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.

1 comment:

  1. This review makes me want to read McEwan right now. (I just started Too Much Happiness - Munro.) And I hope you don't think I'm some raving man-hater if I say I'm curious why you specify that it's a "woman scientist" who explains the deconstructionist view of science? Are you seeing condescension in their response? Of course, it would make a difference in implication were it a man explaining... and there's also the idea that feminism was groundbreaking in deconstructing social sciences.