Per­verse­ly, or per­haps guilti­ly, after putting a knife in Ian McE­wan in a pre­vi­ous post, I felt com­pelled to read his new book, Solar.  Pol­ished it off recent­ly while wait­ing for my new note­book to sync doc­u­ments.  This comes on the heels of fin­ish­ing Jonathan Franzen’s Free­dom, which as I under­stand it has gar­nered an obscene degree of antic­i­pa­tion, praise and much invo­ca­tion of that hor­ri­ble phrase “Great Amer­i­can Nov­el”.  Glad I didn’t read any of those reviews, or I might have put the book off out of orner­i­ness.

Well, Free­dom was great, Solar wasn’t.  Both books are billed as satire, both had moments of ago­niz­ing hilar­i­ty at the expense of a cen­tral char­ac­ter, both com­ment on the uni­ver­sal and the con­tem­po­rary.  Still it’s per­haps not fair to com­pare them, since Free­dom has much grander ambi­tion, greater scope, a lot more pages.  But there’s a scale-invari­ant dif­fer­ence between these books, too: the way they approach free indi­rect style,

a way of nar­rat­ing char­ac­ters’ thoughts or utter­ances that com­bines some of the fea­tures of third-per­son report with some fea­tures of first-per­son direct speech, allow­ing a flex­i­ble and some­times iron­ic over­lap­ping of inter­nal and exter­nal per­spec­tives.  Free indi­rect style (a trans­la­tion of French style indi­recte libre) dis­pens­es with tag-phras­es (‘she thought’, etc.), and adopts the idiom of the char­ac­ter’s own thoughts, includ­ing indi­ca­tors of time and place, as She’d leave here tomor­row, rather than ‘She decid­ed to leave that place the next day’.  The device was exploit­ed by some 19th-cent. nov­el­ists such as Austen and Flaubert, and has been wide­ly adopt­ed there­after.

This nice def­i­n­i­tion is from the Oxford Com­pan­ion to Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture.  Free indi­rect style is the cen­tral theme of James Wood’s great book on writ­ing, How Fic­tion Works.  Wood attacks the sub­ject from a num­ber of per­spec­tives, rang­ing from styl­is­tic minu­ti­ae to dia­log and char­ac­ter to struc­ture to the whole idea of the nov­el as an art­form.  In a sense— and here I’m play­ing fast and loose with Wood’s the­sis— free indi­rect style marks the matu­ri­ty of fic­tion as per­son­al­ly relat­able in the same sense that the inno­va­tions of 19th cen­tu­ry painters marked the matu­ri­ty of paint­ing.

Free indi­rect style seems to me espe­cial­ly impor­tant in a mod­ern book with a satir­ic bent, because of the nature of laugh­ter.  To laugh— to real­ly laugh, not just laugh social­ly— is to backpedal, to reel away and dis­so­ci­ate one­self from pain and humil­i­a­tion.  It’s about ban­ish­ing the ridicu­lous oth­er.  It’s a seri­ous busi­ness.  Pic­ture your­self walk­ing down the street.  Maybe you’re talk­ing with a friend as you walk togeth­er.  Sud­den­ly your gaze shifts, and you burst out in laugh­ter.  What have you just seen?  A per­son, almost sure­ly— the inan­i­mate is in gen­er­al not fun­ny.  Some­one you’d like to be, to switch places with?  Almost sure­ly not.  You laugh as a way of affirm­ing, “that’s not me!  Hey, thank god that guy mak­ing a com­plete ass of him­self is him­self, and not myself!”  Standup com­e­dy is sim­i­lar­ly about a rit­u­al­ized, com­mu­nal thank-god-that’s‑not-me, after an hour of which you’ll feel all gid­dy and bond­ed with the rest of the non-ridicu­lous.  Maybe this is why it’s such a pow­er­ful thing to be able to laugh at one­self, and why young chil­dren can’t do it.  It requires step­ping out­side your­self, then dis­own­ing the self you just were, bond­ing with and join­ing your audi­ence through a staged act of self-muti­la­tion.  That sort of sec­ond-order manip­u­la­tion and con­trol over the “par­lia­ment of the mind” (a phrase McE­wan quotes in Solar) is sophis­ti­cat­ed stuff.

Borat, Jack­ass and Annie Hall require lit­tle fur­ther expla­na­tion in this frame­work.  The first two are “shock com­e­dy”, the free­bas­ing ver­sion of “broad com­e­dy”.  They rely lit­tle on the sub­tle manip­u­la­tion of empa­thy, but instead derive their force from a broad­side assault on the bound­aries of the phys­i­cal­ly or social­ly con­ceiv­able.  Woody Allen’s game is a less com­fort­able one, because while the Woody char­ac­ter is almost invari­ably ridicu­lous from the start, he also con­nects with qual­i­ties we find in our­selves.  To watch clas­sic Woody Allen is to be led queasi­ly through a maze of self-recog­ni­tion and self-loathing.

Shift­ing per­spec­tives and play­ing with the reader’s empathies can be used to all sorts of effects.  Michael Dib­din used the Hum­bert Hum­bert maneu­ver in the well-named Dirty Tricks, using “covert­ly unre­li­able” first per­son nar­ra­tive to bond the read­er with a pro­tag­o­nist whose full mea­sure of repul­sive­ness only emerges far into the sto­ry.  Sick­ened and fas­ci­nat­ed, one can’t stop read­ing.  The hook has been swal­lowed; one feels the weight of judg­ment on one’s own soul.  McE­wan also did this well in sev­er­al of his ear­li­er books.  Con­verse­ly, the bil­dungsro­man, beyond the devel­op­ment of the char­ac­ter in his own right, seems to me to be on a more for­mal lev­el about the emer­gence of a human­iz­ing bond between read­er and char­ac­ter.

Free­dom makes won­der­ful use of free indi­rect style.  From moment to moment, the third per­son nar­ra­tion swoops deft­ly between inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or per­spec­tives.  The large-scale struc­ture of the nov­el expos­es us to the cen­tral char­ac­ters in mul­ti­ple pass­es and through dif­fer­ent lens­es, includ­ing in one sec­tion (“Mis­takes Were Made”) an auto­bi­og­ra­phy writ­ten by one of the char­ac­ters, also in the third per­son– a risky but whol­ly effec­tive stunt.  Every nov­el is in some sense a mys­tery nov­el, and here the mys­ter­ies revolve around motive and inner life; they’re cre­at­ed and resolved not only through the plot, but also through the struc­tur­al shifts in view­point.  Every char­ac­ter evolves and hooks you in ways that mix and recom­bine the usu­al pat­terns, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to char­ac­ter­ize the book as a whole as satire, any more than it is melo­dra­ma, or roman­tic com­e­dy, or bil­dungsro­man.  In the end, nobody is triv­ial, every­body is ridicu­lous, and we feel sur­pris­ing con­nec­tion with these imag­i­nary peo­ple, a com­pelling mix of fun­house per­spec­tive and inti­ma­cy.  I think Free­dom is so well-regard­ed because it so won­der­ful­ly suc­ceeds at human­iz­ing and uni­ver­sal­iz­ing its cast, as The Cor­rec­tions did also.

On the episod­ic lev­el, Solar and Free­dom both have their share of beau­ti­ful set-pieces— like, in Free­dom, a scene involv­ing the young Joey, his wed­ding ring, and a toi­let in Argenti­na, which seems to have been seized on by quite a few review­ers.  Here’s a sim­i­lar­ly mor­dant one from Solar.  Michael Beard, the pro­tag­o­nist— if such a word can be used— is an aging Nobel lau­re­ate in physics, who ear­ly in the book is invit­ed to a retreat for “artists and sci­en­tists” in the arc­tic cir­cle.  Bad­ly hung over, he makes the mis­take of allow­ing him­self to be zipped into a snow­suit and hus­tled onto a snow­mo­bile with­out the nec­es­sary pre­flight checks.  Not long after, he has fall­en behind the group in a bliz­zard, and real­izes he real­ly needs to go.

Only in the final sec­onds, when his clum­sy pink hand, as cold as a stranger’s, reached into his under­pants, did he think he might lose con­trol.  But at last, with a joy­ous shout that was lost to the gale, he direct­ed his stream against the ice wall.

His mis­take was to wait a few sec­onds at the end, as men of his age tend­ed to do, mind­ful that there might be more.  He should have turned his head to hear what Jan had shout­ed.  Or per­haps he could have avoid­ed the inevitable only if he had accept­ed one of the oth­er invi­ta­tions, to the Sey­chelles or Johan­nes­burg or San Diego, or if, as he thought lat­er with some bit­ter­ness, cli­mate change, rad­i­cal warm­ing above the Arc­tic Cir­cle, was actu­al­ly tak­ing place and was not a fig­ment of the activist imag­i­na­tion.  For when his busi­ness was done he dis­cov­ered that his penis had attached itself to the zip of his snow­mo­bile suit, had frozen hard along its length, the way only liv­ing flesh can do on sub­ze­ro met­al.  He wast­ed pre­cious sec­onds gaz­ing at his sit­u­a­tion in shock.  When at last he pulled ten­ta­tive­ly, he expe­ri­enced intense pain.

While some of us— half of us, to be pre­cise— may cross our legs invol­un­tar­i­ly, it requires stunts of this extrem­i­ty to pro­voke any feel­ings about the fate of Michael Beard or his man­hood.  He’s such an appalling char­ac­ter through­out that the only emo­tion­al response induced in us by his self-obses­sion and idio­cy is the mild cha­grin of suc­cumb­ing to schaden­freude as we await the inevitable col­lapse of his life.  Lest I be accused of “mor­al­iz­ing nice­ness” (anoth­er won­der­ful coinage by James Wood), my dif­fi­cul­ty with Solar isn’t that Michael Beard isn’t “nice”, but rather, that McE­wan is as neglect­ful of free indi­rect style with respect to Beard as he was, on the oppo­site side of the fence, with Per­owne in Sat­ur­day.  In the case of Per­owne, McE­wan failed to dis­tance him­self from the char­ac­ter, to allow in the touch of bal­anc­ing irony that would have giv­en the book some moral heft and sting.  In Solar, McE­wan whiplash­es instead into “mor­al­iz­ing nas­ti­ness”, paint­ing for us— strict­ly from the out­side— a por­trait so ris­i­ble, with so lit­tle appeal and so lit­tle to hold on to as our own, that it’s hard to care which direc­tion the sto­ry takes.  We nev­er feel judged our­selves, hav­ing nev­er thrown our lot in.

It turns out that, in nov­els as in life, ris­i­ble vil­lains are just as tedious as unre­flec­tive and unex­am­ined “nice guys”.

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