Saturday, 5 February 2011

First and La(te)st

I've been very busy at the library recently, so I thought I'd bring you up to date with a double review of Ian McEwan books. What with my Saturday review a short time ago, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I'd deliberately set out to get through his back catalogue as quickly as possible, but the truth is that his name seems to have stuck in my wife's head, and she is forever bringing back one of his novels for me from the library (he seems especially popular in the large-print section...).  Today's offering then combines something old with something new, both are borrowed and definitely blue (with McEwan, it's always a little blue!).

The Cement Garden, written in 1978, was McEwan's first novel, although it's probably more of a novella, reaching as it does barely 173 pages of (very) large print.  It's a cheery little tale, involving death, cross-dressing and incest - clearly McEwan decided early on that he wanted to write about the darker side of life.  After the death of their father, the life of Jack, Julie, Sue and Tom starts to disintegrate, as their mother slides into disease and depression.  Without a parental influence, they begin to unravel gradually, their grief showing itself in different ways.  When Julie brings home a boyfriend one day, the scene is set for everything to fall apart once and for all...

It's difficult to discuss this book without giving away too much, and the events, shocking as they are, are what makes the book enjoyable.  The Cement Garden is not up there with McEwan's later work, but it does explore some interesting areas, following the effects of trauma on unformed adolescent minds, and the concept of social dislocation. It is the self-imposed isolation of the family which allows events to unfold as they do, with no guiding adult hand in sight, until Julie brings her boyfriend Derek into the fold.

It's probably one for readers who have already tried a few of McEwan's works (I don't think you'd be rushing out to stock up on his books after reading this one), and if you've read Atonement or On Chesil Beach, you'll see traces of the style used in later books in this first effort at a novel.  Again, there's the one awful, pivotal moment, which sets the tone of the rest of the story, something which was beginning to annoy me, but which I've resigned myself to now; again, there's gore and sexual tension aplenty; again, you feel slightly dirty reading it.  I'll leave it there...

Solar, on the other hand, is a very different kettle of fish.  Michael Beard is a slob of a man, a paunchy fellow with several failed marriages (and one on the rocks), a miscreant with little conscience and not much of a heart.  Oh yes, and he has a Noble Prize for Physics.  Over a decade of deterioration, both in the earth's climate and Beard's physical state, McEwan guides the reader gently through the contradictions of public brilliance and private catastrophe - and it's an intriguing journey.

This novel represents another trip into the science domain for McEwan, after his neurosurgery-led Saturday, however Solar is anything but a dull read.  I didn't have high hopes for it after some less-than-positive reviews, and the usual earth-shattering moment of change (involving a polar bear) had me rolling my eyes at his predictability, but the longer the novel went on, the more I started to enjoy it.

The main reason for this is that the novel is more about Beard than about the actual plot, and he is a brilliant character.  Larger-than-life is a fairly common cliché, but one which is fully justified when discussing McEwan's plump, disgusting protagonist.  Unable to bring himself to do anything as energetic as throwing a sandwich wrapper in the bin (or even just not dropping it on the floor in the first place), his flat undergoes a similar decay to his appearance, leaving him wishing he could just incinerate the whole thing.

He lies, philanders, cheats, plagiarises, disappoints... and yet, McEwan pulls off the feat of making him appear a loveable rogue, a rather genial fellow, before a sleight of hand every once in a while pulls his nasty side back into view.  The blurb on the back uses the word 'satirical', which I suspect is a way of saying that a writer known for his serious novels has produced something amusing for once, and there was certainly a lot to smile at here.  By the end of the novel, I was very interested in Beard's fate - which is not to say that I wanted him to get off scot-free :)

Of course, there is a more serious side to Solar, and it is the idea that we are all doomed because of the human race's inability to be truly altruistic, forward thinking and (above all) organised.  If our greatest minds are more concerned with making millions of dollars from patents and are prepared to lie, cheat and steal to prevent the move towards cleaner energy, how are we ever going to actually tackle the problem of climate change?  Especially if we can't even keep our living rooms clean...  Saturday made a lot of the idea of our world as an ageing person, with clogged-up arterial roads and decaying buildings leading to a rotting planet, and Solar is no more optimistic (although a lot more cynical and funnier).

The writing, as always, is crisp and elegant, despite the occasional jarring moment caused by the American version which my Australian library has somehow acquired.  As well as the expected spelling changes, the odd vocabulary choice leaped out at me, disturbing my concentration (I am fairly sure that no English writer, especially one like McEwan, would really have used the word 'dumpster'...).  While I'm not really surprised that Solar didn't make the cut for the Booker prize shortlist, it is nevertheless a lot better than I expected, a confident, relaxed, mature work from an accomplished writer (and very different from The Cement Garden!).

It culminates in a cliffhanger ending, with Beard beset with troubles on all sides.  As the paunchy physicist looks desperately for a way out of his problems (in a scene which is less high literature than Benny Hill), the reader wonders just how he's going to talk himself out of it this time.  The bigger question of course is planetary, rather than personal.  Just how are we going to get ourselves out of the mess we've made of the Earth.  This, along with Michael Beard's messy dilemma, is a problem for another day...