There is a sense of anticipation about Ian McEwan’s new novel, Solar, out in a few weeks. Well… maybe we better not get our hopes up.
Of course I hope to be proved wrong. As a young novelist, McEwan was extraordinarily radical; The Cement Garden was scary, edgy and transgressive. He remains, without doubt, a brilliant talent. However as with Martin Amis, he’s been part of the literary establishment’s drift towards neo-conservativism, most visibly with his anti-Islamic pronouncements.
Acrtually, that’s less the problem; it’s as much that his books have become more conservative in their scope. Atonement, say, may have been a brilliantly constructed piece of work, but it was about polishing the form. The grand British novel is an old art form; despite a few post-modern pieces of trickery, it has settled down at the start of the 21st century as a form that tells stories in very conventional start-to-finish ways. The truth is, though Atonement appeared to encounter ideas of cognitive psychology, of how we can deceive ourselves, it was hardly a novel of ideas. The ideas were a device around which a novel hung. Whether McEwan has the will to encounter ideas about climate in a novel remains to be seen.
I thought my views on McEwan being able to write about climate were pessimistic until I came across Paul Kingsnorth of The Dark Mountain Project writing about him:
McEwan, over the last few years, seems to have been nominated by the guardians of our high culture (the broadsheets, Radio Four and the kind of people who hang around at Soho literary parties) as the Grand Old Man of contemporary letters. Every new novel is pored over and dissected in the TLS by professors of literature. McEwan is interviewed glowingly in broadsheet culture sections, and given thousands of words to muse ponderously on weighty subjects like September 11th or climate change. His utterances are quoted reverently by the kind of people who think that straight-bat banalities become profundities when uttered by novelists rather than cabbies.
And the whole thing is a fraud. That someone as dull and weightless as McEwan can be christened as some kind of literary godhead just shows how callow and flaccid the English novel is at this moment in history. McEwan is a man with nothing to say, who says it at great length, and is admired for it by people who have nothing to say either and enjoy reading about others like themselves. His style is as conservative as his worldview, which is narrrow, secular and bourgeois to a tee.
The trouble with McEwan’s conservatism of form is that it leaves the novelist increasingly hamstrung when it comes to tackling something big and real like climate change. How do you tackle new ideas when you’re still tinkering with an old machine? Ian McEwan has been on one of the Cape Farewell expeditions. He remains involved with the organisation and has written passionately in the newspapers about the need for us to tackle climate.
But when it was announced that he was writing a book about the subject, McEwan himself back-pedalled, to say it wasn’t “about” climate change; that climate change science was the milieu it was set in, it was “the background hum“.
Reasonably, this may be seen as an artists’ natural inclination not to be boxed in by assumptions about what his work is about. But it’s also the product of the kind of formalistic conservatism McEwan and his peers have embraced. Great British novels usually aren’t “about” very much. Maybe they shouldn’t have to be. Maybe to have climate as “the background hum” is enough.
Interestingly, though, while the grand names of British literary fiction have become increasingly strait-jacketed by the form, it’s the ungainlily-named genre Young Adult that has become the radical one in the last decade. Keen to keep up with the rampant imaginings of teenagers, novelists like Mark Haddon and Philip Pullman appeared far less constrained by a sense of what novels should be like. As a consequence, it’s in Young Adult fiction, rather than literary fiction, that you currently find the novels of ideas – especially when it comes to climate change.
Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries tackled the idea of how teenagers personal carbon budgets in the near future of 2015 (clue: not very well) head on. Kate Thompson’s new book The White Horse Trick also takes on climate with no sense that it’s a “difficult” subject. In fact, Young Adult fiction allows itself to use all the tricks that literary fiction deems gauche, but which are actually extremely useful when deailng with subjects as big as the environment and our future.
Kate Thompson’s rambunctious children’s book is set in two separate existences, one of which is an apocalyptic future in which Ireland’s topsoil is washed away by storms and its inhabitants struggle to survive in a Burren-like future in which trees are cut down too quickly to replace themselves. Characters cross from there to the Celtic mythic landscape of the West Coast, of Tir na n’Og, the land of eternal youth. As the Independent’s critic Nicola Baird notes approvingly, Thompson pulls off “the impossible”:
Despite the heavy theme, this is a positive tale that helps readers envision different ways of living. It does so without once lecturing about energy efficiency or using the bus.
It’s a matter of some pride that the book owes its life partly to a residency oragnised by the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre and Situations in Bristol. Kate Thompson kindly opens the book with a dedication which underscores the importance of that residency.
I’m sure Kate Thompson would not want her work compared to that of Ian McEwan’s any more than McEwan would relish having his work discussed in the context of Young Adult fiction. All the same, it’s continually interesting how different art forms feel empowered, or unempowered, to tackle the weighty subject of climate. If McEwan’s novel really does fail to get to grips with a subject he himself has harrangued politicians to take more seriously, then does it leave British literary fiction looking increasingly irrelevant; the fodder of genteel book groups rather than the real and urgent world?