Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Solar Second Opinion
Not at all a bad novel, this. I’d go so far as to call it really quite a good novel. Densely rendered in a way that builds its world and, above all, conjures its clunky central character into life—it is in essence a character study: onetime Nobel-prizewinner but now dried-up, weak-willed, venal, tubby Michael Beard: one quarter endearing to three quarters monstrous egotism, selfishness, sexist objectification of women and worse. The plot has to do with the latter stage of his double-crest career; having stolen a (dead) junior colleague’s research he makes a big splash with a new solar power technology to address global warming. The detail is well handled; the pages turned. But there’s a ‘but’ and the but is: but it’s not funny. It’s trying to be funny, but it is not funny. At no point is it funny. McEwan perhaps thinks his delineation of character is richly droll, but it is solidly, painfully, unavoidably not. He might even (this is harder to credit, but you never know) think his awful, groaning set-pieces are funny, but they are not funny, not in the least funny, totally lacking in Funny: Beard on the ice at the north pole takes a whizz, freezes his willy and, when his chapstick falls down his trouser leg, thinks his todger has dropped off. I guarantee you the sentence I have just typed, there, is eighty times funnier than McEwan’s treatment of that scene. And the sentence I have just typed isn’t in the least bit funny. There’s a scene on a train where Beard silently battles with a passenger who, he thinks, keeps eating his crisps, only to discover later that they’d been the stranger’s crisps all along. As John Crace, I think it was, pointed out in the Grauniad, this is one of the oldest and hoariest of anecdotes—McEwan has another character spiel a quantity of meta acknowledgment of this fact, but it still feels old.
The book it most reminded me of was Golding’s Paper Men: another amazingly ill-advised, profoundly unfunny late-career attempt to write a Hilarous Comic Novel that was, like this one, quite interesting in other ways. Solar shares with Paper Men a self-reflexivity (the real theme of McEwan’s novel is not global warming, but the sense of an unearned easy-ride in life predicated upon a celebrity the owner doesn’t really deserve: a famous writer’s lament), and some lovely chunks of prose. Paper Men ends well, though; where Solar‘s ending is very weak.
Two things, then, occur to me. One is an answer to the question: but why is McEwan’s novel so desperately unfunny? The answer, I think, is that his timing is shit. The McEwan Prose(TM) may be, and often is, an effective instrument; but it is a ponderous one, a slow-build and accumulatory one. It’s simply incapable of the necessary pace or nimbleness required to make a person laugh. Tant pis, you might say; and there are genuine satisfactions to be had from this book—you should read it; your time would not be wasted. Except that it leaves the reader wondering why McEwan thought he ought to write a comic novel, or why any people not previously having suffered serious brain damage might think it worthy of shortlisting for the Wodehouse prize. McEwan is an interesting and worthwhile, if overpraised, writer of novels; but he’s not fit to shine Wodehouse’s shoes when it comes to writing prose.
The other thing, though, has to do with the sort of ‘literary prose’ that is so dominant in writing today. To be more precise, I wonder the extent to which one of the satisfactions this sort of prose offers isn’t exactly the same thing, inflected slightly differently, offered by the observations of stand-up comedians. When a laugh-merchant makes an observation, we may laugh because we recognize the object. When Nabokov writes ‘the gas ring put out a sudden blue claw’ we experience a sort of delight of recognition: ‘yes! Yes! that’s exactly right! that’s just what it looks like when the gas ring is lit!’ Updike (say) is very good on that, and McEwan punches his weight. Except that a stand-up comedian is able to parlay that delighted recognition, that articulation of the familiar that makes it come new to us, into laughter. McEwan can’t do that.
Beard on the ice at the north pole takes a whizz, freezes his willy and, when his chapstick falls down his trouser leg, thinks his todger has dropped off. I guarantee you the sentence I have just typed, there, is eighty times funnier than McEwan’s treatment of that scene. And the sentence I have just typed isn’t in the least bit funny.
Ian McEwen, you just got pwned.
. . . he’s not fit to shine Wodehouse’s shoes when it comes to writing prose.
Game, set, match.
Although Solar did leave me fairly unsatisfied in various ways, I’m not sure the humour is quite as hopeless as you suggest.
I did like the chapstick scene, although I accept that my enjoyment of it might have been along the lines you suggest - recognition without real laughter. And even though I had heard a version of the crisps scene before, it was well-written enough for me to enjoy it anew whilst reading it (though the subsequent acknowledgement of it being ‘borrowed’ was somewhat groan-inducing).
I have to say that while I accept your criticisms, I found those to be the best parts of the book (along with the well-written accident scene). Without them, I think it would have been a real mess.
Ponderous slow-building comedy can be hilarious (W. C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, Jacques Tati) and can be approximated in prose, even in high-art prose (viz. parts of Flaubert, Joyce, Beckett). But I nevertheless agree with your diagnosis: it can’t be approximated in clever prose. Comedy’s stately rhythm is that of stoopidity. Pnin was a brave compromise: clever prose agape at stoopid spectacle.
It helps that Pnin is also very moving, in some portions intensely so. Get the emotions flowing and some’ll wash over into your ‘laughter’ bucket. Solar is an intellectual exercise, elaborately working-through a symbolic conceit, everything in the novel subordinated to that. Not that I mind intellectual, you know.