By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape £18.99, 304 pages
FT Bookshop price: £15.19
Nothing annoys the British quite so much as success, and few writers have had as much of it in recent years as Ian McEwan. Born in 1948, McEwan is from the generation of writers who came of age in the literary boom of the 1980s, among a group at that time dominated by Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. He was the first of the graduates from Malcolm Bradbury’s University of East Anglia creative writing course to have any success but for a long time his output was sporadic and he seemed overshadowed by his peers. Yet in the past decade a steady output of readable, popular, critically acclaimed and often skilfully filmed novels have raised him to a more or less unrivalled position as Britain’s leading literary writer, not least in terms of sales. Atonement, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2001, sold over 2m copies in the UK, and spent eight weeks at number 1 on the bestseller list, while On Chesil Beach sold 1m copies and spent 34 weeks on the list. The New Yorker, in a reverential profile, recently noted that it is “a commonplace that McEwan has edged past his peers to become England’s national author”.
If this country were to select a national myth, we would probably have to settle on Icarus, with our media filling the role of the sun. If you fly too high, success in the US constituting the offending altitude, journalists will turn their malevolent rays towards you to melt your wings. Word crept out towards the end of 2009 that McEwan was soon to publish Solar – which became known as “the global warming novel” long before anyone had even read it – and a few vitriolic bloggers began to gun for McEwan. This was then gleefully picked up by several newspapers and reported as a “backlash”.
On settling down to read Solar, two striking features of the novel are immediately apparent. First, that it is a stunningly accomplished work, possibly his best yet; and second, that the book does contain a truly shocking surprise – not that it deals with climate change, but that it is a comedy. This amounts to a revolutionary shift in tone, in his 11th novel, for a writer famed for his seriousness.
The protagonist is Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist of Falstaffian appetites, whose fifth marriage is floundering, as his career appears to be drifting towards comfortable, well-paid irrelevance. But a confrontation with a cuckolding colleague radically alters the course of his life, both for better and worse. The humour ranges from characteristic darkly humorous insights about the gulf between our good intentions and our compromised actions, to comic territory that is new to McEwan: out-and-out farce, complete with penis-stuck-in-zip jokes and moments that come close to slapstick.
It seems unlikely that McEwan could pull this off but there is no doubt that he has. Solar is both funny and serious, light and dark, morally engaged and ironically detached, and well deserves its place next to the great run of sparkling fiction that began with Enduring Love (1997).
Yet some heavyweight critical attention has turned on Ian McEwan in the past few years, picking over his perceived failings as a writer. A notoriously catty review of Saturday (2005) in the New York Review of Books by John Banville said that “if Tony Blair were to appoint a committee to produce a ‘novel for our time’, the result would surely be something like this”.
The most cogent critique of McEwan, however, has come from James Wood in the London Review of Books, who, though broadly praising his oeuvre, accused McEwan of an excess of artificiality in the way he hoards and controls narrative secrets. Without quite saying so, Wood seemed to suggest that McEwan uses a few too many of the plot devices from the wrong (non-literary) side of the tracks. The unstated suggestion was that there is a certain vulgarity to taut plotting, the upshot of which was that the novels become “too easily comprehensible”.
Much of the critical unease with McEwan seems to swirl around this question of whether he is quite literary enough. No one can fault his prose. Sentence by sentence, for the jewel-like precision of his description and razor-sharp psychological acuity, there is a consensus that he is among the very best. Yet reading his books sometimes feels a little too much like fun. At the top table of literary critical appraisal, fun – and the concomitant popularity that it tends to generate – is an unwelcome guest. None of the high-brow critics wants to say it directly but it is clear that they suffer from an anxiety that for Serious Fiction, his work is somehow too readable, too exciting, too enjoyable.
The euphemism for these attributes/crimes among critics is usually the word “manipulative” (“The Manipulations of Ian McEwan” was the LRB headline). His success at generating tension – at making us want to read the next page, the next chapter – is cast in a pejorative light as authorial manipulation. Were his novels a little more long-winded, a little duller and slower, he would be exempted from this accusation. An author’s job, surely, is to make his readers feel things: to generate an emotional and intellectual response. To cast success in achieving this as manipulation is like criticising dance music for manipulating you into dancing.
When you look at the way McEwan’s career has progressed over 30-odd years, it is possible to find, perhaps, more legitimate grounds for criticism. He started his career as a literary bad boy, writing stories that genuinely shocked. The great surge in popularity that has greeted his work of the past 13 years has been achieved, according to some, at the cost of his edge and ferocity. It’s been a long time now since a McEwan character buried a parent in an improvised basement sarcophagus (The Cement Garden) or killed a pregnant rat with a poker (First Love, Last Rites).
Where his protagonists were once the young, the marginalised and the plain weird, these days they are more likely to be eminent men living in big houses, an authorial choice that runs the risk of giving his novels an air of complacency.
Reading through his whole body of work, it is as if the young Robert Mitchum grew up into a middle-aged Cary Grant. McEwan does what he does with supreme skill but knowing what he used to do, it is hard not to lament that the air of danger and menace has evaporated.
Still, looking again along the shelf of 11 novels, it becomes apparent that while in some ways McEwan has mellowed, in others he has quietly retained his inventive daring. McEwan’s popular and critical ascendancy was cemented between 1997 and 2005, with the succession of Enduring Love, Amsterdam, Atonement and Saturday. Amsterdam perhaps looks a little slight in the company of the other three but it is also, curiously, the only novel for which McEwan has won the Booker Prize. For a full decade, as his peers struggled, McEwan’s star relentlessly rose, culminating in Joe Wright’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Atonement in 2007.
These four novels crystallise exactly why McEwan is so popular. If you were to write a checklist of every attribute that could be expected of a literary novel, each one of these works seems to tick every box. They also each contain at least one bravura sequence that is a masterpiece of narrative at the same time as being a typically McEwanesque moral quandary (respectively: the balloon accident, the Lake District moment of compositional inspiration, the delivery of the fateful letter, the climactic brain operation).
These novels shimmer with such carefully honed perfection that some readers accuse them of being a little too clinical. Yet on closer inspection, Atonement, for example, resists this critique. The structure of the novel could hardly be more unorthodox. It consists of three distinct sections, written in different styles, jumping across time and place, whose connections to one another jettison almost all of the technical devices by which literary novelists usually smooth out the gaps in their narrative. It also ends with a post-modern coup de grâce, in which it reveals itself as a novel within a novel, which undercuts and contextualises the rest of the narrative in a unique and profoundly daring way, leaving readers with only a hazy sense of “what really happened”. However precise the prose, however slick the surface of the work may appear, this is absolutely not the work of a literary grandee cranking out one more bestseller to a tested formula.
If the slight disappointment of Saturday gave the impression that Atonement was going to constitute the high point of McEwan’s career, his two most recent novels, On Chesil Beach and now Solar, have surprised again, indicating that even into his sixties, McEwan is still looking to push up to a higher gear.
On Chesil Beach is short but there is a sense in which it seemed to harmonise the Cary Grant-esque polish of his 1997-2005 period with the flinty concision of his earliest work. The novel reveals how one disastrous wedding night changes the course of two lives. McEwan’s signature skill is his ability to manipulate time – to stretch and explore fleeting but significant moments with astonishing detail and acuity. The heart of the novel deals with a minute study of this evening. A lesser novelist would have attempted to balance this out by applying a similar level of detail to the analysis of the effects of this evening on the subsequent lives of the two protagonists. McEwan, however, can condense as adeptly as he can expand, and he suddenly breaks into a shocking gallop at the end of the novel, summing up the rest of Edward and Florence’s lives in a mere five pages.
The effect of this is to communicate to the reader the sense of the life taken away from these two characters. It is as if he snatches the book from his readers in a way that makes us feel as well as understand the loss experienced by his protagonists. You cannot quite believe that the book finishes so abruptly, just as Edward cannot believe the suddenness with which his marriage ends. McEwan’s handling of time in On Chesil Beach could hardly be more daring.
At an age when most writers begin to lose their spark, McEwan seems to be endlessly looking for new challenges. The task he has set himself in Solar appears to be the most ambitious one yet. The state-of-the-nation novel is a familiar genre; in taking on the topic of global warming, McEwan appears to have set out to write about the state of the planet.
Moreover, he has done it in the context of a comedy, which at first sight seems unlike natural territory for either this writer or this subject. In the light of this novel and On Chesil Beach, those who accused McEwan of playing it safe should retract. As with Philip Roth in the 1990s, the evidence points to a late-period flowering for McEwan. The backlashers will have to put away their knives and wait for the next book.
‘Solar’ is published on March 18.
William Sutcliffe is the author of ‘Whatever Makes You Happy’ (Bloomsbury)