SOLAR. By Ian McEwan.

by John Boland

What is it about Ian McEwan that has elevated him to the status of Greatest Contemporary English Novelist?

“He is this country’s unrivalled literary giant,” according to the books critic of the Independent in London. “The supreme novelist of his generation,” the  Sunday Times has called him, while the Guardian deems him “our de facto national novelist.” And the blurb to his new novel, Solar, salutes him as “one of the world’s great writers.”

Behind the extravagance of the praise lurks a kind of defiance, as if sceptical readers might dare to disagree. Is this defensiveness due to a recognition that the timidity of English fiction in the last fifty years has been cruelly exposed by its American equivalent, that Britain has produced no novelists of the scope and range of Saul Bellow, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates or Don de Lillo: novelists of immodest ambitions who have sought to confront and examine the society – indeed, the world – in which they live.

English novelists, by contrast, have mostly seemed unwilling to engage directly with the age they’ve found themselves in, with all its political, social, cultural and sexual upheavals (Irish novelists by and large are similarly culpable), and many of the most talented among them have retreated into fey accounts of middle-class angst, postmodernist doodlings with narrative devices or the comforting safety of history – it’s extraordinary the number of recently acclaimed English novels that are set in a recent or distant past.

And so, in the general absence of English novelists deemed to be “relevant”, Aldershot-born McEwan, who’s now in his 62nd year, has come to be regarded as the man who’s in touch with the Zeitgeist, whatever that might be. His talent, of course, had always been recognised, though such arresting early books as First Love, Last Rites (1975) and The Cement Garden (1978) registered as clever exercises in morbidity and perversity rather than the work of a major writer, and not entirely new in their themes, either – The Cement Garden seemed oddly reminiscent of Julian Gloag’s creepy 1963 novel, Our Mother’s House, which was made into a 1967 Jack Clayton film starring Dirk Bogarde and Pamela Franklin.

But in the 1990s, Enduring Love and Amsterdam solidified his growing reputation as a writer who was moving centre stage and who was addressing the issues of this age of uncertainty – a reputation  boosted by the impressive Atonement (2001) and by Saturday (2005), though the latter’s publication marked a rare breaking of the  admiring critical ranks when, in a famously dissenting piece in the New York Review of Books, John Banville dismantled its pretensions. “A dismayingly bad novel,” he thought of this account of the travails of a London neurosurgeon on the eve of the Iraq war, and indeed its lurch into melodrama in the closing section was farcically implausible.

The general reaction from the British literary establishment to Banville’s review was one of fury, with various mutterings about the reviewer’s motives towards his Booker Prize rival, but it’s hard to quibble with Banville’s strictures about an inflated book which drags in global themes in order to buttress and lend significance to its tale of one man’s middle-class, middle-aged crisis.

On Chesil Beach (2007), dissecting the sexual frustrations and timidities of a couple in the early 1960s,  was a step back, but its minor-key chamber intimacy was touching. However, with Solar the author has returned to the Zeitgeist, and the book has been trumpeted in advance as McEwan’s “climate change” novel, with all the topical significance such a tag suggests.

Actually, it’s not about climate change at all. The book’s anti-hero, scientist Michael Beard, is a middle-aged Nobel laureate who comes belatedly to recognise global warming as a crucial threat to our planet, but though McEwan has spent much time in researching the subject and devotes much space to detailing the fruits of his research, the laboured emphasis on climate change is incidental to – indeed, a distraction from – the book’s appeal, which lies in its portrait of a “short, tubby, ageing” man whose  sexual restlessness and emotional immaturity has seduced him five catastrophic marriages.

These have all occurred by the book’s outset, and though Beard seems an unlikely Lothario, McEwan persuades us of his appeal to the various women who are drawn to him. In fact, though Beard is in  many ways deplorable, there’s something endearing about his vanities and his insecurities and he makes for congenial company.

Amusing company, too. This is the author’s most overtly comic novel and while it never attains the giddy comic heights that you’ll find in David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury – masters of merriment at the expense of vainglorious, articulate careerists – McEwan elicits a lot of fun from Beard’s foolish antics.

There are bravura setpieces at an idiotic Arctic conference for scientists and artists (during which Beard thinks his penis has fallen off during a snowmobile expedition), at a London seminar in which he’s denounced as a “woman-hater and louse” (“Bonking boffin” and “Nobel love rat”) are two of the tabloid headlines) and on a train, in which he mistakenly assumes a yobbish fellow passenger is eating his crisps. And the author gets a lot of comic mileage, too, out of Beard’s confrontations with love rivals – the ghastly death of one of them, occasioned by an unstable bearskin rug, is gruesomely funny, while the reader feels happily complicit when another of them gets banged up in prison for the accident.

So full marks to McEwan for revealing hitherto unsuspected gifts as a funnyman and for sustaining his narrative with lots of quirky developments and asides, but that’s the book’s achievement – as a fine addition to the comic campus novel in the mode of Bradbury and Lodge, with traces of Le Carre, too, in its depiction of Machiavellian forces lurking in the background and intent on undoing Beard’s bid to save the world (and ensure for himself fame and fortune) by means of an artificial photosynthesis project stolen from a colleague.

However, in order to savour these pleasures the reader has to endure far too many pages in which McEwan’s not so lightly worn scientific knowledge is paraded – knowledge that’s ultimately irrelevant to this  amusing tale of the private travails of one fat ageing Englishman and his selfish search for emotional, sexual and professional fulfilment. The critical consensus in Britain will be that the book is about much more than that, but really it isn’t.

Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot to an army family. He spent much of his childhood in East Asia, Germany and North Africa, where his Scottish father was stationed.

* He was among the first graduates of Malcolm Bradbury’s pioneering creative writing course at the University of East Anglia, after which he set out on the hippy trail to Afghanistan, where he found himself dreaming of “a tiny whitewashed room in Norwich where the skies were grey and there weren’t flies and beggars.”

* As a young writer he supplemented his income by contributing pieces to the Radio Times. “They paid extraordinarily well,” he said, “and employed lots of impecunious young writers to provide previews of costume dramas.”

* Belonging to the anti-totalitarian left, he was dismayed at “the daftness of people who thought there was anything good to be said about the Soviet Union.”

* In 1999, his estranged wife Penny Allen kidnapped his 13-year-old son after a court ruling that he get sole custody of both their sons. The kidnapped son was later returned to him. By then he had married journalist Annalena McAfee.

* In 2002, he learned that he had an older brother, David, who had been given up for adoption during World War Two.

* In 2008 he courted controversy in speaking out about the attitude of fundamentalist Islamism towards women and homosexuals and has been supportive of his friend Martin Amis’s forthright comments on fundamentalism.

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