Having read nearly all of Ian McEwan’s fiction in the last month before leaving the U.S., I find myself now in England, but perhaps not his England. His England is full of ruminative — often ponderously so! — protagonists and of grim portents; the smallest of events are burdened with major consequence. My England is one with a less grim sky and a less, or less obviously, programmatic plot line. I’m working in a summer program for international students, the cobbled-together post-college work I’d hoped to supplement with study-guide income, and as yet, my narrative has been a bit dull, nothing worth writing about in a serious way. I find myself comparing my time here to a McEwan novel — a comparison that always falls short, because in life, unlike in McEwan’s work, I cannot deduce the author’s motivation.
In the casual reading I’d done over the eight years of high school and college, McEwan’s fondness for the inexorable narrative, one which grinds forward like clockwork, crushing characters under its weight, wasn’t really discernible to me as such — it should have been obvious, but I was caught up in my own narrative, a bildungsroman of sorts, that necessitated my looking for a love story. As a melodramatic fifteen-year-old who was rooting for Seth and Summer from The OC, I was more interested in what happened to Cecilia and Robbie on my first read-through of Atonement than in McEwan’s narrative trickery; as a no less melodramatic, but more clued-in, 22-year-old, I saw how they were trapped in a narrative they had no power to control. This was cold comfort during my rereading McEwan last month, and remains so as I galumph through the tiny village in which I’m stationed, with small manageable tasks to complete each day.
As I do my consequential-seeming, ever-renewing daily routine, I see now how McEwan alienates his characters’ actions from their fates. Atonement’s ending reveals that it’s a novel concerned far more with the mechanics of narrative than with what actually happens; On Chesil Beach is about historical change as it effects people, though its characters barely transcend types; Saturday has chilling drama waiting at the end of its tightly constrained timeline, so conveniently placed in the lead-up to the Iraq War — and its cover image is a clock! In my earlier reading, I’d found these books to be interesting ways of exerting authorial control, when I’d noticed that control being exerted at all; now, plowing through a summer in England whose end date is set but whose lessons have yet to be learned, McEwan’s English authoritarianism and fatalism cross my mind in an unwelcome fashion.
I sound critical of McEwan in a way I don’t mean to be; while I am having trouble metabolizing his writing style, it’s admirably unified and thoroughly entertaining across the board. There are even rare instances of spontaneity: Amsterdam’s characters have insecurities and quirks that seem compelling. At last! Something unexpected, something that exists for itself! Instead, those insecurities fuel the novel’s somewhat ludicrous denouement — one that the reader applauds simply for its audacious manipulation of every element of the book in service of McEwan’s style.
Maybe this is why I didn’t mind McEwan’s new effort, Solar, as much as many seemed to (in critiques both reasoned and vitriolic) — because it so thoroughly got away from its author. Taken alone, Solar is a really odd book; it’s a shaggy-dog story where a number of events, occurring against the backdrop of earth’s eventual destruction by global warming but moving to their own strange rhythms, conspire against the protagonist, Michael Beard, who retains his agency only through his sheer comic vividness. Beard feels more like a character from Waugh, or from life, than McEwan’s usual bloodless Brits. A visit to the far north causes the protagonist to think his penis has frostbite but bears neither a lesson nor a development. Unlike so much in McEwan’s fiction (the titular black dogs that set a woman on a path towards righteousness and symbolize Europe’s degradation; the ticking clock that so cruelly governs Saturday), Solar and its myriad little details — its British physicist ends up living in sin in the American Southwest! — just are.
The novel’s events seem truly random — part of, I suspect, what set off Solar’s detractors. There’s no method to the book’s madness; it’s surprisingly concerned for a novel about the impending end of the world, with Beard’s sex drive and love for snacks. It drove me mad on first read, too — every time McEwan seems to signal he’s setting up the intricate machinery of control, he denies that constricting pleasure. Characters die, and there is no reprisal; some of the highest drama comes from Beard’s theft of a bag of potato chips . This petty, unwitting crime may be a minor variation on McEwan’s consistently disempowered protagonists acting in ways they cannot comprehend. But in light of the problems Solar and its scientists take on and cannot solve, its pettiness is refreshing. These, the snacks and the sex, are among the ways we mortals pass the time while McEwan’s sun either burns out or burns us to a crisp.
On a visit to London, after the counselors had let the campers go off to shop, my coworkers and I walked to Parliament, where a village of sorts had been set up in protest of the war. This reminded me of the protest in Saturday, but it was a metaphor for nothing and bore no intimations of later violence. I asked a woman at the entrance to the vast, tent-pocked public lawn how long they’d been there. Seven weeks, and perhaps not much longer — the mayor of London was filing suit. The timeline was uncertain, though. I ducked away, and wandered around for a bit longer, looking less for meaning than for diversion before meaning announced itself.