Why American Reviewers Disliked Ian McEwan's "Solar": And What That Says About the Cultural Establishment

What American reviewers have missed is that satire and history are coming together for the first time in McEwan's career.
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American reviewers have been generally uncomfortable with Ian McEwan's new novel, Solar. The typical holier-than-thou sentiment was expressed by Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times:

"In his latest novel, Solar, Mr. McEwan's protagonist--a fat, middle-aged Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Michael Beard--joins this gallery of distasteful antiheroes. In the course of the book he will not only cheat on five wives and innumerable girlfriends and send an innocent man to jail, but he will also steal another scientist's plans for stopping global warming and try to turn them into a big, moneymaking machine. This self-deluding scientist will come to embody just about everything that has brought about the climate-change crisis in the first place: greed, heedlessness and a willful refusal to think about consequences or the future."

American reviewers go on to credit McEwan for his humor in Solar, some holding that it is his funniest book yet, but compared to his other books like Atonement and Saturday, beloved of reviewers, they don't quite know what to do with Solar. Kakutani again:

"The last two thirds of this novel, however, are oddly static, as Mr. McEwan repetitiously harps on Beard's gluttonous habits and growing waistline, his sexual promiscuity and his opportunistic efforts to cash in on global warming. As for the book's final scenes, in which all of Beard's earlier lies, betrayals and schemes come sliding down together in a gigantic avalanche, they feel oddly perfunctory and rushed: an unsatisfying ending to what is ultimately one of the immensely talented Mr. McEwan's decidedly lesser efforts."

The plot generally dissatisfied critics--at the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, for example. Ron Charles of the Washington Post had this to say:

"Solar remains focused myopically on Beard, the self-pitying snob who grows more corpulent while all the other characters remain thin and faint. What's worse, the plot seems allergic to itself, constantly arresting its own progress with not terribly pertinent flashbacks or abrupt jumps forward. Beard's trip to the Arctic, for instance, is intermittently funny but seems included only because McEwan took such a trip himself in 2005. The novel's ridiculous conclusion in 2009, when Beard's legal, scientific and romantic crimes collide, produces very little heat. I was left wondering if Solar would have worked better as a collection of sharp short stories--the treatment given by Updike to his own Nobel-winning narcissist, Henry Bech."

Geoff Nicholson in the San Francisco Chronicle also seems to miss the point:

"Some of McEwan's jokes strike me as distinctly tired. Beard gets on a train and relives the urban myth in which the protagonist eats food belonging to a stranger, believing it to be his own. The fact that somebody in the novel points out that he's relived an urban myth doesn't really help. Elsewhere, the 'cute meet' between Beard and one of his wives is a straightforward repeat of a Robert Mankoff cartoon: 'No, Thursday's out. How about never--is never good for you?' This isn't acknowledged at all, and surely the humblest scribe in a comedy-writing workshop wouldn't be allowed to get away with it. For that matter the basic plot of trying to make a fortune by passing off somebody else's work as your own didn't strike me as brilliantly original either.... The book isn't a dud, but by McEwan's high standards it does seem a bit of a misfire. Satirists always have to be moralists at some level, but the moral dilemmas that occur in Solar never seem quite real or urgent enough."

The always-reliable Adam Kirsch comes through in Slate: "In a novel full of grim jokes, the grimmest is the possibility that if the planet is to stand a chance of being saved, its fate may lie in the hands of a man like Michael Beard."

So the problems, supposedly, are these: the protagonist is unsympathetic (this is always a problem for American reviewers, even if readers tend to fall for the unsavory and uncouth); McEwan doesn't give us a classic narrative structure as in Atonement and Saturday (almost a Shakespearean unfoldment), instead proceeding by fits and starts; we don't quite know where McEwan himself stands on global warming (is he totally locked into the current establishment consensus, or is he at times mocking the conventional wisdom about the coming catastrophe?); and we don't have a sense of formal completion, we feel as if we've somehow been strung along but not quite delivered the whole prize--this would be in sharp contrast to the pure closure of Amsterdam, Atonement, and Saturday.

These supposed critical deficiencies are all artificial problems, creations of unsympathetic reviewers' minds. They have little to do with McEwan's actual intentions, the effect he wants to deliver in Solar. Some acknowledge that this is the first great novel about global warming; but this is like saying that E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime was the first great novel about--ragtime. Nearly universally, American reviewers failed to meet the challenge posed by McEwan--their cultural blinders forced them to equivocate, hoping for McEwan to return very soon to his usual standards (meaning Atonement and Saturday) so they can continue to pigeonhole him as they have in the past. The book, indeed, is not perfect, but if one is to criticize it for certain flaws, those must proceed from acceptance of McEwan's intentions, only after understanding what he was after. The reviewers' criticism says a lot about the failure of our cultural establishment to acknowledge any interesting creative departure in what they are insistent on calling the moribund form of the novel--despite all evidence to the contrary.

So let's try to see what the reviewers missed. First of all, this is not necessarily a novel about global warming per se; it's not about whether or not global warming is a confirmed scientific catastrophe, or whether the case for it is exaggerated or even nonexistent; McEwan presents both sides of the argument, and if the early part of the book shows the protagonist's profound skepticism toward global warming, the latter part of the book shows him equally rigorously convinced of its truth. The book is actually about truth versus lies in all endeavors lending themselves to authoritative pronouncements, and there has been no greater recent authority in Western civilization than the church of the scientists. They often leave us feeling bamboozled, with their jargon and inaccessibility, their utter disdain for us non-scientific mortals who can't tell Schrodinger's equation from Schroedinger's cat. The assault McEwan is mounting on all forms of authority based on exclusivist expertise makes it an important book, something Paul Goodman or Ivan Ilich would have loved in the sixties. It is a very countercultural book, and shows McEwan at his most instinctual, most playful, perhaps his joyful silliest yet. It doesn't quite accord with the image of the moralizer we've known from Atonement and Saturday, but for precisely this reason it is a better book than its three immediate predecessors, which includes the short interludish novel, On Chesil Beach (2007).

McEwan is a very moral author, and the difficulty tends to be when he crosses over into moralizing. He is very close in metaphysics to Thomas Hardy, for whom too the past always rears its head at the ugliest of times to take its inevitable revenge, and in whose stark, pessimistic, hegemonic moral universe actions always have consequences. For McEwan, there always seems to be a crucial moment of choice, a turning point, a decision to go one way or another, and everything follows from that. It is true that there is something of that in Solar as well--the moment when Nobel Prize-winning scientist Michael Beard refuses to come clean about the accident that has killed his wife's lover, Tom Aldous, in his own home, and which he complies in blaming on Ronald Tarpin, his wife's other lover--but for the first time McEwan seems to be standing at odds toward his primary narrative motivator, this moment of crucial choice. In the end, the choice comes back to haunt Beard, but the effect is totally comic, very unlike the high seriousness of Atonement and Saturday.

Similarly, McEwan has learned to diffuse and interpenetrate character flaws to an almost universal level--it is difficult to think of a single character in Solar who is nice, who lacks a crucial flaw--and that is just wonderful! In his earlier books, McEwan had a tendency to sharply set aside rogues from do-gooders, the cruel ignoramuses from the liberal humanitarians, when in fact such distinctions rarely hold. Evil is pervasive, as is good, and often difficult to tell apart in the same person, the same act, the same event.

At last, McEwan seems to have understood this, and in this sense Solar may well be his most mature book yet. To most American reviewers it looks like misanthropy or misogyny, but to me it looks like McEwan has finally taken a leap into the dark unknown where everything good--everything we thought was good--is up for reevaluation. It is a Nietzschean novel, in how it transposes values, how it cuts the ground from under our scholastic certainties, and points to the abyss before us. It has very little, again, to do with the veracity of global warming; that's almost beside the point. It's a convenient hook, since we must all talk about global warming these days, whether or not we understand the science, but it's little more than a hook. McEwan is not invested one way or the other in global warming (for the purposes of the narrative), and to judge the book according to that criterion is shortsighted indeed.

Michael Beard, McEwan's opportunist protagonist, is loathsome, again and again reviewers point out, with their noses turned up. Why? Because he's married five times, because he steals his young colleague Tom Aldous's ideas about a revolutionary new method of photosynthesis (basically, creating energy from nothing, or next to nothing--creating it from the sun) and presenting it as his own contribution to saving the world, because he frames a man for murder when he should have taken responsibility, because he embodies narcissism and self-loathing, because he never wants to marry again, and because he contains in himself every classic sin, from gluttony to sloth, and is not the least repentant about it. On those criteria, we should hate Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, and we might as well dismiss many of the greatest characters in Western literature. Which picture is truer to humanity, Michael Beard, or any of the earnest, grieving, morally over-conscious characters that populate current American fiction?

American critics tend to dislike the typical British underachiever, beset by problems of his own making, familiar from Evelyn Waugh's blundering heroes to Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, in favor of the wholesome American hero, or at least heroes who try to be wholesome. But consider this from the other side of the divide. To the hapless characters of Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge, A. S. Byatt, and now McEwan, Americans are moralists on steroids, absolutely determined to do the right thing, even if it destroys the earth. That's how it looks like to the rest of the world, with our many missions to save the planet, when we're not busy saving, with the help of quack philosophies and quack sciences, our own selves first. This earnestness too easily leads to undue respect for authority, and this strong linkage between desire and authority is what McEwan is determined to break at every turn in Solar.

It is not simply that McEwan has written a funny book, as reviewers magnanimously suggest. McEwan is looking at the question of what we laugh at, because the answer to it suggests some of our deepest insecurities--it represents the places we can't go to in full consciousness, because it would devastate us. So we laugh at the old and the fat and the studious, and we refuse to accept the reality of mortality with every stratagem at our disposal. We might say that all of American civilization today, from its outermost thrusts into Central Asian empire-building to its rituals of politics as spectacle, is geared to one purpose only, and that is the denial of mortality. Such vast tentacles, resting on such a frail proposition! To question the authority of experts is actually to dig deep under the shaky foundation, where we find science and superstition happily coincide. Again and again Solar ventures into this malignant alliance, which we dare not acknowledge on its stark terms. One needs a ruthlessly self-obsessed (to the point of being self-sacrificial) character like Michael Beard to explore this dangerous territory.

The disjunctiveness of the book--McEwan doesn't necessarily follow up any particular train of thought in subsequent sections--only serves to alienate us, in a Brechtian sense, from the breathtaking sources of denial at our disposal. McEwan is beginning to take a dangerous view of the potential of narrative to disrupt comfortable thinking; the aesthetic aim of Solar is to make us think of ourselves less as individuals (the basis of the realist novel from its beginnings in Defoe and Fielding) than as manipulated mannequins, subservient to our drives and impulses, but very free in a sense precisely because of the biological thrust. Where naturalism failed a hundred years ago was not on its philosophical grounds, but because at the time science was just beginning to come to its point of complete ascendance in Western civilization. In the early twenty-first century, science, like all institutions of authority, stands in a shambles. This is a great opportunity for a novelist to use it as a means of exploring all forms of realism, and McEwan takes full advantage of what's been handed to him on the platter, in the insane convolutions of the global warming debate over the last decade.

Indeed, the book does follow a three-act pattern, almost exaggeratedly so, but reviewers, trained to look for obvious signals in a character's maturity (a character must mature, become wiser and saner, for an American critic to give it credence), overlook McEwan's signposts. The novel takes place in three eras, 2000, 2005, and 2009; in other words, just before the Bush years, right in the middle of them, and just after their conclusion. These are distinct political eras, representing entirely different psychologies. If a reviewer looks for individual development along traditional patterns--the legacy of the realist novel--he'll miss what's most important about this tripartite structure, namely that the individual has been under attack, from debased forms of authority, all through this horrifying first decade of the twenty-first century. It's a tremendous challenge to the realist novel, and at the same time, one of its greatest opportunities ever--this dislocation into simulacra and statistics, a phantasmagoric world of global warming PowerPoints and Big Brother reality shows.

In 2000, we were spoiled and awaiting the messiah--or the Y2K apocalypse. Accordingly, Beard, like all the rest of us at the time, is disoriented, given to indulging in the trivial, taking his rights and privileges for granted (even though he's getting a little worried about his health). He has the luxury to think about many women, to take it easy at his figurehead posting at the National Center for Renewable Energy, and to pass off a death as a murder by someone entirely innocent of it. 2000 represented a certain kind of corruption which corroded far deeper than we gave it credit for at the time. It really has very little to do with Beard. His laurels have come too early and too easily, in reward for the Great Conflation, the equation that has taken Einstein one step further. In this section Beard makes a desultory trip to the Arctic Circle, to see first-hand what global warming is all about. He's an observer to his own demeaned status all throughout this opening act.

In 2005, things have deteriorated for all of us, as they have for Beard, fatter and less healthier now, but at least in possession of a mission to save his soul. Having taken possession of Tom Aldous's revolutionary photosynthesis idea, Beard now has to take care of certain personal matters, distance himself from commitment to his current girlfriend Melissa--a definite comedown in intellectual terms from his girlfriend in act one, Patrice--and present himself as a global warming expert, a la Al Gore. In this section, McEwan chooses to place two brilliant set pieces, one parodying Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University at precisely that time, for his indiscreet comments on women in the sciences ("It might have to be accepted one day that a ceiling had been reached"), and one parodying Al Gore at his sanctimonious worst (or best, depending on how you feel about him), complete with the announcement that "the planet is sick" to a group of potential venture capitalists he must sway to the cause. As for his Summers-like faux pas, he soon recovers from the brewing scandal; other more infectious scandals displace him from his moment of ignominy; and the Gore impersonation sits just a little wrong with a person as undisciplined and instinctual as Beard.

At the beginning of this act, Beard undergoes his own experience with the Unwitting Thief, an urban legend that is often recounted in different versions--basically, someone eating a stranger's food believing it his own. Reviewers are mystified and dismissive of McEwan harping so much on Beard's obsession with the event; some have gone so far as to suggest that it may be a reaction to the plagiarism charges McEwan had to face, in connection with his borrowing from someone else's book for certain descriptions in Atonement.

In fact, the incident is a big deal because it connects with the whole idea of authority, how much of it is real, how much of it is stolen, and how can we tell the difference? When science is big and industrialized--as are all creative vocations these days--then what is the value of individual creation? Can we really speak of individual contribution as such? We in the sciences and arts are constantly stealing, often thinking ourselves the victims, even as we're doing it. These three events together, the Unwitting Thief, the Summers parody, and the Gore parody, point to a peculiar vacuum of confidence in the middle years of the last decade--they also happen to be the time McEwan wrote Saturday, and it is not too much to claim that the fatal flaw in that book was a certain pompousness toward Western righteousness. Perhaps McEwan wants to put that behind him.

In any event, act three, in 2009, takes us to the denouement the crisis of authority foretold as early as 2000. The economy has collapsed, the energy crisis is upon us, and Beard is on a mission to Lordsburg, New Mexico, to throw the switch on the solar panels utilizing the new form of photosynthesis which will save the world from its energy crisis. Beard may be a self-convinced messiah, but there is no shortage of the messianic disorder among the intellectual elite, and indeed, a couple of years ago we were delivered of our desire in large measure. His physical condition--indicating our collective state--has deteriorated considerably, so that he's confronting sixty-five pounds of extra weight, along with malignant melanoma.

Nearly every American reviewer has despised the ending of Solar, and yet, if we take the character on his own terms (and therefore the debased culture of false scientific authority), then the ending is all but perfect. There is not going to be any deliverance from the global warming crisis (or any other crisis, real or imagined) through the efforts of any individual or group. The crises, in fact, are fully programmed to go on and on, until a different set of crises replaces present preoccupations. Therefore, Beard in his missionary, messianic, visionary manifestation, in act three, is something that should really give us pause. His last phase is the natural outcome of the ongoing crisis of authority--not some hurried ending patched up because McEwan ran out of time or energy, as shortsighted critics would have us believe. He wants to deliver nothing less than a death blow to the interlocking systems of authority.

It is remarkable that on this whole matter of narrative structure, and how it ties in to recent politics, one doesn't find any American reviewer having anything useful to say. They're too focused on Beard's putatively loathsome character--whether or not he develops according to their politically correct wishes, whether or not he gives global warming its due, whether or not we should hate him for his attitude toward women and children and the less educated--and don't seem to understand that they have a different book on their hands than one ostensibly about the individual travails of Michael Beard.

Beard is experimental and incomplete and unfashionable; he sticks out like a sore thumb in a world of cool people using cool gadgets. He is driven by social desperation to latch on to a popular ideology, which should make us see him as a representative character despite his overt physical and mental ugliness. He has a certain kind of beauty--even if no reviewer will admit to it!--that comes from having accepted his own baseness from the very beginning. He is a misanthrope in the sense that the prophets of yore were misanthropic--and that is both good and bad. When, at the end, he reaches out to the child he has fathered with Melissa, he is not reaching out to bliss and fatherhood; in fact, he's reaching out to his own death. If American reviewers don't get that, it's because our present civilizational crisis is predicated on absolute trust of experts--including experts masquerading as wholesome messiahs--and because that's the antithesis of the anti-Hegelian idea McEwan wants to get across.

American critics want McEwan to return safely to his more Victorian phase of morality in Atonement and Saturday, rather than where he has always felt closer at home, in the Angry Young Man phenomenon of the 1950s. Discomfort with McEwan's "depraved" morality tends to go with similar feelings toward the writer closest to him in spirit, Martin Amis--despite both writers' intense moral censure of contemporary capitalist society. Solar is not a return to the "repugnant" characters of McEwan's earliest books, littered with gore--First Love, Last Rites (1975), In Between the Sheets (1978), The Cement Garden (1978), The Comfort of Strangers (1981), The Child in Time (1987), The Innocent (1990), and Black Dogs (1992); rather, McEwan seems to be signaling his impatience with the Jonathan Franzen-style social documentary novel, almost a Victorian backslide, represented by Atonement and Saturday. On Chesil Beach, an abbreviated, almost distraught look at the incongruity of Victorian morality in the modern age, can be interpreted as the first manifest sign of his dissatisfaction with the all-too-convenient politics of Atonement and Saturday. Solar is light and fluid and almost airy at times, unlike the claustrophobia of his earliest novels, even if it represents a darker view of humanity than his books of the last decade.

At stake in this critique of the American cultural establishment is this crucial question: What is morality in fiction? How are we to judge it, and how should we gauge the gap between the writer's intentions and his accomplishment? The analysis cannot even get started if the critic is beholden to some version of morality absolutely at odds with the writer's. Thus the critic tends to miss the whole point of the book, and blames the writer for not having lived up to the critic's sense of morality. Kakutani, Kirsch, Charles, and Nicholson (a British novelist doing his best American impression) et al. bring a severe Puritanical morality to judging McEwan according to the immutable standards he supposedly established in Atonement and Saturday. These critics' narrow view of what constitutes serious moral fiction excludes huge realms of style and form and structure, and makes them unable to read the particular variant on narrative ethics or moral fiction McEwan is enacting in Solar.

What American reviewers have missed is that satire and history are coming together for the first time in McEwan's career. With Solar, he seems to be moving beyond his previous obsession with sadomasochism (Beard's severed penis early on, during the Arctic exploration, signals McEwan's metafictional distance from the dominance of sexual perversity in his early books). More importantly, McEwan may be exiting the unfortunate funk induced by 9/11, reflected particularly in Saturday. The political concerns first manifested in The Child in Time (1987), after the series of early hermetic novels, find more lavish expression in Solar. Solar is not some secondary, unfortunate departure from McEwan's laudable focus in his recent books; it is a major accomplishment worthy of a more ingenious critical interpretation than American readers have been offered.

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