The New York Review of Books
The Fat Man's Vengeance
by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 287 pp., $26.95
"He had it coming," we read on the second page of Ian McEwan's new novel. This is the character's line of thought, a self-accusation, not an authorial verdict, and he returns to it eagerly a little later. "Yes, yes, he had been a lying womanizer, he had had it coming." This is the least of what he has been, and at the end of the novel he still has it coming, it's almost upon him, in the shape of two women about to tear him apart, a dangerous melanoma on his wrist, and what promises to be a series of lawsuits that will last his lifetime.
But this is only the most recent in a line of comeuppances--our man earns comeuppance the way other people earn heaven--and it hasn't quite come yet. It's not entirely impossible that he will survive what looks like a terminal disaster. As we are told just before the end, "Everything was terrible, but he was not feeling so bad." Is this denial? It sounds like it but it's really something quite different, a special, ultimately comic gift: the ability to turn one's vices into comforts. Give this man just the thought of a stiff drink or a large meal or an hour in bed with a willing woman, and his mood lifts. Even as he says to himself that he has it coming, he has started on the road to easy absolution. "What was he to do, beyond taking his punishment? To which god was he supposed to offer his apologies?" He's no worse than the next man. In fact, he is the next man, or so he says:
He thought he was an average type, no crueler, no better or worse than most. If he was sometimes greedy, selfish, calculating, mendacious, when to be otherwise would embarrass him, then so was everyone else. Human imperfection was a large subject.
Very large. In fact, he is considerably understating the scope of his adventures in immorality, which are much grander and more baroque than this humble bit of cynicism suggests, and which are the chief reason for our pleasure in reading about him.
Our man is Michael Beard, fifty-three years old when we first meet him, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist now resting on his laurels, or rather getting his laurels to work for him in the procurement of sinecures and means of passing the time. He has a university post that requires no work, he speaks on the radio, sits on commissions, awards prizes, picks up honorary degrees, gives after-dinner speeches, and makes "eulogies for retiring or about-to-be-cremated colleagues." We see him at three moments of his increasingly disordered life--in 2000, 2005, and 2009--and we might, given Beard's addiction to booze, food, sex, cheating, and intricate malevolence, think of the whole novel as a shaggy hog story, an adventure that can't end because it never began. Beard and his life are always in a messy version of medias res, and his Nobel Prize was distinctly foretold, perhaps, when he "came top" in a village baby competition, rounder and more spoiled than any other child in the neighborhood. "In those harsh postwar years," the narrator explains in his cautious and mildly caustic historical mode,
ideals of infant beauty resided chiefly in fat, in Churchillian multiple chins, in dreams of an end to rationing and of the reign of plenty to come. Babies were exhibited and judged like prize pumpkins, and in 1947 four-month-old Michael, bloated and jolly, swept all before him.
At the end of the novel, Beard, now sixty-two, has his multiple chins again--the wonder is only that, given the amount of unhealthy food he puts away, he has any chins at all. When we read, on an early page, that he is defeated by a pile of chocolate cookies and "suddenly unable to face the final biscuit," we know he is really worried or annoyed.
At the heart of the book is a masterly comic set piece involving the man sitting across from him on a train that I won't describe in detail because it has a surprise and suspense that readers should arrive at on their own; but I will say that it centers on a packet of what the English call crisps, and that it opens with this impeccably unwholesome ode to what's bad for us:
It was a plastic foil bag of finely sliced potatoes boiled in oil and dusted in salt, industrialized powdered foodstuffs, preservatives, enhancers, hydrolizing and raising agents, acidity regulators, and coloring. Salt- and vinegar-flavored crisps. He was still stuffed from his lunch, but this particular chemical feast could not be found in Paris, Berlin, or Tokyo, and he longed for it now....
Just before what may or may not be his last hurrah he has, as a starter for his meal, "orange-colored cheese dipped in batter, rolled in breadcrumbs and salt, and deep-fried, with a creamy dip of pale green. Perfection," he thinks, "and in such quantity." And when the promise of nemesis comes in the shape of the two women, his London mistress and his New Mexico mistress both looking "stormy, furious, and rumpled," he is about to dig into
four wedges of skinless chicken breast interleaved with three minute steaks, the whole wrapped in bacon, with a honey and cheese topping, and served with twice-roasted jacket potatoes already impregnated with butter and cream cheese.
Earlier Beard eats nine salmon sandwiches in a hurry, feels queasy throughout the speech he is giving, and throws up as soon as he has said his last word and the modest applause begins.
We can't miss the relish in the writing here, the pileup of horrible detail; but it's worth pausing over the relish's double focus: Beard is wallowing in his own gluttony and recklessness, while McEwan's narrator is writing with the mesmerized horror of a much thinner person. This sort of disjunction is essential to the novel's irony, allows us our complex laughter, and means that McEwan, or his narrator, can treat Beard without sympathy and without condemnation. Listen to the calm, mock-Balzacian beginning:
He belonged to that class of men--vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever--who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so.
The writer is not going to account for the unaccountable, just quietly parade it. This tone sends us back to McEwan's early work--there was plenty of coolness in "Atonement" (2001), "Saturday" (2005), and "On Chesil Beach" (2007), but a sort of sympathy was always in the offing for people seen as innocent torturers of each other. Yet the effect in "Solar" is more elusive than in "The Comfort of Strangers" (1981), say, or "The Cement Garden" (1978): not shock but a sort of queasy familiarity, as if nastiness and normality had gradually found themselves on friendly terms. The tone doesn't endorse Beard's sloppy alibi--he isn't "the average type," fortunately--but it makes us worry about a possible slippage in that direction.
There are moments in "Solar" when the pace slows almost to a standstill. The pages of explanatory talk about climate change and Beard's involvement in a clean energy project are meant to be a little boring, but may well go too far in this direction; and when Beard lets a large audience know his views on the role of sexual difference in science ("There might always be more men than women who wanted to work in physics"), resulting in his being pilloried by the press, he is on the verge of being an embarrassingly appealing character, the old chauvinist who didn't mean any harm and wasn't entirely wrong--even when he was entirely wrong. Of course it's fun to think of this rascal as engaged in trying to save the earth--a man who hates the very word "planet" gets caught up in doing good because he thinks it will do him good--but the irony is rather broad, and tends to soften our view of Beard. There's none of this mushy feeling in McEwan's portrayal of the same figure on a visit to the Arctic, where he forgets to go to the bathroom before putting on his protective suit, goggles, and gloves, and now risks a fate worse than death by trying to pee in the icy open air.
But generally, even the slowness works in the novel's favor. There is a patient precision in the language that reminds us of McEwan's comments in 2001 on his mother's tongue, which is also his own mother tongue, namely a careful, class-colored wariness about the tones and registers and cadences of the English language as it was used in the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century. "She never owned the language she spoke," McEwan says of his mother, and he claims not quite to own his prose. He was happy, he says, when people praised the "hard surface" of his early writing; "that was something I could hide behind."
He means also to say, I take it, that a certain kind of grace and ease of language will never be his mark; but the effect of the prose of "Solar" is not of difficulty or lack of ownership but of scrupulous consideration, a refusal of entitlement. Every word seems to have been picked up and looked at as if it were an attractive foreigner, or about to be used by a foreigner, available for activities the natives have no time for. Here are "engines of self-persuasion," "a warm, self-forgiving sense of failure," "a small and flighty black Peugeot of wanton acceleration," and "a great rim of ginger grime"--this last phrase is a description of a city seen from the air, or in the novel's words from a plane that "still lumbered oafishly clockwise in a stack above South London." Here also are extended similes of a more elaborate and Nabokovian brand:
Beard's past was often a mess, resembling a ripe, odorous cheese oozing into or over his present, but this particular confection had congealed into the appearance of something manageably firm, more Parmesan than Époisses.
This sentence starts out among Beard's own appetites but we are laughing in the end at the brilliant mockery of the very idea of comparison, the instance of style taken to the fussy limit or beyond. The joke is on Beard, of course, but McEwan is also parodying, with great success, his own precisions.
This novel is intimately aware of the difficulty not only of owning the language one speaks but even of possessing the experience one thinks one has--of knowing when one's experience is not a bad copy of someone else's. The episode with the crisps, hilarious and new to me, is later described in the novel as a version of a well-known urban legend, with an avatar in Douglas Adams, the famous author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Even Beard's mistress recognizes it when she hears it. Beard insists on the authenticity of the event--"now and then it actually happens, that people's stories are real"--but his interlocutor, a "lecturer in urban studies and folklore," is undeterred. That's part of the story too, he says. "By claiming it as personal experience, people localize and authenticate the story...and insulate it from the archetype." Beard manages a fine bit of bluster: "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but my experience belongs to me, not the collective bloody unconscious." But it is just bluster. Beard may not be the average type (or an archetype), but he is not unique either. And of course for a character in a novel--in a novel that at this moment is recalling another novel--to say his experience belongs to him is to evoke a dizzying array of questions.
Every reader of a novel is borrowing, if not stealing, someone else's experience; and behind the pleasure of that borrowing there will hover, if we let it, a worry not so much about the fictionality of our lives as of their entrapment in déjà vu. Beard himself takes a great deal of satisfaction from the thought that his fifth wife Patrice has, after their divorce, married a man who much resembles him. "As if marriages were a series of corrected drafts." A desolate proposition if you are one of the corrections, or if the process of correction is infinite.
We can take this thought further, since what really governs the novel is not the careful detail of its events but the discreet and witty management of them, the unlikely order behind the realistic mess, the Parmesan in the Époisses. "Solar" is full of accidents on the level of plot that are crafty strokes of intention on the level of plotting. For example, when Beard's first wife tells him she is leaving him to join "a commune forming in the sodden hills of mid-Wales," he is so happy he weeps. Seeing the trace of his tears his wife says, "I will not, repeat not, be emotionally manipulated by you into staying."
Soddenness is a recurring motif. When Beard goes to confront Patrice's lover, the man has just had a shower and is wearing only a towel. When he discovers that she has yet another lover, this figure has dripping hair and has left a trail of water all the way from the bathroom. Beard as a scientist wonders quite often about things like chance and design, and on this occasion asks himself, "What were the odds against his meeting both of Patrice's lovers in a sodden state? Extremely long." We could ask a different question. What are the odds against coming across such a nifty, ludicrous connection in a well-made comic novel? Shortish, surely.
We could also ask, shifting to a different register of the book, what the odds are in favor of the question of innocence appearing in a significant fashion in an Ian McEwan work. Excellent--although the turn here is new and interesting. Beard is guilty of all kinds of things without making any kind of effort, but in the most violent and difficult moment of his life, he destroys his genuine innocence, to replace it with a complicated guilt. "He had...behaved like a murderer covering his tracks while obliterating the truth that could have saved him. He was now in deep, the sole witness of his own innocence." What has happened?
Patrice's second sodden lover is Tom Aldous, a postdoctoral student who works at the research center where Beard presides as a sort of éminence blanche, a fund-raising front man. Rushing toward Beard to plead for his job, Aldous slips on a polar bear rug--we are somewhere between Chaplin and Hitchcock here--cracks his head on a glass table, and dies. Beard picks up the phone to call an emergency service, then thinks better of it. He doesn't like the look of things, the appearance of guilt on his part, and almost without reflection develops a cunning defense. Digging into a bag belonging to Patrice's first lover, Rodney Tarpin, he finds a hammer and a few other potentially compromising objects. He smears Aldous's blood on the hammer, and generally organizes the scene so it will appear that Tarpin has killed Aldous, the rivals canceling each other out. Tarpin duly goes to jail, and Beard gets to play the role of innocent outraged husband.
The ingenuity and trickery of the thing are essential ingredients--this, McEwan is suggesting, is what a clever man does when he panics and doesn't know how much he is panicking--but the larger pattern suggests a seedy North London revenge tragedy. Beard himself has had eleven affairs in the four years he has been married to Patrice, but he can't bear the thought of another man sleeping with her--he has indeed come as close to passionate love as he will ever get in his feelings for his provocatively faithless wife. And we understand, as we pay close attention to this seemingly rather slow or circular book, that almost all of Beard's consequential acts, as distinct from his comic or habitual reactions and impulses, stem from a dedication to vengeance, the result of mortally wounded pride, which is perhaps stricter and fiercer than he himself ever imagines.
Having sent Tarpin to prison, Beard steals Aldous's research, and moves on from the failing wind turbine he was associated with to solar energy, and the extraction of power from water. He takes out seventeen patents based on Aldous's work--well, to be fair, on his work on Aldous's work--and gets involved in an enterprise costing millions of dollars and notionally worth many millions more. Near the close of the book he is about to inaugurate an energy system based on solar panels that will provide electricity to a New Mexico town for a whole year. And at the exact close of the book, that system is in ruins, for reasons intimately connected to the same unforgotten, unending need for revenge.
Tarpin is released from prison through what the novel's narrator calls "one of the quaint decencies of English law"--"that well-behaved murderers served only half their terms"--and comes to the American Southwest looking for Beard. But he doesn't know that Beard framed him, or that Aldous died by accident. He thinks Patrice killed him, and nobly took the rap for her. He doesn't even wish Beard any harm; he just wants to talk to someone from the world of his old drama, and he wants a job. Beard almost finds him one, momentarily thinking Tarpin is "a fantasizing fool who possibly deserved a break." But then we learn that before this thought is even complete "Beard's mood had dipped at the memory of those dark days"--the days when Patrice was seeing Tarpin. "Wasn't eight years enough? Wasn't his punishment complete? It probably never would be, Beard thought."
He dismisses Tarpin in lordly fashion. We may note that when Beard asks if Tarpin's punishment is enough, the question is not rhetorical, as it was when he asked the same question about his own. There is an aphorism lurking here: we ourselves can only be punished too much, others can never be punished enough. Or as the narrator puts it in a smart aphorism of his own about Beard: "Like many clever men who prize objectivity, he was a solipsist at heart."
That dip of Beard's mood seems so contingent, so much a matter of local chance. Without it Tarpin would presumably not have joined forces with the lawyer pursuing Beard and obligingly smashed the solar panels based on Beard's and Aldous's research--"builder's work," as Beard sardonically thinks--thereby destroying all possibility of the magnificent event projected for tomorrow. But of course there is no contingency in novels, only writing and plot, and the point of this twist of events, I think, has less to do with punishment of any kind, of the self or of others, than with what the narrator calls the "monothematic" nature of pain and humiliation. You can get out of them but you can't get past them. It's déjà vu all over again.
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