a feast to binge on, or a satisfying meal to savor. It’s all good.

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