April 9, 2010

LEBANON: Obesity, adultery and global warming

. BEIRUT, Lebanon / The Daily Star Arts & Culture / April 9, 2010 Ian McEwan’s latest novel, ‘Solar,’ lambasts preoccupations of contemporary society Review By Emily Holman Special to The Daily Star BEIRUT: Ian McEwan is known in the literary world for two things: An interest in the macabre verging on the grotesque, and a capacity for empathy that can be awesome, even humbling. “Solar,” his latest novel and first prolonged foray into farce, flings both darts right into the bulls-eye. The grotesque is well represented in both characterization and subject matter, but is tempered by McEwan’s extensive mental excavation of his protagonist, Michael Beard. Along the way, McEwan reveals the good, the bad and certainly the ugly of life today and the people living it. Beard is the winner of a Nobel Prize for his contribution to quantum theory, the “Beard-Einstein conflation.” Having his name attached to a theory has allowed Beard to languish on his laurels. Our first encounter with Beard sees him trapped in a cycle of lectures and appearances. His throwaway suggestion to the National Center for Renewable Energy that they install a wind-turbine has so far caused only trouble, but to turn his back on it would be still more humiliating. His personal life is similarly dissatisfying. Beard is embroiled during the opening of the novel in his eleventh affair during his fifth marriage, itself shortly to end. In fact, over the nine years covered by “Solar,” this fling is the last time we see of a Beard as a creature of passion. His sole reference later to that “dark summer” is to admit contemptuously that he “pined like a dog.” You wonder: Has he ever loved? The question isn’t really whether Beard is capable of love, but if anybody is at all, even of a meaningful friendship. Can empathy exist? Can one human ever really know or trust – and therefore truly like – another? This is McEwan’s subject. Global warming, a major part of the plot, is merely the framework. Beard’s relationships are cast as dishonest, seeped in etiquette and unspoken thoughts. Arriving back from a trip, for instance, he knows that he must adhere to a certain protocol upon being re-united with yet another squeeze, Melissa. In his own mind, Beard is “a monster of insincerity, cradling tenderly on his arm a woman who he thought he might leave one day soon, listening to her with a sensitive expression … when all he wanted was to make love to her without preliminaries, eat the meal she had cooked, drink a bottle of wine and then sleep – without blame, without guilt.” That she is to inform him of her pregnancy makes the episode a discomforting read. Melissa asks him, mid-sex, to assure her of his love and support. While verbally assenting, Beard is already framing an argument for abortion. He also finds himself mentally auditioning a string of fantasy women in order to reach climax. Orgasm seems to be Beard’s Achilles heel. Four years on, Melissa is in England with their daughter but Beard is engaged to be married to Darlene, his new American sweetheart, due to a weak-willed moment in the sack. Beard’s other love is food – as with women, he just cannot say no. Through the nine-year time-period, Beard balloons from sizeable to obese and is still growing. In one instance, having consumed lunch on the plane along with two packets of crisps, Beard gulps down nine salmon sandwiches – not a wise move, considering that he is just about to give a speech. Midway through his presentation Beard feels “an oily nausea at something monstrous and rotten from the sea, stranded on the tidal mud flats of a stagnant estuary, decaying gaseously in his gut and welling up.” Clearly, McEwan’s renowned delight in the disgusting (which has since his earliest work earned him the nickname Ian Macabre) has not faded with time. McEwan captures the essence of the 21st century Western world with its focus on excessive consumption of every type. This is accompanied by a depiction of dissatisfaction and restlessness that more optimistic novelists such as Paulo Coelho might seek to dispel. “Solar” doesn’t offer much reassurance. Instead, McEwan casts humanity as base animals, dominated by desires and instincts. No-one escapes McEwan’s acid pen – even environmental types trying to save the world from global warming are lambasted, in a hilarious account of Beard’s trip to the Arctic. Not the two-dimensional affair that some critics have described, “Solar” is darkly satirical and deeply thought provoking. To dismiss this novel is to miss the horrible realization McEwan might just awaken in your own consciousness. [rc] “Solar” is published by Jonathan Cape. Copyright © 2010, The Daily Star.