14 October, 2010

Changing the climate: 'Solar' and 'Freedom'

Ian McEwan really only has himself to blame for his latest work, Solar, being dubbed a 'climate change novel'. He used the appelation himself a couple of years ago at the Adelaide Writers Festival, while the book was still a work in progress.

It's a climate change novel, though, in the same way that Enduring Love is about hot-air ballooning: in both cases, the named element is a device, something used to manipulate the characters into situations that allow the writer to reveal their message.

Certainly, McEwan's message is focussed on consumption, excess and the consequences thereof. His protagonist, Michael Beard, is in many ways a repulsive character, an embodiment of capitalism, consumerism and hubris. Once an eminent scientist - a Nobel prize winner, no less - Beard admits:

...two decades had passed since he last sat down in silence and solitude for hours on end, pencil and pad in hand, to do some thinking, to have an original hypothesis, play with it, pursue it, tease it into life. The occasion never arose - no, that was a weak excuse. He lacked the will, the material, he lacked the spark. He had no new ideas.
Even someone whose fame and living has been made through intellectual concepts finds themselves more concerned with material acquisition than mental competency. This sentiment echoes our obsession with new technology: online networking rather than meeting face-to-face; satnavs instead of maps; e-readers rather than books. Everything pixelated is but a reworking of an existing idea; they are alternatives, rarely replacements, and nearly always more damaging in terms of the resources needed to manufacture them.

One review of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, called it the Novel of the Century. We're only ten years in and such hyperbole goes hand-in-hand with Franzen's own mockery of a society gone crazy for the wrong things, things that will precipitate the downfall of much good in the world.

Having said that, history could prove that reviewer exactly right, since this is an astonishing, genius piece of work. If you want to know anything at all about the craft of story-telling, about presenting well-rounded, believable and empathetic characters, read Franzen.

In Freedom, Franzen delivers invectives against the Iraq war, sub-prime mortgages, abuse of natural resources, mining and corporate monopolies. The freedom his characters crave is not so much liberation from any form of bondage, or even to act out of free-will. It's almost post-freedom, in which we are liberated to fuck everything up - to ruin marriages, sleep with employees, make money from immoral ventures, live off better-natured people.

Environmentalism is a surprisingly strong plotline in the novel, as the main character, Walter, takes over a Trust dedicated to saving the cerulean warbler. Just as Michael Beard ends up being a hateful choice to save the world through the development of a photosynthesising cell, Walter's Trust will save this one bird species by firstly mining pristine land, before 'reclaiming' it. Both authors are sending the message that we are beyond the tipping point, we're already past saving face in the eyes of future generations. They present bureaucracies and systems in disarray, disempowered to make meaningful change. What Franzen is reminding us of is the ultimate freedom: to act altruistically, to live a life of minimal outward impact and maximum internal satisfaction.

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