I like Ian McEwan. Atonement is one of my favourite novels of the last ten years. Enduring Love has stayed with me, as has On Chesil Beach. I even enjoyed Saturday, which was given not so much a panning as a resounding “Hmm” after Atonement was loved by pretty much all the critics.
I just don’t think he’s a particularly funny guy.
Back when his Amsterdam received the Booker Prize in 1998, I remember many people saying that they were making up for not giving him the year before, for Enduring Love. Obviously Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things was more than deserving, but there was definitely something that felt off about giving McEwan the Booker for Amsterdam – a book both slight (more a novella than a novel) and, at least in my opinion, not particularly good.
Amsterdam feels a bit like one of those Roald Dahl stories for adults – people who aren’t particularly nice getting themselves into shitty situations and digging themselves in further the more they try to extricate themselves, doing damage to themselves and to those around them who are usually as unpleasant as they are. There was even a nasty twist in the tale that felt very Dahlish. The thing was, though: Dahl’s stories, while nasty, are also funny. McEwan’s attempt at a joke felt too elaborate, overwritten, and simply not particularly amusing. It felt snide, smug and not a little self-satisfied… and essentially forgettable.
Fast forward twelve years, and it feels like McEwan’s pulled another Amsterdam – though one that dresses itself in topicality. Solar is about a physicist, ageing, fattening, roundly unpleasant but with enough of the hypocritical charm that Brits of a certain class seem to have to bed a number of fairly attractive women. For better or for worse, he ends up occupying himself with climate change and trying to make his name in the growing eco-business. Oh yes, he also frames an innocent man for murder, goes on an Arctic expedition, steals a dead man’s research and generally makes the reader – well, at least this reader – wish that he’d get eaten by a polar bear.
I’ve read articles that described Solar as “laugh-out loud funny”. A friend at work read and loved the novel. And, as I mentioned above, I generally like McEwan a lot. He’s a smart, usually subtle writer – not necessarily original, but great at his craft. But again: when McEwan aims for satirical humour, his writing falls flat for me. Solar displays his craft – McEwan can turn an elegant phrase – but it feels as smug as Amsterdam. The targets of his satire are obvious, his humour considerably less clever than it seems to consider itself; there’s an unpleasant feeling of the novel going, “Did you see that? Wasn’t that funny? Wasn’t that clever?” Solar is neither sharp and nasty enough to be good satire, to my mind, nor does it have an interesting plot or characters to keep me going. I finished it, of course, since a novel almost has to throw up all over my Criterion DVDs to make me put it aside without finishing it, but this overlong, heavy-handed, one-note joke of a novel overstayed its welcome roughly 20 pages in. Perhaps I don’t have enough of a sense of humour, or perhaps I should avoid Mr McEwan’s humoristic writing like the plague, but one Amsterdam was enough for me… and at least that one was only about a third of Solar‘s length.
On the more positive side, though: I recently re-read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and didn’t like it any more the second time around – but I’m warming a lot more to his Never Let Me Go. Part of me wishes I’d been able to read it unspoiled, but even knowing what I do about the novel’s plot I’m enjoying it a lot, much more than either some of Ishiguro’s earlier work or McEwan’s attempts at amusing me. Here’s hoping that this doesn’t mean my next read afterwards has to be another failure!
P.S.: I wasn’t amused to find the old, worn out crisp/biscuit-eating anecdote in Solar, but I did like the meta-absurdity in which it’s developed in the novel – and I was happy to see Douglas Adams (R.I.P.) referenced.