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17 may 2010

I associate Ian McEwan with postmodern twists, asymmetries, and doublings, bound up with irrecoverable moments of shame and guilt. There's the hyper-espionage plot of The Innocent, the labyrinthine quasi-Venice of The Comfort of Strangers, the intricate contraption of Amsterdam. There's the frantic opening scene of The Child in Time, the fabulation in Atonement that pins a crime on an innocent man, the woeful misunderstandings of On Chesil Beach. This tension between high artifice and humanist tragedy is McEwan's artistic signature, and makes his work one of the richest œuvres in contemporary fiction.

So while I wasn't exactly disappointed in Solar, McEwan's latest novel, I almost didn't recognize him behind its narrative. The signature moment in Solar is very "McEwan," it's true: a man makes an accidental death look like a murder. He frames a rival who deserves to be sent up, but hasn't come close to killing anybody. Except that, for the first time I can remember in McEwan's work, the scene is pure slapstick. McEwan has gone in for monstrous irony before, but rarely for cartoon violence.

One might also note that the compelling issues of alternative energy that give the novel Solar its title are also played for farce in the book, as if the whole raft of serious problems facing the planet were the natural province of knaves and fools. I'm not sure what to make of that – does the novel mean for us to take alternative energy technologies more seriously, or more cynically? Much of the novel is drawn from the genres of academic and corporate satire, but it's not a satire with a great amount of urgency behind it.

Nor is Solar a novel of much intricacy. It has a midlife crisis plot. Though it's fairer to say that protagonist Michael Beard isn't having a crisis so much as perpetuating the crisis that has pervaded his whole adult life. Like Henry Perowne in McEwan's Saturday, he's an eminent middle-aged Englishman who feels his world becoming unmoored at the start of the 21st century. Unlike Henry Perowne, he's an utter cad. But Beard is the sort of cad who is so outrageous in his appetites that most readers, however uncaddish themselves, are likely to be charmed by him and wish him success.

I enjoyed watching Solar go by and wondering what Michael Beard would think of next. But overall, I wasn't terribly impressed by the novel. Hollywood studios used to produce "vehicles" for their stars, movies that were formulaic but displayed the star's image to advantage. Solar is something like that: it's witty, entertaining, and topical, but it doesn't deepen one's experience of humanity. That's a very high standard to hold an author to, but this is after all the author of Atonement; he set his own bar.

Solar is the kind of novel that creates a funny character and dresses him up in topical issues (here, global warming, alternative energy technologies, and evolutionary psychology). It bids to be a novel of ideas, but the ideas are store-bought, as if the author had swotted up stray topics and then arranged them around his protagonist. Michael Beard is a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist turned plagiarist, who makes a splash in the world of green technologies. He might as well be a cabinet minister or manager of a national football team; the vehicle is somewhat arbitrary.

(McEwan makes a lot of the Nobel Prize in Solar, and I couldn't help thinking while reading it that McEwan is overdue for the call from Stockholm himself. Is he playing with the Swedish Academy? Dare they give him a Prize after he's invoked them so blatantly in print?)

I don't mean to disparage Solar, which is well-crafted and wry. But it continues a trend on view in the more serious and absorbing Saturday: dressing up aging-male anxieties in themes from the headlines. My favorite scene in Solar comes when Beard has an experience that emulates an urban legend. I won't say which urban legend, because the device surprised me. Beard recounts the story and is hammered because he seems to have plagiarized from the oral tradition. (Remember that he is a plagiarist in real, that is to say fictional, life.) Beard protests that the story really happened, to be informed that Douglas Adams once claimed that it had happened to him, too. Evidently it's even more complicated: McEwan invented the story for Beard, to be told that Adams had already "plagiarized" it.

It's brilliantly convoluted, but there's too little of that kind of thing in Solar, too much transcription from current events.

McEwan, Ian. Solar. New York: Doubleday, 2010.