Don’t ask me how it happened, but last week I bought two novels and – John Irving’s still unfinished, mea culpa – gulped one down right away, I who was confessing here the other day I haven’t read English novels in years.
That novel is Ian McEwan’s latest, Solar: a wonderful romp through the English language at its finest – McEwan writes as succulently well as John Updike did – for a disjointed novel of ideas and satire on the hottest topic of the times, global warming, whose whimsical plot turns find their coherence in the degeneration of its antihero, one of the most despicable I’ve ever come across in modern fiction, a larger-than-life character in the fashion of Henderson the Rain King or Sabbath or Martin Amis’s fictional monsters, but a thousand times more toxic: Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard who, from 2000 to 2005 to 2009, will go from fat to obese to porcine, from anhedonia to carcinoma, from wives and flings to flings and wife-with-child, from England to the North Pole to New Mexico, from has-been status to fraudulent saviour of mankind, while remaining a monster of overconsumption, greed and hypocrisy, a philanderer, a liar and a thief, self-centered and callous beyond belief: in other words, as a negative replica to Saturday’s brilliant neurosurgeon Henry Perowne; another, here black-on-white embodiment of the times we live in, allowing our author to wax satiric on a huge spectrum of phobias: the Blair government, George W, opportunistic second-rate scientists and academics, modern art circles, feminist viragoes, environmentalists, the mass media – the whole caboodle. Everything here is solidly grounded in scientific research regurgitated in perfectly pitched lectures or sallies that will either worry, bamboozle or bore you; and everything here is highly improbable, starting with being crowned with a Nobel prize in your early thirties; or with the same, fiftyish man in his adipose state being able to attract so many broads; or getting away with disguising as murder an accidental death; or not having his pecker actually frozen off when he pees in –26oC open country; and so on.
Mind you, it’s fun, with satire stretching to farce to gallows humour (“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. … Toby, listen. We’re facing a catastrophe. Relax.”). It’s a measure of the author’s storytelling genius that by the end, as dramatic tension builds up to fever pitch, I found myself rooting for such a loathsome character and hoping his artificial photosynthesis experiment would indeed succeed and save the world.
But all in all this novel is too much of an assembly of parts, a collection of stories, too much predicated on dichotomy and paradox, and – like Saturday – too preoccupied with petty contemporary quarrels beyond real planetary concerns to ever rank among the classics or even alongside McEwan’s best, Atonement and Chesil Beach.
The other book I bought is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Getting into this latest novel last night I found myself thrown back to Irving’s prose level – and might as well get on with the last hundred-odd pages of The Cider House Rules, though I must say on reflection I don’t quite like them, apples.