New novels from the aging ‘enfants terribles’ of British letters.
Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By TED GIOIA
Then again, Amis occasionally takes a highbrow approach: His bookish characters uncover previously unknown sexual themes in everything from Shakespeare to Pride and Prejudice, and sometimes conspire to act out the key scenes in full costume. The plot, admittedly thin, transpires in a castle in Italy in 1970, where a changing cast of visiting twentysomethings test the new liberties of the era. With a flushed sense of excitement they make up their own rules—on what to wear (sometimes nothing at all), where to sleep, and most of all how to describe and theorize this bawdy behavior in words. If, as the narrator asserts at the end of the book, “pornographic sex is a kind of sex that can be described” (emphasis is Amis’s), then The Pregnant Widow could serve as a compendium and case study.
But Amis is not blind to the unpleasant results that often follow the abandonment of moral strictures. Amis has suggested that the sexual revolution contributed to the death of his sister Sally, and a similarly self-inflicted trauma can be followed here in the character named Violet. In contrast, the hero Keith’s sexual license of the 1970s may not prove fatal, yet it also exerts a lingering destructive aura over his later life. In case readers fail to pick up on this—which they might, given the lighthearted and capricious nature of most of the narrative—Amis adds a long coda, in which he outlines what happened to his various characters over the four decades following their decadent Italian sojourn.
Ian McEwan’s Solar, in many ways, picks up where Amis’s novel concludes. We encounter his hero Michael Beard after his decades of debauched living. He is at the tail end of his fifth marriage, each of them destroyed by his infidelities. He drinks too much. He’s grossly overweight and out of shape. He is petty and scheming. But he has one big thing going for him: a Nobel Prize in physics for his Einstein-Beard Conflation, a CV entry that helps him charm ladies and gain sinecures.
McEwan, no doubt, wrote most of this novel before the recent Climategate scandal, but his protagonist would be at home in the world of compromised research and controversial think tanks. Beard has parlayed his notoriety into a government job launching a National Center for Renewable Energy, where he is wasting large sums of taxpayers’ money on a rooftop wind-power machine that will never become a commercial reality. He eventually switches allegiances to solar power, but only after stealing valuable intellectual property from one of the scientists working for him at the center. Although Beard was initially cynical about global warming and its vocal advocates, he jumps on the bandwagon as a way of advancing his own moneymaking solar scheme.
Yet Beard’s crimes at the office are modest compared with those he perpetrates at home. The same scientist whose work Beard has stolen dies in an accident at the Nobel laureate’s house—where he is having an affair with the latter’s wife. Beard uses this circumstance to incriminate another romantic rival, peppering the accident scene with bogus evidence that will eventually send an innocent man to prison for homicide.
The plot is intricate and full of unlikely coincidences; yet McEwan is justly famous for his meticulous plotting, and a certain baroque beauty adheres to his interweaving storylines. The novel begins in 2000, and by the time of its final pages, set in 2009, McEwan has deftly integrated the scientific, domestic, romantic, and criminological elements of his narrative—and somehow manages to have everything come due at once.
Solar is noteworthy for another McEwan trademark: his immersion in the occupational realities of his characters. In Saturday (2005) he conveyed the surgical expertise of his neurosurgeon hero with intense realism. In Atonement (2001) he revealed the same attention to detail in his account of a soldier in the aftermath of the Battle of Dunkirk, and in his story of a World War II nurse in a London hospital. (McEwan’s research on the latter got him embroiled in trumped-up charges of plagiarism. The accusations had little substance, but the resulting tabloid coverage may have influenced passages in Solar that describe Professor Beard’s run-ins with the press.) Now in Solar, McEwan attempts to take on the mantle of a famous physicist, and again he has done his homework, creating a magnificent protagonist who moves effortlessly and plausibly from professional to personal concerns.