Monday, April 26, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s newest novel, Solar, has already generated a lot of commentary, much of which is critical. Some accuse him of a kind of flippancy for combining the grave topic of global warming with the absurd and ribald sexual affairs of his lead character, an aging and cynical Nobel prize-winning physicist. On the contrary, I think his switching back and forth between environmental issues that he obviously takes very seriously and the ugly and yet comedic life of his main character shows a deep understanding of human nature as well as of the ways in which greed and ignorance drive world markets and scientific research and threaten the lives of humans and other species on the planet.

Michael Beard is McEwan’s fictional physicist, and the reader is introduced to him as a scheming husband, seething with jealousy as his fifth marriage is crumbling. Throughout all five marriages Beard has cheated on his wives, but now he is outraged that his fifth very attractive wife has decided to turn the tables on him. He wants her back, wants her to love him again, though he knows even through his pain that were he to get his wish, his old ways would quickly return. Beard is seriously overweight, drinks far too much alcohol, is engaged in no new or productive work, and lives primarily on the laurels of his now distant accomplishments.  One of the things I admire about McEwan is his ability to display clearly how brilliant accomplishment in one area of a life can be, and very often is, combined with absurd ineptness or worse in other areas. Like his British predecessor, Iris Murdoch, McEwan understands all too well how brilliance and folly often combine in the same person. Murdoch’s famous and accomplished philosopher in The Philosopher’s Pupil is so good at what he does that he is able to provide rather profound insights even in ethical theory, an area of philosophy that he remains skeptical about, and yet in his personal life, he is a scoundrel who attempts to seduce his own granddaughter.

At least for this reader, while there are sections of the novel that are, indeed, darkly humorous, even uproarious, the book is not a comedy. Yes, even great people are flawed and often enough lead personal lives that are ugly and immoral. In many ways, Beard’s habits mirror the habits of greed-driven markets. He is a metaphor for the world we find ourselves in. He is smart enough to know that he is eating and drinking his way into an early death, but his understanding does nothing to dissuade him from his disastrous course. So, too, it takes very little smarts to understand that economies dependent on fossil fuels and on constant growth are rapidly producing and consuming us into oblivion, but that understanding seems to have little effect on the course that history is taking. Michael Beard is unable to wake up and do something to change his life; McEwan hopes that his readers are not.

Only slowly and due both to historical accidents and his own crumbling finances does Beard take up environmental issues. He is much more concerned with his own life than with the future of the planet, “But…was always on the lookout for an official role with a stipend attached.” Happenstance delivers into his possession the research notes of a colleague and catapults him into researching new sources of energy.
Deploying techniques and materials still only talked of in nanotechnology, the idea was to exploit direct energy from sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using special light-sensitive dyes in place of chlorophyll and catalysts containing manganese and calcium. The stored gases would be taken up by a fuel cell to generate electricity. Another idea, also taken from the lives of plants, was to combine carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with sunlight and water to make an all-purpose liquid fuel.
I found the sections of the book on global warming and photovoltaic energy to be fascinating, and I also loved McEwan’s humorous but perceptive asides on deconstructionism and how it has entered the academic world of science as well as the arts. As Beard and a group of physicists listen to a woman professor of science studies explain how genes are really socially constructed and do not exist outside the domain created by geneticists and their technical language, they politely avoid exchanging glances:
They tended to take the conventional view, that the world existed independently, in all its mystery, awaiting description and explanation, though that did not prevent the observer from leaving his thumbprints all over the field of observation.
It is pretty clear that in this case, McEwan’s sympathies lie with the physicists who believe that there is a real world out there that we are trying to understand and describe.

I think McEwan is one of the really great writers of our era. He is what I call a maximal user of the language; he supposes that his readers will be able to understand big words and difficult concepts. While he laughs at his lead character and pokes fun at the absurdities of human lives, he certainly sees himself as a being who is chock full of contradictions and driven by competing forces.

I will leave you with a quote from the book where Beard is trying to convince a group of investors that they should be investing in solar-energy research rather than in finding the last drops of oil on the planet:
An alien landing on our planet and noticing how it was bathed in radiant energy would be amazed to learn that we believe ourselves to have an energy problem, that we ever should have thought of poisoning ourselves by burning fossil fuels or creating plutonium.
Imagine we came across a man at the edge of a forest in a heavy rainfall. This man is dying of thirst. He has an ax in his hand and he is felling the trees in order to suck sap from the trunks. There are a few mouthfuls in each tree. All around him is devastation, dead trees, no birdsong, and he knows the forest is vanishing. So why doesn’t he tip back his head and drink the rain? Because he cuts trees expertly, because he has always done it this way, because the kind of people who advocate rain-drinking he considers suspicious types.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls tells us that she had intended to write about her mother’s childhood growing up on a cattle ranch in Arizona, but the more she talked to her mom about those years the more her mother insisted that it was not she but her own mother, Lily, who had lived the truly interesting life and the one that deserved to be described. Jeannette resisted at first, since she had been only eight when her grandmother died, but she had been hearing stories about her grandmother all of her life, over and over. Finally, Jeannette gave in and decided to write what she calls a true-life novel about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith.

In many ways this book is even more captivating than Walls now famous memoir, The Glass Castle, and I think it also provides a perspective on her own mother, Rose Mary Smith  Walls, that is in some ways lacking in the memoir. Lily Casey Smith was born in 1901 in west Texas, and spent most of her life in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Her father was an intelligent man who understood horses even better than he understood people. He had been kicked in the head by a horse at the age of three, and from that incidence had a life-long speech impediment and a gimpy leg. The speech impediment and the limp led to his being not only misunderstood by others, but often being seen as mentally impaired. He would return from town enraged by his inability to make himself understood by men much less mentally agile than he. Since Lily was around him from birth, she could understand everything he said, and very quickly she became his right-hand ‘man,’ both in helping him to train sets of carriage horses and in speaking for him to the outside world. When she turned five, she began to help him train the carriage horses, and soon she was in charge of breaking the horses.
I was in charge of breaking the horses. It wasn’t like breaking wild mustangs, because our horses had been around us since they were foals. Most times I simply climbed on bareback—if the horse was too skinny, its spine sometimes rubbed a raw spot on my behind—grabbed a handful of mane, gave them nudge with my heels, and off we went, at first in awkward fits and starts, with a little crow hopping and swerving while the horse wondered what in tarnation a girl was doing on his back, but pretty soon the horse usually accepted his fate and we’d move along right nicely. After that, it was a matter of saddling him up and finding the best bit. Then you could set about training him.
It was during those years that she learned from her father, “Most important thing in life is learning how to fall.” She learned her lessons well. Her father also told her that what she had to figure out first was what her purpose was, and then set about fulfilling it. Always an avid reader, Lily became passionate about education, although the bit of formal education she got at thirteen at Sisters of Loretto Academy of Our Lady of the Light in Santa Fe was interrupted when her father failed to pay her tuition. When she asked if her younger brother, Buster, was also taken out of school, her father replied simply that a boy needs a diploma, “And anyway, we need you on the ranch.”

Still, Lily was convinced that her calling, her purpose, was to be a teacher. When she was fifteen, without even having an eighth grade education, she passed a government test that had been set up to find teachers due to a severe shortage caused by World War I. She traveled five hundred miles alone, on horseback, in order to get to Red Lake Arizona where she taught fifteen students of all ages and abilities. Since there was no teacherage attached to the one-room school (as there would be in other schools she taught in), she slept on the floor of the school in her bedroll. “Still, I loved my job. Superintendent MacIntosh hardly ever came around, and I got to teach exactly what I wanted to teach, in the way I wanted.”

The end of the war meant the return of young men both to fill teaching posts and to return to the factories where women had been holding down jobs that paid higher than teachers’ salaries. This combination meant that there were more qualified teachers available (at least in terms of education), and Lily was fired. Still, she had discovered her purpose, and from then on she taught at a number of tiny schools in isolated towns of Arizona and New Mexico. When she could scrape together the funds, she would attend university for awhile, loving every minute of it and finding it to be like a vacation compared to the hard life of helping her father run a ranch. She also traveled alone to Chicago, conned into a marriage there to an already married man, escaping from him and the big city after a year and returning to the southwest. As soon as she could, she learned to drive a car, and not long after that, how to fly a plane. Unlike her father, she realized that the future prospects of carriages, and carriage horses, was dim. “What Dad didn’t understand was that no matter how much he hated or feared the future, it was coming, and there was only one way to deal with it: by climbing aboard.”

And Lily climbed aboard. She taught in a tiny Mormon community until she was fired for teaching the girls that there was more to life than arranged marriages at thirteen. “You were free to choose enslavement, but the choice was a free one only if you knew what your alternatives were. I began to think of it as my job to make sure the girls I was teaching learned that it was a big world out there and there were other things they could do besides being broodmares dressed in feed sacks.” And although she married a lapsed Mormon, a so-called Jack-Mormon, the closest she ever came to Mormonism was her married name, Smith. She and her considerably older husband ran auto repair shops, managed large ranches, and she taught here and there, off and on, both to help support the family and to fulfill her purpose.

The charm of this book rests in the way Walls captures the spirit and voice of her grandmother. The prose is sparse and unpretentious. It describes the landscape and the hardships of life in language that is at once brittle and beautiful. As one of the commentators on the book says, Lily Casey Smith “is one astonishing woman…a half-broke horse herself who’s clearly passed on her best traits to her granddaughter.”