Ian McEwan, Teasing Farce From Flawed Humanity

Ian McEwan i i

hide captionIan McEwan is the author of 10 novels in addition to Solar. He won the Man Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam.

Eamon McCabe
Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is the author of 10 novels in addition to Solar. He won the Man Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam.

Eamon McCabe

About five years ago, the writer Ian McEwan joined a group of artists and scientists on a weeklong trip to the Arctic. The trip was sponsored by a British-based project called Cape Farewell, and the idea was to inspire artists to think about climate change.

In fact, the trip was partly responsible for inspiring McEwan's latest novel, Solar. In a BBC documentary, McEwan noted that once you get past the cold, the Arctic landscape is unlike any other, full of "extraordinary formations."

It was something far less grand that sparked McEwan's first idea for Solar. Over dinner one night, he told his companions on the expedition that chaos had overtaken the room where all their gear was stowed. In the documentary, McEwan told his companions that the situation seemed to him a perfect metaphor for human frailty: an illustration of how even the best of intentions can go awry when in the hands of human beings.

"All it needs is one mistake, and then there's a domino effect of someone saying, 'Well, dammit,' you know, 'I'll take those boots because someone took my boots.' And you actually have a social contract in total collapse. The boot room now is a scene of total lack of cooperation. Environmentalists who care about the planet can't even get their boots together."

'Solar'
Solar
By Ian McEwan
Hardcover, 304 pages
Random House
List price: $26.95

Read An Excerpt

Before going to the Arctic, McEwan had been interested in the issue of climate change, but he couldn't figure out a way to write a novel that wouldn't sound preachy — until something about the disarray in the ship's boot room gave him an idea.

"It seemed to strike a chord with a lot else that I'd understood about climate science, the politics of it and human institutions," McEwan says. "We're very good at making wide and sweeping statements of intent, but once we get down to it, often very little happens. And that, at least, gave me the first suspicion that maybe the route into this was through comedy, a comedy of human nature."

Powerful Egos

That boot room scene eventually made its way into Solar. Like McEwan, the book's main character, Michael Beard, takes a journey to the Arctic. Beard doesn't care much about climate change; he just wants to get away from the chaos of his own life. He falls under the spell of the Arctic and his amiable companions, but he can't put aside minor irritations like the messy boot room.

Beard is invited on the Arctic journey because he is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. McEwan says he knew he had to write about a Nobel winner after being introduced to some of these scientific giants at a conference.

"I've never been in a room bristling with such powerful egos," McEwan says. "I mean, these guys are grand. And it was at that point that I thought, if I ever get around to writing a novel about climate science, I definitely have to award a Nobel Prize to my principal character."

Michael Beard may have the towering ego of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist but he is also a womanizer who has cheated on each of his five wives. He eats too much, drinks too much and has virtually no moral compass. As for his scientific accomplishments, he lives off the laurels of his past glory. His foray into the science of climate change is spurred by a bizarre accident that offers him an opening to steal someone else's ideas.

"He's somewhat lazy, rather greedy, full of resolutions to give up eating junk food and lose weight and get fit." Beard, McEwan says, "sort of believes in climate change but skeptically, can't be bothered to get too interested in it, until an opportunity presents itself and then he sees a chance to both save the world, make his name and to make some money."

McEwan says this farcical portrayal of a scientist loaded down with bad habits is his way of depicting how difficult it is for spoiled, lazy, self-centered human beings to take on the challenges required to reverse the effects of climate change. And despite, or maybe even because of his many flaws, Beard was a fun character to create.

"It's interesting to have such a wildly erroneous guy at the center of things," McEwan says. "I could get him to say and do things that maybe I wouldn't if I was trying to make a climate science novel and have a paragon of virtue at its center. ... It gave me a sort of freedom to just lash out a bit."

Though McEwan is probably best known for his novel Atonement, which was set mostly in the past, both Solar and his recent novel, Saturday, take place in the present and explore the anxieties of a rapidly changing world where threats come from humans and nature.

"The present is always noisy and contentious," McEwan says. "We all have a very different view of the present and a slightly more coherent and generally more settled view of the past. So when you write about the present and in the present, you get your hands a little more dirty, and you find that people disagree with your take."

McEwan says he has no idea whether his next book will be set in the past, the present or the future. Nor does he know what it will be about. And that, he says, is part of the pleasure of being a novelist: never knowing what will inspire you next.

Excerpt: 'Solar'

Solar

The place was emptying, and he was not ready. Someone very old with snow in his beard and a damp, unlit cigarette on his lower lip came in muttering ill- temperedly, snatched Beard's bag, took it out to a sled hitched to a snowmobile, and drove off. Both the waitress and Jan had disappeared, and Beard was the only person in the lobby. This was a long- forgotten experience from his school days, not only being late but feeling ignorant and incompetent and wretched, with everyone else mysteriously in the know, as though in league against him. Fatso Beard, always last, useless at team games. With that memory came added clumsiness and indecision. Although he was dressed in ski clothes of many layers, he was expected to climb inside this extra skin, even to wear his own boots inside another pair. There were inner gloves and giant outer gloves, a heavy balaclava made of carpet underlay to wear over his own, and goggles, and a motorcycle helmet.

Solar
By Ian McEwan
Hardcover, 304 pages
Random House
List price: $26.95

He got into the suit — it must have weighed twenty pounds — put on the dusty balaclava, squeezed his head into the helmet, put on the inner and outer gloves, then realized that he would not be able to put on the goggles while wearing the gloves, took off the gloves, clamped on the goggles, put on the inner and outer gloves, then remembered that his own ski goggles and gloves, hip flask and stick of lip salve on the seat next to him, would need to be stowed. He took off the inner and outer gloves, put his stuff in a pocket inside his jacket after much struggling with the zip of the outer suit, put on the inner and outer gloves again, and found that in the damp warm air of the lobby and with his own impatient perspiring, his goggles were fogging up. Hot and tired, an unpleasant combination, he stood suddenly in exasperation, turned, and collided with a beam or a column, he couldn't see which, with a massive cracking sound. How fortunate it was that the Nobel laureate was wearing a helmet. No damage to his skull, but there was now a diagonal crack across the left eyepiece of his goggles, an almost straight line that refracted and diffused the low yellow light in the lobby. To remove the helmet, balaclava, and goggles and wipe the condensation from them he had to remove all four gloves, and now that his hands were sweating, these items were not so easy to dislodge. Once the goggles were off, it was straightforward enough to take them to the almost- cleared breakfast table and employ a crumpled paper napkin, used, but not much used, to polish the lens. Perhaps it was butter, perhaps it was porridge or marmalade that smeared the already scratched plastic, but at least the condensation was off, and it was relatively simple, after replacing the balaclava, to secure the goggles around the helmet and lower it over his head and put on all four gloves and stand, ready at last to face the elements.

His vision was much restricted by the new breakfast coating; otherwise he would have seen the boots earlier lying on their sides under his chair. Off with the gloves — he was not going to lose his temper — and then, after some fiddling with the laces, he decided he would see better without the goggles. Clear sight confirmed that the boots were far too small, by at least three sizes, and there was some relief in knowing that not all the incompetence was his own. But he was game, and thought he would give it one last try, and that was how Jan, entering the lobby with a blast of icy air, found him, trying to push his foot in its hiking boot into a fur- lined snow shoe.

"My God, you thick or which?"

The giant elk man knelt before him and with impatient tugs removed Beard's hiking boots, tied the laces together, and slung the pair around Beard's neck.

"Now try."

His feet slid in. Jan secured the laces at speed and stood.

"Come on, man. Let's go!"

Possibly it was his embarrassment that helped fog up the goggles again, but he had a pretty good idea of the direction of the door, and he had the rough outline of Jan's shoulder to guide him.

"You drive a snowmobile before?"

"Of course," he lied.

"Good, good. I want to catch the others."

"How far is it to the ship?"

"One hundred fifteen kilometers."

When they stepped out, the wind slapped his face, no less hard than Tarpin had, and with the same stinging aftermath. The condensation inside his goggles froze instantly but for a small patch, through the marmalade veneer of which he could just make out Jan's form retreating along a path cut through the deep snow that wound between the shapes of buildings. After ten minutes they arrived at the edge of the settlement, before a vast white plain that stretched away into a mist. It may have been an airfield, for there was an orange wind sock nearby straining in the horizontal position. Parked by a ditch were two snowmobiles, noisily pumping out a blue-black mist of their own.

"I follow you," Jan said. "Minimum fifty kilometers an hour if we want to arrive before the storm. Okay?"

"Okay."

But it was not okay. The wind was strong, and they would be driving straight into it. Deep inside his helmet, the tips of his ears were already numb, and so were the tip of his nose and his toes. To see, he was obliged to tilt his head and angle his sight line through a diminishing area of semiclarity, avoiding at the same time the illuminated crack over his left eye. But all this was incidental; blindness and pain he could live with. A more urgent problem was oppressing him as he turned toward his snowmobile. In his hurry and thickheadedness that morning, he had omitted all the usual routines. He had not shaved or washed and, except to drink a pint of freezing water, had not set foot inside the bathroom. Then he had hurried out of the room with his bag. Now it was minus twenty-six, wind force five, they were pressed for time, a storm was looming, Jan was already astride his machine and gunning the engine, and Beard, trapped inside many layers of intractable clothing, needed to urinate.

From Solar by Ian McEwan. Copyright 2010 by Ian McEwan. Reprinted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.

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