28 June, 2010Issue 12.5FictionLiterature

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Is This The End?

Jon Day

foerIan McEwan
Jonathan Cape Ltd 2010
304 Pages
ISBN 978-0224090490

In 2005, Ian McEwan and 19 other north London luminaries including Anthony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, and Siobhan Davies were invited on the first Cape Farewell expedition to Spitzbergen. As part of a project formulated by the photographer David Buckland, they spent a few days on a boat frozen in the arctic ice, experiencing the effects of climate change first-hand in order to generate a cultural response to the problem. McEwan’s 12th novel, Solar, is one such response. It is one unlikely to be wholeheartedly endorsed by Buckland; Solar is damning in its assessment of the degree to which the arts can ever hope to influence environmental policy. Unfortunately, McEwan’s heavy-handed attempt at satirising the issue is equally ineffectual.

Split into three parts spanning the first decade of the 21st century, Solar orbits around the expansive Michael Beard, the latest and least sympathetic in a long line of self-regarding scientists that populate McEwan’s novels. He is a “bald, short, fat and clever” theoretical physicist whose enormous appetite becomes a relentless metaphor for humanity’s consumption. Armed with the rhetoric of Richard Dawkins and the body of Michael Moore, Professor Beard is also an unlikely Lothario, with a Nobel Prize and five marriages behind him. Since the “magic moment” of his breakthrough, he has rested on his Nobel laurels, chairing countless research groups and tweaking “colossal sums out of ignorant ministers and bureaucrats for one more particle accelerator or rented instrument space on a new satellite”. Science, like the arts, needs patronage, and the National Centre for Renewable Energy, which Beard heads at the outset of the novel, is presented as little more than an expensive way of appeasing (and profiting from) the wider public. A new fence for the Centre cost 17% of its annual budget, and the brilliant post-docs who flock there to bask under Beard’s leadership spend their days responding to environmental proposals from cranks ignorant of the basic laws of physics. Beard himself wallows in bureaucratic insignificance. Then he is invited to Spitzbergen.

McEwan has great fun with his version of the episode, which provides the farcical kernel of a book that sometimes tries too hard to be funny. The satire is laid on thickly as he describes “the guilty discharge of carbon dioxide from 20 return flights and snowmobile rides and 60 hot meals a day served in polar conditions”, which “would be offset by planting three thousand tress in Venezuela as soon as a site could be identified and local officials bribed”. Every kick-start of a skidoo is accompanied by “stinking black exhaust”, every night ends with comradely discussion between idealistic artists who are lampooned for their use of hazy scientific metaphors. The art they create is also shown to be preposterous: a swarthy ice sculptor called Jesus carves penguins, a choreographer organises a shuffling perambulation on the frozen sea, a sound artist rigs up microphones to capture the wailing of the arctic winds. For Beard—and, one senses, for McEwan too—these are mere “prayers” and “totem-pole dances…fashioned to deflect the course of a catastrophe”.

Beard is an even more myopic version of Joe Rose in McEwan’s Enduring Love (1997). He has little time for the arts, and as an undergraduate at Oxford successfully hoodwinked his first wife into bed by wooing her with a perfunctory reading of Milton. He concludes that the arts are a “monstrous bluff”, containing “nothing that could remotely be construed as an intellectual challenge”. The humanities are the playground of arrogant “lie-a-beds”, whereas physics offers real difficulty: “the mental equivalent of lifting very heavy weights”. The message Beard offers is straightforward: literature is for wimps, only science can save us now.

Since The Child in Time (1987), McEwan has engaged repeatedly and provocatively with the relationship between science and the arts, with what C. P. Snow termed the “two-cultures” debate, and this leitmotif is never far from the surface in Solar. Sometimes the scientific allusions are playfully subtle, as when Beard muses prophetically on his wife’s affair with a builder—”perhaps the entire entanglement was going to take an improbable course”—with a knowing nod to the peculiarities of particle physics. Elsewhere the insistent, dualist, contrapuntal treatment of science and life which so marred Saturday (2005) (in which every mental state was accompanied by a mechanical description of brain processes) can be intrusive:

Beard was not wholly sceptical about climate change. It was on his list of issues, of looming sorrows, that comprised the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it and expected governments to meet and take action. And of course he knew that a molecule of carbon dioxide absorbed energy in the infrared range, and that humankind was putting these molecules into the atmosphere in significant quantities.

McEwan does better when such sentiments are satirised, as when the perky ponytailed postgraduate Tom Aldous (himself reminiscent of the more ominously zealous Jed Parry in Enduring Love [1997]) outlines his plan for a nano-solar revolution with a new-age flourish. “The laws of physics are so benign, so generous”, he whines, his na√Øve idealism a sure sign that he won’t go unpunished.

Solar is in part a satire on the solipsism of apocalyptic thinking. It’s a subject that has increasingly interested English novelists of McEwan’s generation. Martin Amis’s Einstein’s Monsters (1987) examined the “unthinkability” of nuclear holocaust, and his London Fields (1989) was filled with an undefined foreboding of something or other, which in turn recalled the “airborne toxic event” in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985). McEwan takes a more benign view, arguing that narratives of destruction are simply a product of man’s self-regard, comfort blankets against the anxiety of insignificance:

there was an Old Testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plague-of-boils and deluge-of-frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination, enacted over the centuries, to believe that one was always living at the end of days, that one’s own demise was urgently bound up with the end of the world, and therefore made more sense, or was just a little less irrelevant.

In an article for the Guardian in 2008 McEwan rehearsed similar arguments. Relying heavily on Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), McEwan noted that “we have need of a plot, a narrative to shore up our irrelevance in the flow of things”.

In Solar he does a nice job of parodying the fabulations involved in creating, and exploiting, secular narratives of apocalypse. Despite Beard’s frustration with postmodernists—who challenge the reductive claims of science and label him “hegemonic”, much to his confusion—his respect for the scientific metanarrative is as shaky as his respect for women. Indeed, in its account of the dirty tactics involved in securing funding and prestige, Solar is prescient. The brouhaha over the leaked emails from UEA’s Climate Change Unit last year could easily have been culled from its pages. By the end of the novel, potential apocalypse is for Beard mainly a moneymaking opportunity. As he says to his business partner, worried about the impact climate-change deniers might have on their potential profits, “Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax.”

Yet as a potential catastrophe, climate change operates somewhat differently to the threat of the second coming, or of the bomb. If it occurs, it will be caused not by one madman with his finger on the button, but incrementally, as a series of miniature catastrophes. Apocalypse born of passivity is not a theme that lends itself particularly well to dramatic fictional treatment. In a writer whose real strength lies in constructing taut dénouements, the aimless accumulation of ominousness that so characterises Solar doesn’t really add up to much. The aesthetic pleasures McEwan offered in Enduring Love, Atonement (2001), and On Chesil Beach (2007) are provided by well-crafted extrapolations of misunderstanding, by following the forking paths of human lives to their terrible conclusions. The best of his novels distil these elements into perfect studies of passivity, wherein the consequences of inaction are meticulously set up and explosively played out. The passivity of humanity en masse is too big a theme for McEwan’s method, even when channelled through a single, self-regarding consciousness. Against this challenge his structure loses its unifying thread, and Solar lurches from romantic comedy to Waughian farce to campus thriller, with little cumulative effect.

Because of this, Solar does not so much climax as descend into entropy. At the end of the novel a messy conflation of the untied threads of personal and professional life assault Beard as he sits in an American diner. McEwan has tried this kind of formal tragic ending before, at the end of Amsterdam (1998), in which two old friends and rivals murder each other with poisoned chalices, like they would in a bad Elizabethan drama. But the unravelling of Beard’s world is too delayed, too lethargically played out over the final section of the book, to hold our interest. As Solar concludes only one question remains: when will it all end?

Jon Day is reading for a DPhil in English at St John’s College, Oxford.