Ian McEwan’s superb hero tries to save us from climate change, but it’s so much fun to see him fail, says Gaurav Jain
IN THE last decade, Ian McEwan’s novels have been depressingly artful. His last two books — Saturday and On Chesil Beach — have been particularly airless. Describing the condition of human happiness, his sensibility became finicky, tricked out, contrived. The books seemed too readable, as if the author had untangled his people in his head, flattened them on paper and then calmly filled them with the smooth helium of his prose.
Solar is happily different. It returns us to McEwan’s conventional pleasures of narrative, of English narrative — a straight tale that hugs the mind of the central character, told with dry humour, forever on a rim of irony. Meet Michael Beard, 55-year-old Nobel-laureate physicist who’s coasted on his eminence for 20 years. He retains the monomania of a rationalist, is against religion and sceptical of climate change. The book opens with his crumbling fifth marriage (he’s a habitual adulterer) and his sett ing up of a new institute for clean energy. We witness Beard’s personal and professional turbulences — divorce, philandering, a girlfriend demanding marriage, unwanted pregnancy, another girlfriend demanding marriage; a colleague’s death, Beard’s emergence as a climate change convert and profiteer, his media scandals, setting up an American site in the grand quest to replicate photosynthesis, and all his ineptness in between. We meet Beard in 2000, then skip to 2005, and finally to 2009 when all his circumstances finally crunch up on him.
This is novel writing as heroic set pieces. The book’s pitch-perfect scenes and cleaned-flute prose provide ready satisfactions for any reader. We visit the British country, the Arctic, the American south, airports, trains, hotel bars, dance shops — each sketched with delectable realism. McEwan is as clinical and unforgiving as ever, always quick to take the shine off a situation — in the Arctic, Beard quickly suffers a man’s ultimate accident in his iced groin (“his heartbeat seemed to have migrated down there”). And McEwan is nothing if not accomplished — he’s got the science down pat, is properly restrained in explaining it, and aptly skewers its inhabitants.
McEwan is pitiless, of course, he’s done his homework, of course, and provides us the modern panic of urban existence that grips us all sooner or later. No bungle, fumble, miscue or calamity is omitted.
Beard cheats on his wife and his colleagues, frames someone for murder, neglects his partners and daughter. In a superbly comic midsection, he gets roasted by the media for a politically incorrect utterance. McEwan satirises postmodernism — how ‘relativity’ has sneaked out of science to create havoc in the social sciences. The comedy steadily increases in pitch till we’re almost at Bellovian levels — more than anyone, Beard reminded me of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, without the interiority but tangled in similarly preposterous sexual and professional excitements.
HERE’S A HINT of what’s new — the exquisite pain of conversations in McEwan’s earlier books has been socialised in Beard — he’s secure in his self-esteem, and brackets difficult conversations with fatty foods. The British man has been Americanised. His bumbling knowingness has turned into a willed, searing innocence. Beard faces all the epiphanies and drama of his life, takes the buzz of potato chips, fellatio and the Arctic cold alike, with a reliable assurance of his good naturedness, his reasonableness.
With this light-hearted masterpiece of cosmopolitan follies, McEwan can be justified again as Britain’s national novelist — curious savant, earnest activist, ironic storyteller, flawless writer-technician — all in all, a lovely pedant.
Queer Eye For The Desi Guy
Nithin Manayath finds love stories in a cliched, colourless monotone
THE TITLE of this collection of short stories by West Virginia-born gay writer Rahul Mehta is taken from the first one, where you meet the first-person, moody, gay Indian narrator of the first seven of nine stories. If you ignore the small shifts in cities, white boyfriends and jobs you keep meeting the same narrator, small eccentricities notwithstanding. The seven stories end up reading like draft chapters for a novel, the novelist uncertain about where to place his quirky bottom. However, a few stories like ‘Yours’ — where you’d forget the narrator is Indian if you hadn’t already met him — show Mehta as a competent writer whose neat prose is capable of drawing readers into what are gentle and compelling tales of love.
Yet this ease shows no effort in tuning dialogue. A teenage lower-class white girl, a reasonably well-off 50-yearold black performance artist, a successful middle-aged first generation immi grant Indian doctor — they all speak alike. While Mehta seems determined to avoid any nostalgia for India, it’s remarkable that his Indian narrators make little note of how a post-9/11 America includes South Asians. These narrators, without Indian friends, enact a fantastic reversal where their Americanborn Indianness matters to the story only while they’re in India, and almost no mention of it is made in the USA.
The problem of this reversal, however, is addressed in one story: a memoir writing class professor tells the narrator that he “seems to be tiptoeing around race”. He responds saying: “Race is incidental… It’s about desire,” as if desire was a free-floating object outside race relations. While we’ve for long ranted against the familiar narratives of the Indian American, surely indifference to race is not the response that’s going to complicate these accounts.
The stories work least when set in India, examining or reproducing cliches, describing places lazily as a “remote province in the North”. One impossibly bizarre female character — whose friend on Marine Drive throws about the casual phrase ‘darling’ — has children living as citizens in the USA. When her daughter broaches the topic of citizenship, Mehta expects the reader to take the mother seriously as she asks the younger woman, “What does this mean, citizen?” By explanation we’re only offered: “Her English was not good.”
The queer Indian reader — perhaps unaware that many good novels released recently in the subcontinent have a gay or bisexual protagonist whose queerness is masked by ambiguous phrasing in jackets, blurbs or reviews — will presumably buy this collection simply because Mehta’s protagonists are outed on the jacket itself. If only the editor had insisted on these pages returning as a single novel with attention to dialogue, it would have done far better — both for itself and for sales.