Solar power

The modern novelist’s task seems to become more difficult and unenviable with every word written by and about them in their role as author. Ian McEwan is no exception to this trapping of success – a fact demonstrated by his latest book _Solar_. In some sense, his choice of theme suggests that McEwan demands no sympathy in his task, that he thrives off the oxygen of publicity and anticipation.

The ease with which the British author has adapted to his role as a literary mouthpiece seems all the more ironic given the often demanding and awkward fixtures of his plots. Although _Solar_ falls short of the almost unreadable difficulty of his previous novel _On Chesil Beach_, it still goes some way towards demonstrating his willingness to meet with the deviant face of human emotion. Michael Beard, the central protagonist of the book is described as having his ‘best work behind him’, yet this confirmation is still insufficient for an author who demands everything of his characters. In one incident, in which Beard travels unwillingly to the Arctic with a thinly-veiled veneer of self-promotion, the prose stops at nothing to belittle the main player of the novel – recounting how the icy polar winds almost undermined the very essence of his masculinity: ‘But he would tell no one. He would live quietly with his secret’.

Fortunately for Beard and characteristic of McEwan, this downfall is fated to remain psychological rather than actual as the scientist’s rationality prevails (albeit briefly).

It is reassuring that while McEwan often places the reader at the periphery both of decorum and understanding, he does so intentionally and with wider purpose. McEwan’s stock character is a seemingly inexhaustible trope – the ‘hero’ of the text undermined on a largely internal basis but also through factors beyond his control. Henry Perowne in _Saturday_ achieved this function to literary perfection – but a perfection that nonetheless leaves the reader (intentionally) stranded, cast out from bread-and-butter notions of morality. McEwan frees the reader from their own sensibilities and assumptions while effectively leaving the rest up to interpretation. His followers need only know that he does much the same in _Solar_.

Again, it is impossible to confirm or deny the success or failure of the author’s project, but there seems something particularly purposeful in the parallels between global warming and personal turmoil as modelled by Beard. As with Perowne in _Saturday_, who painfully bridges a number of gaps between comparably weighty issues, _Solar_’s main character also reflects global matters in the mirror of his own personal life.

In a slightly conceited but still successful metaphor, a polar bear rug ‘comes alive’ to ‘attack’ Beard’s colleague, Aldous. It is Beard’s own reaction to the incident’s aftermath, however, that shows the extent to which McEwan’s prose branches out into the more general and panoramic: ‘Something impossible had happened and he was willing it away, undoing it, reversing it, simply because it could not be. It was too improbable’. The intricacies of the particular incident appear to pale into the wider task which greets the scientist – the issue of global warming.

Although now paved in cliché and subject to the same media deliberation as any new release of McEwan’s, the author still manages to grasp something innovative in the subject. We see that whatever the gravitas of the issue, our own selfish needs, as with Beard’s own, become inevitably prioritised. But McEwan’s prose refuses, as ever, to moralise: instead it simply presents a deliberation which seems as much open to scrutiny in the author and protagonist’s mind as it surely is in our own. This is integral to McEwan’s ongoing success and to the purpose of his task. His particular brand of literary storytelling diagnoses issues as primary and universal as human emotions, such as in _On Chesil Beach_, as well as the conflict between selfishness and selflessness. It is at this stage that his prose stretches out into broader territories however: once presented, he remains relaxed and at-ease in waiting for the result. In suitably enigmatic terms, the narrator of the text sums up this fate, as ‘Oblivion, the last word in organisation, would be his only consolation’.

Ian McEwan appears at the Warwick Arts Centre this Thursday, on the 29th April at 7.30pm, to read from _Solar_.

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